A Discourse on Books

Monday, July 23, 2012

Recently as I was flipping pages in my copy of The Official SAT Study Guide (second edition), I came across these two passages:

Passage 1Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be "genre fiction"- at best an excellent "read" or a "page turner" but never literature with a capital L. Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, on the other hand , is now considered to be "literary fiction"- not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance. It is these works that receive full-page critiques, often one in the Sunday book-review section and another in the same newspaper during the week. It is these works, and these works only, that make the annual short lists of award committees.

Passage 2One reason why most literary novels don't appeal to the ordinary reader looking for a "good story" is that they aren't intended to. Just as nuclear physicists strive to impress other nuclear physicists and dog breeders value the admiration of fellow dog breeders over that of the uninitiated masses, so people who write serious fiction seek the high opinion of other literary novelists, of creative writing teachers, and of reviewers and critics. They want very badly to be "literary", and for many of them this means avoiding techniques associated with commercial and genre fiction-specifically too much emphasis on plot. Who, after all, wants to be accused of writing "action movies in book form"?
Whenever short double passages appears on the SATs, its always two contrasting opinions. However, this time around, I seemed to agree with both opinions.

With Passage 1, there are books that are interesting and well-written that end up getting less attention than literary works. Some literary works are... odd and I don't understand them. However, with passage one, the author seems to be a tad bitter...

With Passage 2, the author seems to be looking down on mass market books and I can't blame him. There are so many books published out there that aren't well-written but sell well because of the plot. In this economy however, publishers are still companies and they need to make money.

In the end however, I feel that they're two separate genres. Mass market books rarely become literary works and when new literary works are published, they are published for the literary book reading crowd. Sometimes mass-market books sacrifice awards etc. for popularity and money. Some literary works never achieve mass-market popularity but they do earn awards. The target group for literary books and mass-market books are totally different. (I read both types of books though.)

I think the nice thing is though that while mass-market books may not be getting full-page critiques, but now with the advent of book bloggers, they are getting publicity and critiques. It's in a different form.

What are your thoughts?

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