Tuesday, September 13, 2011

I Am a Literature Snob

I keep mulling over the question: “Why do we value certain literacy practices over others?” We discussed this in class last week, but it’s something I’ve given much thought to in the past, too. I continued to think about it as I read You Gotta Be the Book by Jeffrey Wilhelm.

In class, I tried to articulate that some books are definitely of a higher literary quality than other books. I define this “higher literary quality” as the way in which the book was written. “Literary” authors agonize over HOW they write the book through word choices, sentence structure, characterization, and other literary devices. “Genre” authors value plot and action over the quality of the writing.

photo from freedigitalphotos.net
The teachers I had while completing my BA and MA degrees in creative writing distinguished literary books (not necessarily classics) as “good,” and genre books as “bad.” Even as a child, my elementary school teachers and my parents steered me away from certain books because they were “lower quality” books. My mom, for example, would not let me read the Sweet Valley High series because “there are so many better things to read.”

But now I'm back in school and taking a class that’s not teaching me how to write, but teaching me how to teach to adolescents to read and write, and suddenly the idea of what’s “good” and “bad” literature changes. Wilhelm discusses the benefits of “formulaic fiction” (which I have described as “genre” fiction above). He says he is “continually impressed by the depth and intensity of student response” to these books, even though he himself feels only disgust when reading them (50).

Wilhelm outlines three benefits of reading formulaic fiction:
1. “…these formulaic books speak to the students and are helping them discover the power of reading, and that they often lead to the reading of other material.”
2. “…reading mysteries to “rest” between what [Wilhelm’s wife] describes as “intense” literary experiences.”
3. “…readers of what might be considered trash literature (like the romance) actually use it in highly creative or resistant ways that must be considered “literary transactions.””

Wilhelm makes valid points here, but I still feel very strongly that some books are of higher literary quality than others. I feel sick in my stomach when I hear someone refer to the Twilight series as great literature, especially when that same person has not read or does not understand books by authors like Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, or Barbara Kingsolver.

But I guess it is time for me to stop thinking of literature just in terms of being a literary author.  I now need to consider it in terms of teaching students, too. I guess what a reader chooses to read depends on the reader’s goals, and in the case of adolescents, it’s probably better that they read books by R.L. Stine than nothing at all.


Sarah said...

Wow! You have expressed in clear words exactly what I feel about literary quality. I agree with what you have written: how a text is written versus writing for plot. I also distinguish certain texts as richer than other texts (although not necessarily "above") because in addition to an engaging plot or powerful characters, the language of the text has a special poetry. (I am in love with words.)

Wilhelm and Shannon have certainly challenged what I label "literature" as well.

[I must admit, I do love Twilight... But, I also realize that I love it in very different ways and for different reasons than I love, say, Moby-Dick.]

Anne Greenawalt said...

I'm glad you understand what I'm talking about!

For the record, I don't think there's anything wrong with enjoying the story of the Twilight series, it just bothers me when people believe they are the best-written books of all time.

To put it in terms of music: I think Beethoven is a "better" musician than someone like Katy Perry, but a lot of people are more entertained by and prefer to listen to Katy Perry, and that's fine! But I would still argue that Beethoven's music is of a higher quality than Katy Perry's because it takes more skill to compose and perform it.

Arlen said...

Anne, I really can relate to much of what you write. Like you, I was encouraged by my parents to read "better" books. I appreciated your viewpoint as an author who really considers words and the importance of word choice. Wilhelm places a good bit of emphasis on the reader "transaction." I wonder if this can be taken too far? In formulaic fiction,(I'm thinking of the romance genre) I believe it can empower one to take action in their own life, but if it is continually read as a way to escape, can it be classified as literature that truly engages the reader or has "transformative" power as literature. As teacher's I'm sure it is an ongoing struggle to determine what literature best fits the needs of our students.

msshirls said...

Anne, I relate to what you are saying as well. To compare the Twilight series (although a great escape from college finals) to the Oedipus series is not fair to the classic. However the students will create more meaning through teenage love and drama than ancient Greek mythology and incest.

Gabrielle said...

I think that talking about the Twilight series and other book series that actually made reading fun for me as a kid as low quality reading is not the way to go. The only reason I even started reading was because I got to read stories that I liked and that I could actually understand. I loved Roald Dahl and though his stories were not above level reading, I read them all the time. This helped me read in the classroom better because I read other books all the time so when it came to another book, I would give it a try. You can be a good reader without reading the Oedipus series or the Scarlet letter, which I never read.

Anne Greenawalt said...

I think you may have missed the point of what I was trying to say. I was trying to say that although I personally do not want to read "formulaic fiction" I am now understanding why it is OK to consider it acceptable reading for adolescents, especially those who are disengaged readers.

And, as I commented before, I do not think it's a crime to enjoy those types of books, it's just that, as a writer, I get frustrated when readers don't understand that it is much more difficult to write a book like The Scarlet Letter than it is to write a book like Twilight.

(And for the record, as much as I dislike Twilight, I would choose to read it over The Scarlet Letter.)