A snob’s response to anti-book snobs

Attention conservation notice: If there is anything that has become more irritating than actual book snobs, it’s anti-book snobs who want to police snobbery using online shadowboxing and demanding that the rest of us–I dunno–worship? respect? what?–their desire to read books about spanky millionaires, boy wizards, and teenage girls in love with vampires old enough to be their grandfathers. How about you read what you want, and I’ll read what I want? Ok?

(I will get around to reading the Hunger Games at some point. I haven’t yet. I have stuff to do, you know!)

This one, from Buzzfeed, crossed my desk yesterday, and for shadowboxing, it’s actually pretty good. It probably helps that I agree with his #1 pick—the gross Brett Easton Ellis types who want to tell me about what great artistes they are, and how I’m a frigid, politically correct feminazi for not appreciating their grand art because they have fully captured, in detail, the horrors of skull rape. This other piece from Book Riot set my teeth on edge because it screamed insecurity, like we all need to walk on eggshells lest its straining-to-be-populist author get her feelers hurt that I’m not reading/watching/doing what she’s doing and my failure to do those things or talk about those things somehow judges her. Do the rest of us really need to affirm what you are reading/watching/doing? It’s so exhausting.

So here’s my list of responses to both:

1. Yes, DFW worshippers are irritating, but I’m sorry, the DFW biopic will likely be horrible. Horrible.

David Foster Wallace strikes me as a wonderful writer who gave us some terrific books and an awfully nice commencement speech, and his post-mortem cult-of-personality feels to me like it’s gotten far out of control. Infinite Jest is a fine book; it wasn’t life-changing for me, but I do see the greatness in it, just like I see the greatness in Ulysses even though I’m glad I shan’t have to read it ever again. On the whole, I wouldn’t complain if a movie brought Infinite Jest to a broader audience.

And yet, I think the biopic is likely to be terrible. Not because of Jason Segel. If anything, somebody like Segel might save it because the one adventurous thing DFW likely did turns out to be pretty comedic: his time on a cruise. That won’t be easy to do well.

Writer (and academic) biopics tend to be horrible simply because what makes us interesting (our writing) is the product of a process that looks like this:

and there isn’t much in movie history that is going to top this, which is pretty much the writing life:

That’s it. After doing that for a long time, you have…a book.

Writers’ biopics that do work tend to be about relationships with some writing thrown in. Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia has many charms, including a wonderful cast and lovely locations, but it works to the degree it works, because Ephron realized that the books weren’t the story. You leave A Beautiful Mind knowing that John Nash was a really smart guy who discovered something smart–they rather screw up the explanation of the Nash Equilibrium. Think about this: Hemingway and Gellhorn from HBO. It was horrible. Horrible. Blood, gore, sex and typing. Eyugh. DFW was kid from the midwest who was a fairly good, but not good enough, tennis player, a mean, belittling brother to his sister, and a writer who experimented with form and depressed in his personal life. This does not promise much. A bit like a Foucault biopic. (If it exists, please don’t tell me about it.)

2. Does commercial fiction really need to you to defend it?

Standing up for commercial fiction sounds a lot like arguing that we all need to like the Homecoming Queen and King to me. JK Rowling and Dan Brown will be fine with or without me. Must I buy them and read them to make you feel better about buying and reading them? The hive mind can’t stand my not being in it? What? Rowling’s books are fun and did a lot to get young people reading. I am grateful to her for that, and I think she sounds like a cool person.But that doesn’t require that I pretend that some of her tropes and plot lines aren’t hackneyed. Lots of marvelous books have problems. Hers do. Doesn’t mean anybody is stupid for reading them or enjoying them. It just means I see those flaws as flaws. Flaws are weighed against strong points, and in Rowling’s case, the strong points outweigh the flaws (IMO) and not for Dan Brown (again, IMO), and neither of them give a damn what I think because they sell books to a lot of people who are not me.

Just as it is obnoxious to disparage something just because it’s popular, it’s also obnoxious that I personally consume it and endorse it merely because it’s popular. Or to reassure you that you have good taste.

Look out for your own ego, I’ll look out for mine, and we can let the people who sell gazillions of books fend for theirs, too.

3. Yes, there is some great literature that appears in genre fiction, but there’s a lot of dreck, too.

I have to discipline myself to read genre fiction. Their fan bases, bless them, mean that even pretty bad writers can get away with selling a good number of books, and more power to them, people gotta eat and I’m all for it, but reading bad writing, even if there is a good story, is not how I choose to spend my time. OK? Might I be forgiven for that?

Here’s why: I teach theory classes. I have more bad writing to read than any person should ever have to read. I don’t need to read bad prose in my free reading. So I’ll pass on the “young woman who thought she could never be attractive, given her boyish figure, impossibly large, violet eyes, and entirely too full lips” in any and all books, and I’m sorry–a lot of that appears in romance AND fantasy AND westerns for those folks just looking for a little escape and who don’t mind the writing as much as I do. Again, enjoy without me.

So this means that I force myself to read in genres, because it’s a shame to miss the best of any genre, and generally seek classics in the genre, or books that are generating buzz outside of the genre. But the chestnut is rather true: life short, you can’t read everything, and I select from genres what others have already creamed for me. Yep, snobbery. No, I don’t feel bad about it. Why? Because the other books in the genre will have consumers other than me, and good luck to them.

4. No, I don’t have cable tv. My not having tv is not about you in any way.

You know why I don’t have a tv? No, it’s not because I’m above it, or I see it as a plug-in drug designed to make ‘the masses’ stupid. I don’t have cable because cable TV bills start at $75 a month and before you know it, it creeps up and up until you are spending over a $100 a month for a service that I won’t watch all that much. Know why? I live within a 10 minute train ride of a university that routinely has world-renknowned writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and political leaders speaking and doing their thing. I live in a metro area where world-class performers sing in church. I am surrounded by jazz clubs, movie theaters, beautiful gardens, very nice museums, and the Pacific Ocean, which was still beautiful the last I checked on it. And it’s 70 degrees outside just about every day. I pay an obscene amount for my housing to leave near these things, which means I haven’t lots of money left over for cable, so I do many of them, particularly the free ones, and I don’t pay for tv.

If I do find a show I like, I can usually find it on Netflix later or I can buy one show on iTunes, for a lot less than monthy cable bills. The end. If you live in a place where you don’t have a lot of stuff to do at night, or if you enjoy TV more than the things I listed above, it totally makes sense to spend money on cable to enjoy it. I just spend $$$$ to live in a place where there’s stuff to do that isn’t watching tv.

Which, again, is not a statement about you or what you watch or how you watch it. Being threatened by my choice not have tv is a bit like being threatened by people who are vegans. Make your choices, live with them. Leave me be—or pay my cable bill if it’s so damn important to your ego that that I have cable, too.