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ccv707
05-20-2009, 03:40 AM
I'd like to get the opinions of the people here. I think the issue is an important and interesting one if one looks beyond the surface and considers the reality of the world we live in.

As I've made clear on this forum before, my opinion of what American culture, in particular popular culture, has done to the collective minds of the people; our society caters to the popcorn flick. I cite Stephanie Meyer, Clive Cussler, Dan Brown, and Danielle Steele as examples, a very "successful" group of authors who embody the style-over-substance nature that Americans have, for whatever reason, nurtured. We see it in other walks of life as well: television (American Idol, Survivor, the cancellation of shows worth watching because people are watching the previous two instead, such as Carnivale, Firefly, Rome, etc.), music (virtually everything to have been released in the last decade, Brittney Spears as an example), film (horrible American remakes of good foreign films, every movie insisting upon ending with a twist and negates 90% of what came before it), as well as literature, which tends toward melodrama rather than actual characterization.

While I realize that not every show, song, film, and book that comes out is going to be great art, I believe, and a little research will prove so, that we cater to those who seek something far less than art. We buy the Brittney Spears cds (or at least we used too LOL!!!); we watch American Idol; we spend $10 to watch Michael Bay's next explosion fest; we shelve out twice or three times that much to read a misogynistic book about a girl whose only goal in life is to follow her misguided idea of love and bow down to a boy.

However, I also believe that American literature has enough artists to be considered above this so-called pop culture. We have great--some all-time great--writers who represent what B&N likes to dub American "literature": Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, Don Delillo, Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace (before his suicide), even Stephen King (young SK moreso than current SK), just to name a few working today. I think this shows we have enough people who write things that truly matter to allow us some leeway in the "American literature is no good" discussion.

This is why the statements of certain people in the Swedish Academy, the group of people responsible for the Nobel Prize in Literature, strike me as surprising, offensive, and hypocritical. I'm providing a few links here, hopefully to give different perspectives...

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95537900

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/oct/01/us.literature.insular.nobel

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horace_Engdahl

So, let me get this right...American literature is naive, narrow-minded, and with little merit. I believe this is partially true, but as I said in relation to film, music, and television, this is true in every art form and storytelling medium. I reiterate, not everything can be great art, and it doesn't necessarily have to be, even if I firmly believe one should aspire or aim toward that. In Mr. Engdahl's opinion, is Europe then devoid of these same issues? Since Europe is the "center of the literary world", I assume Mr. Engdahl believes this to be at least partially true. Isn't that just as narrow-minded and insulated as he says American literature is? Is all literature in Europe great works of art? No, of course not. There's crap in Europe just as there's crap here in America, albeit different kinds of crap. I agree with the fact that America doesn't translate enough of foreign literature, namely most of the great Japanese writers, but we have Tolstoy, Chekov, Dostoevsky, Borges, Marquez, and so on. That doesn't mean American literature is so insulated that we "don't participate in the big dialogue of literature," as Mr. Engdahl so eloquently put it. His comments have made the rounds since he uttered them last year, leading those in the know to speculate that it will be a long time until an American author is given the Nobel again (the last one was Toni Morrison, in 1993).

Awards aren't, and shouldn't be, the driving force behind a writer's work, but it's interesting to note the views of the outside world on American literature, and in effect American culture. Again, I'm not a homer; I have little American pride, being what right-wing conservatives like to call a "bleeding heart liberal", as I find it hard to deny the fact that America hasn't been one of the goodguys since WWII. I'll admit to being opinionated, but I firmly believe in objectivity in all matters--one cannot truly understand the underlying truth of things without considering all perspectives equally.

That said, I'd like to hear the opinions of others on this matter, especially those who live outside the US. Let the discussion begin! Hopefully...

Medievalist
05-20-2009, 03:46 AM
This is a non-issue; Engdahl has also said that Melville and Twain are barely literate, and trash.

He also has expressed negative opinions in an interview I heard yesterday that Milton, Keats and Wordsworth were didactic and uninspired.

Yawn. He's a poltroon.

And yes, Stephen King will be taught, in the U.S., Cambridge, and Oxford as part of the novel canon, right along with his literary progenitors, Hawthorne, Melville, and Bronte.

bsolah
05-20-2009, 04:00 AM
Firstly, putting down people who are interesting in 'popular culture' is a tad elitist. Who are we to judge what lots of people like? I may not like those things like Meyer or Dan Brown but I'm certainly not about to judge people as stupid for liking them.

And I also find Americans getting all testy at these comments kind of amusing. Everyone is so obsessed with trying to defend American literature. Whilst I don't agree that there isn't any merit in American literature e.g. I love Steinbeck, I don't think it's something that needs to be defended.

This goes for me in Australia as well. I don't have any attachment to Australian literature for the sole reason it was written within the same arbitrary borders that I write in. I don't think it matters.

8thSamurai
05-20-2009, 04:09 AM
Honestly, this is a plain stupid argument if one looks at popular books historically.

During the time that Dickinson was putting out Great Expectations, the most popular book in England was...

Varney the Vampire.

People haven't changed, elitists like that are not half as bright as they fervently wish others believed, and it's about time to get over it.

10er
05-20-2009, 04:14 AM
This is a difficult topic. I'll have to brood over it some more and maybe post corrections on this but my tentative opinion is this:

First of all, it's not so much that American writers are crap, it's the fact crappy American writers are stealing so much of the spotlight that good stuff disappears in an eclipse of prosaic garbage. And I believe not only the slavering masses but also critics are to blame for this. You see, what I've noticed when reading chiefly American reviews is: they have elevated certain elements to the ultimate virtues of prose that simply have no place being in that category in my opinion. In at least 2 out of 3 positive reviews of major publications I read praise such as "nice, simple prose", "hits the ground running and doesn't stop", "characters are easy to relate to" and so on. Sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster to me. This kind of review is an approval, a celebration of mass appeal.
Now, I understand if commercial writers write like this. After all, in the age of Michael Bay explosionfests, it is easier to get an audience that way. But should critics, who often seem to see themselves as the guardians of culture, really judge in the same vein?

P.S.: Neil Gaiman is both overrated (yes, it is envy speaking) and English. :P

Birol
05-20-2009, 04:16 AM
Moving to Roundtable. (Wonders what Soccer Mom is going to charge me for doing so.)

bsolah
05-20-2009, 04:19 AM
In at least 2 out of 3 positive reviews of major publications I read praise such as "nice, simple prose", "hits the ground running and doesn't stop", "characters are easy to relate to" and so on. Sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster to me. This kind of review is an approval, a celebration of mass appeal.
Now, I understand if commercial writers write like this. After all, in the age of Michael Bay explosionfests, it is easier to get an audience that way. But should critics, who often seem to see themselves as the guardians of culture, really judge in the same vein?

Well I happen to like novels that sometimes have less flowery prose and just tell a good story rather than masturbate over the words used. And I love novels that hit the ground running and never stop. And why shouldn't characters be easy to relate to? And I think it's good that novels like this have mass appeal!

It's this kind of attitude that I hate.

Sam Stephens
05-20-2009, 04:30 AM
I think reading is something that should be enjoyed (emphasis on the word ENJOYED).

Whether you enjoy intense literature, soppy romances, or big guns and even bigger explosions, books are meant to be enjoyed.

If we want our kids to be reading we need to not worry so much about "the great works", and simply get them hooked on the joy of picking up a book that is a style and story that they're going to love.

Sam

bsolah
05-20-2009, 04:32 AM
I really agree with you Sam. Twilight isn't my thing and I actually think some of the moral content in that book is quite disturbing but it's good if my sister reads that book ten times over because she likes the story.

KTC
05-20-2009, 04:34 AM
non-issue.

lock thread.

Wayne K
05-20-2009, 04:36 AM
non-issue.



lock thread.


I can't read all that so I'll agree with this and be gone.

Sam Stephens
05-20-2009, 04:42 AM
Bsolah, you just reminded me: when I was in year 11 at school, my English teacher scoffed at me because I read Stephen King almost exclusively.

Was this a concious choice? No. He just happened to be the author I got hooked on, back when I first picked up "It" at the age of 13. New Stephen King books kept popping up in the library, so I kept reading them.

We did a reading test in class, and pretty much all of my classmates were scoring a reading age of 12 to 15 years old, mostly to the lower end of the scale. I scored a reading age of 33.

That wasn't because I was smart - it was simply because I loved to read. Just because it was popular fiction didn't make it less worthwhile to me. In fact, it even benefited me.

I have a 1 year old son, and I hope he grows up to be a big reader. To encourage him, I plan to help him explore different books until he finds a style he likes.

Again, I believe reading is about enjoyment, no matter which style (or styles) it is we enjoy.

Sam

Rushie
05-20-2009, 04:44 AM
If I won a Nobel prize these days I'd be embarrassed. I don't have any respect for them anymore.

bsolah
05-20-2009, 04:44 AM
Yeah, I got mocked for reading Stephen King too. I went for an interview for a creative writing degree upon finishing High School and when the interviewers asked what I read and I said King. They scoffed.

CheshireCat
05-20-2009, 05:29 AM
I think reading is something that should be enjoyed (emphasis on the word ENJOYED).

Whether you enjoy intense literature, soppy romances, or big guns and even bigger explosions, books are meant to be enjoyed.

If we want our kids to be reading we need to not worry so much about "the great works", and simply get them hooked on the joy of picking up a book that is a style and story that they're going to love.

Sam

QFT.

Little Bird
05-20-2009, 05:34 AM
During the time that Dickinson was putting out Great Expectations, the most popular book in England was...

Varney the Vampire.



Are you thinking of Charles Dickens?

Shurikane
05-20-2009, 05:58 AM
Sounds like a phenomenon of numbers.

Let's put it this way. Before the Internet - you live in your good ol' town, you go to the library, which houses, say, 100 books (to make things easy.) Out of these books, 90 don't interest you, but you like the 10 that remain. You're happy that you found so many good books.

In comes the Internet. Amazon.com, book review sites, book exchanges, books books books everywhere. All of a sudden, the count jumps to - gasp! - 10,000,000 books. Ten million! You could buy one from anywhere in the world, snap, just like that! Out of those 10,000,000, you realize that 9,000,000 of them don't interest you.

Here's where the trap springs: the proportions remain essentially the same, but the sheer amount of "bad" books makes it look like literature as a whole has turned into a giant slush pile, when in reality, nothing really special has happened.

The only difference is that the popularity factor has increased manyfold. Before, you were a popular author in your local area. Today, if you are popular enough, you launchpad all the way to the world. It's a momentum effect. The more people talk about you, the more people are likely to talk about you. Instead of the ceiling being the population of your local area, it's become the population of the Earth - six billion people!

BenPanced
05-20-2009, 06:12 AM
In the world Before Intarwebz, word got around about books through the libraries. King, Steele, Cussler, Oates, et. al. had worldwide audiences in the good ol' days before GEnie and Prodigy because publishing isn't a stagnant business; many houses have international subsidiaries and while news didn't travel quite as fast as it does today, lots of libraries carried/carry overseas periodicals with current news about who's publishing what in London/Tokyo/New York (Publishers Weekly, anybody?)

If community libraries were so insular and never communicated with the outside world, how did people in New York know about James Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake when they were first being published in 1922 and 1939, respectively, all the way over in Ireland?

C.bronco
05-20-2009, 06:14 AM
I believe the primary drawback to popular American literature is the lack of my work within it.

I believe firmly that, were my works included within the small circle of those who get multiple reprints and seven figure film option deals, the country as a whole would rejoice, the economy would improve, and I would be able to buy my boy a pony.

Alas! I must wait for this to transpire, but weep for the millions who could find joy and solace in my work and all of it's marketing tie-ins. Happy Meals, verily, are not happy unless they include molded plastic or furry toys.

SIGH!

veinglory
05-20-2009, 06:30 AM
I don't think genre competes directly with literature. People who read, typically read both. People who don't read, obviously read neither.

America produces great literary writing, but on a per capita basis it probably produced a little less quantity and quality than say Canada, or Ireland. I cannot prove my impression is true, and even if it is there might be some very simple reasons, like some Commonwealth countries investing more money per capita in this area (tax breaks etc).

jodiodi
05-20-2009, 06:47 AM
I believe the primary drawback to popular American literature is the lack of my work within it.

I believe firmly that, were my works included within the small circle of those who get multiple reprints and seven figure film option deals, the country as a whole would rejoice, the economy would improve, and I would be able to buy my boy a pony.

Alas! I must wait for this to transpire, but weep for the millions who could find joy and solace in my work and all of it's marketing tie-ins. Happy Meals, verily, are not happy unless they include molded plastic or furry toys.

SIGH!

I must agree that if MY work was widely available, American Literature would reach new levels of worldwide domination.

(Not saying what those levels would be ...)

SPMiller
05-20-2009, 11:59 AM
We've already had a thread about this guy, and we ripped him a new one. Nothing has changed.

ccv707
05-20-2009, 12:00 PM
First of all, it's not so much that American writers are crap, it's the fact crappy American writers are stealing so much of the spotlight that good stuff disappears in an eclipse of prosaic garbage. And I believe not only the slavering masses but also critics are to blame for this.

P.S.: Neil Gaiman is both overrated (yes, it is envy speaking) and English. :P

I agree with your first point. As for Gaiman, yes, he is indeed English, though since he's lived in Minnesota for quite some time, I'm going to group him with North American literature (much of his work takes place in America as well).

I also hate the idea of segregating genre fiction from literary fiction. It smacks of elitism, much the same way Mr. Engdahl has tarnished my opinion of the Swedish Academy.

SPMiller
05-20-2009, 12:04 PM
This is a difficult topic. I'll have to brood over it some more and maybe post corrections on this but my tentative opinion is this:

First of all, it's not so much that American writers are crap, it's the fact crappy American writers are stealing so much of the spotlight that good stuff disappears in an eclipse of prosaic garbage. And I believe not only the slavering masses but also critics are to blame for this. You see, what I've noticed when reading chiefly American reviews is: they have elevated certain elements to the ultimate virtues of prose that simply have no place being in that category in my opinion. In at least 2 out of 3 positive reviews of major publications I read praise such as "nice, simple prose", "hits the ground running and doesn't stop", "characters are easy to relate to" and so on. Sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster to me. This kind of review is an approval, a celebration of mass appeal.
Now, I understand if commercial writers write like this. After all, in the age of Michael Bay explosionfests, it is easier to get an audience that way. But should critics, who often seem to see themselves as the guardians of culture, really judge in the same vein?

P.S.: Neil Gaiman is both overrated (yes, it is envy speaking) and English. :PThe NYT Book Review, for example, is literary-slanted and colors its bestseller-list methods (via their choices of specific bookstore locations) with a bias toward literary fiction. They have been openly hostile toward genre (and children's) fiction in the past, and as far as I know, nothing has changed. You're just reading the book reviews targeted at the so-called unwashed masses.

Of course, I'm a genre writer myself.

ccv707
05-20-2009, 12:05 PM
non-issue.

lock thread.



Let's all do what HE wants to do! If you don't want to discuss it, then don't bother with posting.

jerry phoenix
05-20-2009, 01:02 PM
Neil Gaiman isnt an american

10er
05-20-2009, 01:07 PM
Well I happen to like novels that sometimes have less flowery prose and just tell a good story rather than masturbate over the words used. And I love novels that hit the ground running and never stop. And why shouldn't characters be easy to relate to? And I think it's good that novels like this have mass appeal!

It's this kind of attitude that I hate.


You don't get it. Of course many of us (including me) like these kinds of novels. That's why they have (duh) mass appeal. All I was suggesting is that maybe "high level" American literature would get more recognition if critics weren't busy circlejerking over the latest Dan Brown style high octane thriller.
But as SPMiller mentioned, maybe I'm just reading the wrong reviews.

KTC
05-20-2009, 01:23 PM
Let's all do what HE wants to do! If you don't want to discuss it, then don't bother with posting.

Ah...but I wanted to discuss that it was unworthy of discussion. That was the simple essence of my post.

Wayne K
05-20-2009, 01:54 PM
Ah...but I wanted to discuss that it was unworthy of discussion. That was the simple essence of my post.
Me too. You have to read the words I didn't use though.

bsolah
05-20-2009, 03:57 PM
You don't get it. Of course many of us (including me) like these kinds of novels. That's why they have (duh) mass appeal. All I was suggesting is that maybe "high level" American literature would get more recognition if critics weren't busy circlejerking over the latest Dan Brown style high octane thriller.
But as SPMiller mentioned, maybe I'm just reading the wrong reviews.

Yeah, I think you are reading the wrong reviews. The New York Times is a case in point, as someone else mentioned.

And as someone else mentioned also, creating this divide between literary and 'genre' is so stupid and elitist.

Ken
05-20-2009, 04:15 PM
... creating this divide between literary and 'genre' is so stupid and elitist.

... not really true, so long as the divide isn't a value judgement where literary works are said to be better than genre ones, which would indeed be wrong and "elitist." But if the divide is merely one in which literary works are defined as different than genre works, because of what they aim to achieve, than that is fine.

bsolah
05-20-2009, 04:19 PM
But sometimes the line between literary and genre can't be defined. I don't really like the the term genre that much. I wrote horror but I try to put some of the elements in my stories that would be considered literary.

IMO, it's so blurred anyway.

Ken
05-20-2009, 04:27 PM
... all classifications essentially are blurred to some extent. And there are a fair portion of works that really can not be filed into a neat compartment. So while drawing divides and distinctions is fine, they shouldn't be etched in stone and put across as absolutes. So I suppose we are more or less are in agreement ;-)

Phaeal
05-20-2009, 04:46 PM
Honestly, this is a plain stupid argument if one looks at popular books historically.

During the time that Dickinson was putting out Great Expectations, the most popular book in England was...

Varney the Vampire.

People haven't changed, elitists like that are not half as bright as they fervently wish others believed, and it's about time to get over it.

Wow. Just wow. I always SAID Emily had written Great Expectations, and that damn Dickens stole it. I'm glad those elitist professors who used to make fun of me will finally have to eat their words.

;)

As for Varney, YOU GO VAMPIRES!

Phaeal
05-20-2009, 04:56 PM
The NYT Book Review, for example, is literary-slanted and colors its bestseller-list methods (via their choices of specific bookstore locations) with a bias toward literary fiction. They have been openly hostile toward genre (and children's) fiction in the past, and as far as I know, nothing has changed. You're just reading the book reviews targeted at the so-called unwashed masses.

Of course, I'm a genre writer myself.

Heh, NYT got so tired of J. K. Rowling dominating the list they had to ghettoize so-called children's fic. Gosh, I guess I was the ONLY ADULT ON EARTH who bought Harry Potter for myself. Given that obvious fact, I'm shocked that Bloomsbury published the HP books with an alternate cover, for adults.

Which might bring up the topic of age-elitism. Gotta have adult covers so the adult readers don't have to hide their HP fix. ;) The Twilight series avoided this necessity by putting out the books with graphically sophisticated covers adults need not be ashamed of. Except, of course, you can identify any of the Twilight books from space.

Phaeal
05-20-2009, 05:01 PM
But as for the main topic:

I don't think there's any more trash in entertainment today, proportionally, than there's always been. I remember one of my previous lives, back in Imperial Rome, when I used to have to leave the city whenever they had one of those great unwashed fests at the Coliseum. Damn, let the lions loose in the stands, willya?

jennontheisland
05-20-2009, 05:21 PM
No one will know for sure if it's "literature" or not until a hundred years from now when it's being force-fed to highschool and college students.

smcc360
05-20-2009, 05:22 PM
I believe the primary drawback to popular American literature is the lack of my work within it.


Tragically, in the 'big dialogue of literature', my oeuvre is mumbling to itself, sitting in the corner, rocking back and forth.

Look, Secretary Engdahl! I wrote 'oeuvre'. That's a French word, and France is in Europe, which is the 'center of the literary world'. Prepare my place at the grownup table; there's a good chap.

As for Alfred Nobel's creations, I think I prefer dynamite.

C.bronco
05-20-2009, 06:42 PM
I can't spell oeuvre, but please let me know when they go on sale.

NeuroFizz
05-20-2009, 07:00 PM
Some American novels will stand up to the test of time and thus EARN the title of quality literature, or at least notable literature. This natural filter is typically good at weeding out fads and flashes-in-the-pan. This filtering will happen regardless of...

what books place where on the various Best Sellers lists
what people from other countries have to say about the state of American literature
what academics point to as quality/notable and as trash
what critics point to as quality/notable and as trash
what all of the hand-wringers and doomsayers have to say about the cesspoolization of American writing (which is nothing new)

LuckyH
05-20-2009, 07:07 PM
I am replying to the well-written piece by the OP, when I say that American literature is no different to German, French or Japanese literature, and if one is on the decline, so are the rest of them.

Having said that, I don't think literature is declining. With better education people are reading more than they did 50 years ago, and the quantity (and quality) of the material available to them has increased too.

It's pointless to pick out certain authors to qualify my assertion, tempted as I am, that will always be a personal matter . . .I'm still tempted . . . OK, I can't resist it, I am but weak . . . I've read and watched King's Misery; I've read and watched Fleming's 007; did I notice any decline in literature?

No, not me.

BenPanced
05-20-2009, 07:09 PM
Tragically, in the 'big dialogue of literature', my oeuvre is mumbling to itself, sitting in the corner, rocking back and forth.

Look, Secretary Engdahl! I wrote 'oeuvre'. That's a French word, and France is in Europe, which is the 'center of the literary world'. Prepare my place at the grownup table; there's a good chap.

As for Alfred Nobel's creations, I think I prefer dynamite.


I can't spell oeuvre, but please let me know when they go on sale.
I prefer my oeuvres sunny-side-up with lemon pepper and some rye toast.

SPMiller
05-20-2009, 07:28 PM
Let's not forget one of the most important laws of human existence:

Sturgeon's Law (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sturgeon%27s_law).

Believe it or not, it applies to published fiction, too.

Sunnyside
05-20-2009, 07:46 PM
Sidney Smith, The Edinburgh Review, January 1820:

“The Americans are a brave, industrious, and acute people; but they have hitherto given no indications of genius, and made no approaches to the heroic, either in their morality or character. They are but a recent offset indeed from England; and should make it their chief boast, for many generations to come, that they are sprung from the same race with Bacon and Shakespeare and Newton. Considering their numbers, indeed, and the favorable circumstances in which they have been placed, they have yet done marvelously little to assert the honor of such a descent, or to show that their English blood has been exalted or refined by their republican training and institutions…

“…they have done absolutely nothing for the Sciences, for the Arts, for Literature, or even for the statesman-like studies of Politics or Political Economy…

“In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue? . . .

“When these questions are fairly and favorably answered, their laudatory epithets may be allowed: But, till that can be done, we would seriously advise them to keep clear of superlatives.”

European disdain for American writers is as old as American publishing itself. American writers have heard it all before, and they’ve generally proven the critics wrong. I’m confident that American writers will continue to rise above such condescension and defy such expectations — for their ability to do so is also as old as American publishing itself.

ccv707
05-20-2009, 11:49 PM
Ah...but I wanted to discuss that it was unworthy of discussion. That was the simple essence of my post.


Me too. You have to read the words I didn't use though.

Then keep on not discussing it. All I wanted were the opinions of others, and apparently I have yours as well.

unicornjam
05-20-2009, 11:54 PM
That article is from 2008 ... I thought something new had happened. :/

MaLanie1971
05-21-2009, 12:02 AM
Any art form is subjective.

I say quit worrying what everyone else is doing, not doing, buying, not buying or writing or not writing. Do your own thing and quit trying to put everything and everyone in a box!

Write to the very people that like your art form.

gothicangel
05-21-2009, 12:03 AM
I enjoy both literature and genre. Just finished Red Riding: 1974 (David Peace) and jumped straight to Matt Hilton (debut Brit novelist, similar to Lee Child.)

I'm studying a degree in Scottish Literature (now there is a can of worms!!)

The University of Stirling has an Undergrad Gothic module that includes The Stand and American Psycho alongside Poe, Stoker and Shelley. They also are the only University in the UK to offer a MA in Gothic Studies.

jodiodi
05-21-2009, 02:23 AM
I'm studying a degree in Scottish Literature (now there is a can of worms!!)

The University of Stirling has an Undergrad Gothic module that includes The Stand and American Psycho alongside Poe, Stoker and Shelley. They also are the only University in the UK to offer a MA in Gothic Studies.

Oh! I so wanted a PhD in Gothic Literature. I couldn't find a program near here.

Now it's too late for me to go back to school. I'm so freakin' jealous!

Medievalist
05-21-2009, 04:03 AM
I'm studying a degree in Scottish Literature (now there is a can of worms!!)

I heart Henryson, Dunbar, and Kennedy!

Middle Scots FTW :D

KTC
05-21-2009, 04:09 AM
Then keep on not discussing it. All I wanted were the opinions of others, and apparently I have yours as well.

Yes you do. ENJOY!

Medievalist
05-21-2009, 04:09 AM
Oh! I so wanted a PhD in Gothic Literature. I couldn't find a program near here.

Now it's too late for me to go back to school. I'm so freakin' jealous!

It absolutely is not.

Older students do incredibly well, and grad students range from their twenties to their seventies.

You'd want to get a degree in Comp Lit, or English, and specialize in either eighteenth century lit, or the novel, then do your dissertation on Gothic.

It's absolutely doable. Just don't take twenty years ;)

Medievalist
05-21-2009, 04:13 AM
... not really true, so long as the divide isn't a value judgement where literary works are said to be better than genre ones, which would indeed be wrong and "elitist." But if the divide is merely one in which literary works are defined as different than genre works, because of what they aim to achieve, than that is fine.

Except if you look at the canon of novels in English, the "classic" novels, the ones that are taught and studied--they're all examples of a genre.

And most of them were derided as "popular" or even "trashy" during their initial popularity when they were first published.

bsolah
05-21-2009, 04:21 AM
So true Medievalist.

It seems like a lot of literary novels nowadays are in a sense, trying to imitate what was considered popular back then.

aquacat
05-21-2009, 04:40 AM
Tragically, in the 'big dialogue of literature', my oeuvre is mumbling to itself, sitting in the corner, rocking back and forth.

Look, Secretary Engdahl! I wrote 'oeuvre'. That's a French word, and France is in Europe, which is the 'center of the literary world'. Prepare my place at the grownup table; there's a good chap.

As for Alfred Nobel's creations, I think I prefer dynamite.

Sounds like Mr. Engdahl has a massive case of the postmodern blues.

Boo hoo, white European men don't (entirely) control America anymore. It must be full of cretins!

Ken
05-21-2009, 05:07 AM
It seems like a lot of literary novels nowadays are in a sense, trying to imitate what was considered popular back then.

... can you site some examples of this: modern literary novels you've read that are imitations of popular classics, in your view?

bsolah
05-21-2009, 05:08 AM
Probably can't. It's just a sense I get, that the style of literary works is taken from the classics.

This could be completely wrong though.

Ken
05-21-2009, 05:18 AM
Except if you look at the canon of novels in English, the "classic" novels, the ones that are taught and studied--they're all examples of a genre.

And most of them were derided as "popular" or even "trashy" during their initial popularity when they were first published.

... thanks for the insight. This is interesting to know, and new news to me, though I'm not really sure how it ties in with my post you sited:


... not really true, so long as the divide isn't a value judgement where literary works are said to be better than genre ones, which would indeed be wrong and "elitist." But if the divide is merely one in which literary works are defined as different than genre works, because of what they aim to achieve, than that is fine.

Whatever classifies a literary work as literary is something that isn't a bad thing to point out is all I'm saying here, and the same is so of genre works, so long as value judgements aren't being made, e.g. because literary works tend to explore universal themes more often than genre novels that that somehow makes them more valuable. It is okay, by contrast, to merely point out that there is this general distinction. No more than this was implied in my post; honest ;-)

Ken
05-21-2009, 05:25 AM
... who knows, Bsolah, perhaps you're right. But as a writer yourself you have an opportunity to alter this. So get to work, and proceed illustrious youth :-)

bsolah
05-21-2009, 05:26 AM
Oh, I do plan to proceed. And I don't think my work will be quite like anyone else's ;)

Ken
05-21-2009, 05:36 AM
... I can believe that ;-)

Medievalist
05-21-2009, 05:46 AM
so long as value judgements aren't being made, e.g. because literary works tend to explore universal themes more often than genre novels that that somehow makes them more valuable. It is okay, by contrast, to merely point out that there is this general distinction. No more than this was implied in my post; honest ;-)

I wasn't arguing with you. Merely pointing out that those who make a distinction of "literary" and "genre" are making a false distinction.

Literary novels are still genre members. In fact the phrase itself is not one you will really see used outside of publishing and book selling; it's not used in academic study, it's not used in library classifications. It's mostly used by people in marketing. It's not even fifty years old.

Dickens, Austen, Twain, Proust, Fielding, Hawthorne, Melville, Joyce, Sterne etc. etc.--all of their novels can be classified as genres.

Ken
05-21-2009, 06:06 AM
... ahh, I see. I just didn't draw this from your previous post, Med. My bad :-(

So distinctions between literary and genre works really aren't "fine," in view of what you say. Even though it is a new classification and used mostly in marketing, I still think "literary" is a useful term, in some ways, cueing readers and reviewers in as to what they can expect to find in a novel, in a very loose way. Literary is well applied to works by Samuel Beckett, I think, and it would be difficult to classify his works in any specific genre, but perhaps not.

bsolah
05-21-2009, 06:10 AM
So define literary. It's such a fluid and vague category.

Ken
05-21-2009, 03:47 PM
This convo between you and me is beginning to feel like that Abbott and Costello skit: Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know's on third, except that Literary and Genre are switch hitting for two of the players. Perhaps we should thumb our way to Hollywood and broadcast the skit on the airwaves :-) We'll call it The Ken and Bsolah Show. Alright, alright; The Bsolah and Ken show.

SPMiller
05-21-2009, 04:50 PM
I'm surprised you can't arrive at a definition for what's widely considered literary. In general, publishers use that label for fiction with some or all of the following qualities:

- set in contemporary consensus reality
- realist (as opposed to surrealist or fantastical)
- focuses on character drama
- aspires to some nebulous notion of high prose quality

Saskatoonistan
05-21-2009, 05:24 PM
However, I also believe that American literature has enough artists to be considered above this so-called pop culture. We have great--some all-time great--writers who represent what B&N likes to dub American "literature": Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, Don Delillo, Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace (before his suicide), even Stephen King (young SK moreso than current SK), just to name a few working today. I think this shows we have enough people who write things that truly matter to allow us some leeway in the "American literature is no good" discussion.

Interesting argument, though what or what doesn't constitute "good" literature is purely subjective. I'd also add that publishers do want to generate revenue: genre fiction sells exceedingly well and if we want to call it pop culture, great - it's still something to read. As long as people are reading then maybe that's an accurate barometer of the state of American (or Canadian, for that matter) literature.

Swordswoman
05-22-2009, 03:58 AM
That said, I'd like to hear the opinions of others on this matter, especially those who live outside the US.


OK, I'll walk into the lion's den.

I'm a bit puzzled by some of the arguments in this thread, because according to the links in the OP, the accusation that was actually levelled at American Literature by the Swedish Academy was that it was 'insular and ignorant' and 'did not play a part in the great dialogue of literature'. He did NOT say it was crap, or that all books ought to be literature, or that pop culture was dumbing everything down in the US, or any of the other things being discussed here. If he had said any of those things, then it would be right and fair to say that this one particular European was being snobbish and stupid - but he didn't.

As to what he did say, I think it's a pretty sweeping generalization, and obviously can't be applied to all literature in the US. But as a European, I can (I think) see at least something of what he means, though I don't ultimately agree.

There are various ways this alleged insularity shows itself:

1. The US does not translate as much foreign literature as other countries. I don't think anyone here is disputing this - it's a fact. That is obviously...er... a little insular.
What I don't see, however, is why it should mean American literature is itself insular. All right, a lower percentage of Americans read the literature of other countries - but I bet the most literate ones read it. OK, it maybe doesn't help the US case to have someone post on this thread who doesn't even know who wrote 'Great Expectations', but I don't think they're typical. There's a thread in the Novels forum about books which have most influenced people's writing, and while lots of Americans have only listed American books, there are a number who've also listed books by English, French, Spanish and Russian authors. If writers like these are reading European literature as well as their own, then I think it's pretty dangerous to assume the top US writers aren't. I don't think the translation issue justifies the 'insular literature' tag at all.

2. The US does not buy-in or import as much literature from other English speaking countries as the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa etc etc etc This also is a fact.
BUT personally I suspect this has as much to do with the traditional publishing 'territories' as it does an insularity on the part of the US. A US publishing deal only includes a very small part of the English speaking world, and they'd have to pay more to acquire the UK and Commonwealth. I think it's highly unfair to make an accusation of insularity based on that.

3. US literature is supposedly more inward-looking, parochial and 'insular' by its nature.
This to me would be the only fact that could justify the 'insular' tag, and I'm not convinced it's entirely true.

Yes, there are elements of it in the US canon as a whole. When I was a teacher, it was depressing how many works of American literature seemed to be about 'the American Dream', or 'pioneer spirit', or something of that ilk. Whether it was Steinbeck or Arthur Miller or Scott Fitzgerald or Melville or Faulkner or whoever, sooner or later a great theme of the work would turn out to be related to the American Dream. In other words, where European writers (on the whole) are writing about the human condition, American ones seemed to be writing exclusively about being American. This is in a way 'insular' - it shows a lack of interest in other human beings, and in turn is less likely to appeal very widely outside its own borders.

However, it's still a generalization, and not fair to say it applies to all US literature. Even the books which are about being American are about other things too, and even those almost entirely about the American Dream have application to other human and universal experience. I'm not American, but I love Steinbeck - and all the others.
Also, what I think the Swedes perhaps forget is that the USA is a relatively 'new' country in terms of creating a culture - it's perfectly natural for its literature to be still interested in the search for its own identity. Slapping a word like 'insular' on it seems to me offensive.

There's one other tiny aspect of US literature which I do personally find rather insular, and that's the unusual reliance on ephemera exclusive to its own country. Where European literature talks about a biscuit or a bag or any other universal thing, an American book is more likely to refer to an Oreo or a Hefty bag or whatever - something which inevitably strands the non US reader out in the cold. Brand names, television programmes, pop-culture references abound, and make the book more than ever exclusively about the 'American experience'.

But sadly (in my opinion) this is starting to happen in UK literature too, and I think it's a great shame. It's not just walls with other countries we're building, but walls with other times. Books like this can't be read in two hundred years without extensive footnotes - we are building in our ow obsolescence.

So no - I don't agree with the 'insular and ignorant' accusation, but I hope at least this helps show where some of it might have derived. Maybe there's enough in it to merit discussion.

Or of course, we could just say 'it's some snobby European saying American literature's crap, let's rip him up'...

Louise, creeping carefully out of the lion's den...:gone:

bsolah
05-22-2009, 04:40 AM
This convo between you and me is beginning to feel like that Abbott and Costello skit: Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know's on third, except that Literary and Genre are switch hitting for two of the players. Perhaps we should thumb our way to Hollywood and broadcast the skit on the airwaves :-) We'll call it The Ken and Bsolah Show. Alright, alright; The Bsolah and Ken show.

Sounds good. If we were vintage suits, sit in old chairs and drink cognac whilst we do it can we call it literary? Jokes :tongue


I'm surprised you can't arrive at a definition for what's widely considered literary. In general, publishers use that label for fiction with some or all of the following qualities:

- set in contemporary consensus reality
- realist (as opposed to surrealist or fantastical)
- focuses on character drama
- aspires to some nebulous notion of high prose quality

Contemporary and/or realistic settings aren't just confined to literary, a lot of genre novels could be considered character driven and the notion of 'high prose' is so subjective it's hard to define.

It's an honest question though. I'm sure I've discussed it before, but the definition is never quite clear to me.

wrinkles
05-22-2009, 07:35 AM
Hey Swordswoman. Nice post.

SPMiller
05-22-2009, 03:33 PM
Contemporary and/or realistic settings aren't just confined to literary, a lot of genre novels could be considered character driven and the notion of 'high prose' is so subjective it's hard to define.

It's an honest question though. I'm sure I've discussed it before, but the definition is never quite clear to me.I agree, but you'll notice that those genre novels that satisfy one or two of the requirements generally don't satisfy the others. It's not uncommon to find the "literary" label tacked onto a genre classification (e.g., literary horror) in such cases.

Personally, I don't have a use for the label, but a lot of people apparently do.

SPMiller
05-22-2009, 03:38 PM
There are various ways this alleged insularity shows itself:

1. The US does not translate as much foreign literature as other countries. I don't think anyone here is disputing this - it's a fact.

2. The US does not buy-in or import as much literature from other English speaking countries as the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa etc etc etc This also is a fact.

3. US literature is supposedly more inward-looking, parochial and 'insular' by its nature.
This to me would be the only fact that could justify the 'insular' tag, and I'm not convinced it's entirely true.Just to keep you honest and head off the naysayers, I'll dispute those facts. Please provide links to your sources.

Swordswoman
05-23-2009, 02:25 AM
Just to keep you honest and head off the naysayers, I'll dispute those facts. Please provide links to your sources.

Why on earth would I have any interest in proving something I've just said I consider utterly irrelevant to this debate??!

However, if you're seriously interested in the translation/marketing deal aspects, the best sources I can recommend are: http://www.thebookseller.com
http://www.publishersmarketplace.com
http://www.publishersweekly.com
http://www.booktrade.info
These report most translation deals between them, and you can easily do the maths yourself (though don't forget to calculate the figures per head of population). Personally I'm a trusting soul, and am inclined to assume something industry professionals seem to regard as fact probably is fact. If it's not true, I really would be interested to know that - and somebody ought to be specifically challenging that aspect in public.

However, I'm actually basing an argument of my own on the statement about publishing territories, so it's quite reasonable to ask me to verify that. Here's a link to a direct source:
http://www.writersservices.com/res/ri_English_lang_market.htm (http://www.writersservices.com/res/ri_English_lang_market.htm)
This should make absolutely clear that it is inevitable the US will buy fewer English language imports from other countries, and through no fault of their own.

The third statement is only implication of what Engdahl said - with which again I make it clear I disagree. I don't quite see how one can give a source for an opinion!

But seriously, this should be an open-minded discussion between writers about a statement made about literature - there is no need for confrontation or impugning anyone's honesty. There is no need for party lines to be drawn along national borders. Writing should be sans frontieres, no?

For instance, if you wanted to counter some of my personal opinions on US literature, have a look at this piece:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturecritics/samleith/3561561/Nobel-Prize-judge-is-wrong-to-denounce-American-literature.html (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturecritics/samleith/3561561/Nobel-Prize-judge-is-wrong-to-denounce-American-literature.html)
This is a defence in a British newspaper, which points out (accurately) that there is a great deal of parochialism in English literature too, and questions whether this is by definition insular. It's a well-argued piece, and I agree with a lot of it. Why shouldn't I? It's good, honest debate, and made me think on some points I hadn't considered before.

I'm sure there are many others - and I'm genuinely interested to hear them.

Louise

PS Apologies if any of these links don't work - I am a technological cretin, and having real trouble with copying/pasting from my new Internet Explorer. The short ones I've done manually so are hopefully OK - the rest may need to be copied and pasted into your own browser. Sorry!
And if anyone can tell me how to copy and paste an URL as a link into a post here, please, please be very kind and tell me! Many thanks!

SPMiller
05-23-2009, 02:29 AM
Wow, you got really defensive for no reason.

Swordswoman
05-23-2009, 03:00 AM
Wow, you got really defensive for no reason.

I'm sorry, SPM - I didn't mean to be! I guess I was reacting to the implication of dishonesty - my apologies if you didn't mean it that way.

Louise

geardrops
05-23-2009, 03:36 AM
- set in contemporary consensus reality
- realist (as opposed to surrealist or fantastical)
- focuses on character drama
- aspires to some nebulous notion of high prose quality

Just as a sidenote, this casts off folk Vonnegut and Gabriel Garcia Marquez right out the gate. If you gave me time I could think of more, but those two pop out almost instantly.

Any instance of "you got your fantasy in my literary" (magical realism) would be right out due to the "contemporary consensus reality" and "realist."

Totally irrelevant. Just pointing out, I guess, that the lines are even blurrier than we like. I'm sure some Interstices kids would have fun things to say on this.

backslashbaby
05-23-2009, 04:13 AM
Dempsey, yeah that was my exact first thought, although I prefer your phrasing: "You got your fantasy in my literary" :D

Swordswoman,

Excellent post! And thank you for noting that there may be good reason to write about the American experience.

I'll go one further and propose that, since WWII in any case, focusing on America might be natural for anyone with global-political themes. Hey, we don't all think the US should be "#1" but there is no denying that a work contemplating Western culture vs anything might use the US for the Western. Our stuff is the stuff found on every corner of the planet, however anyone feels about the hows and whys and shoulds there.

And I have several websites saved, waiting for translations of works that I can't read [ Czech, Hungarian, Russian & Romanian, off the top of my head] :) I even wonder about the business side of translations of great novels. If I were in the publishing industry, I'd be all over it.

As for the Nobel Prize? Bah, 11 women have won the literature prize, I think. No, there's nothing insular there, eh?

Swordswoman
05-23-2009, 05:07 AM
I'll go one further and propose that, since WWII in any case, focusing on America might be natural for anyone with global-political themes. Hey, we don't all think the US should be "#1" but there is no denying that a work contemplating Western culture vs anything might use the US for the Western. Our stuff is the stuff found on every corner of the planet, however anyone feels about the hows and whys and shoulds there.


I'd totally agree. It's one thing I find faintly ludicrous in the James Bond films, for example, that they focus on the British efforts in the espionage world - when actually I rather doubt the UK would achieve much without the CIA. I know the whole series is very tongue-in-cheek, and that it's based on Fleming's experiences many years ago, but it does rather highlight the folly of presenting any country other than the US as a kind of champion of the West.

One thing I would like to ask about, though, is historical fiction, where obviously the opposite argument applies - particularly pre mid sixteenth century. My agent tells me it's virtually impossible to 'break' a historical novel into the US, and that even Bernard Cornwell (mega, mega bestselling writer of the Sharpe series) took years and several books before getting a sale there. I don't think even bestselling Conn Iggulden is doing business in the US yet, but I'm not sure.

Is that true, in the experience of people here? (I have a vested interest in this, since I've got one coming out next year and will be looking for international sales!) Do you have many historicals by non-US writers there? Obviously I hope the answer is 'yes', but if not, why do you think that is?

Louise

backslashbaby
05-23-2009, 05:13 AM
Lots of folks I know who read historical fiction definitely read widely. Unfortunately, those folks also got degrees from ivy-dripping institutions in politics, etc. so it's not a good cross-section of America ;)

But yes, and they like the fiction part, which I wouldn't necessarily have guessed.

Medievalist
05-23-2009, 05:18 AM
To be blunt, literary fiction is a category (not a genre) slapped on by the marketing departments. It's generally an indication that the work won't fit neatly onto the shelves-organized-by-genre in major bookstores.

Swordswoman
05-23-2009, 05:22 AM
Brilliant! Which are the biggest UK names in historical fiction over there? That'll give me a clue as to how much chance I stand.... Is Iggulden there? George MacDonald Fraser? Alexander Kent? Ken Follett must be, I'd guess, because of being bestselling in other fields as well.

Any and all ammunition gratefully received!

Louise

backslashbaby
05-23-2009, 05:25 AM
I will email my friends and see who they like :) There may be websites or lists that they follow, too. I'll see how they find what to read.

SPMiller
05-23-2009, 05:27 AM
Just as a sidenote, this casts off folk Vonnegut and Gabriel Garcia Marquez right out the gate. If you gave me time I could think of more, but those two pop out almost instantly.

Any instance of "you got your fantasy in my literary" (magical realism) would be right out due to the "contemporary consensus reality" and "realist."

Totally irrelevant. Just pointing out, I guess, that the lines are even blurrier than we like. I'm sure some Interstices kids would have fun things to say on this.I agree. Vonnegut should be shelved with sf (or fantasy, depending on how scientific you consider his speculation) and Marquez with fantasy. They aren't literary writers--at least, not in the "literary fiction" sense. Their writing, however, has "literary" qualities, those being #3-4 in my list, and my definition allowed for such a subset to qualify a work for literary classification.

I'm a hardass about genre classification, though.

Medievalist
05-23-2009, 05:28 AM
Brilliant! Which are the biggest UK names in historical fiction over there? That'll give me a clue as to how much chance I stand.... Is Iggulden there? George MacDonald Fraser? Alexander Kent? Ken Follett must be, I'd guess, because of being bestselling in other fields as well.

Any and all ammunition gratefully received!

Louise

Dorothy Dunnett is huge, even now. Also --gah, can't remember the name -- Nigel Trantor? A Scot.

But in terms of American writers, Patrick O'Brien is still selling exceedingly well.

Swordswoman
05-23-2009, 05:47 AM
Thanks, backslashbaby - I'd appreciate that. I have tried looking at US sales charts but without much luck. The only real way to know is to be in the bookstores and see what's there.

Thanks, Mediaevalist. Good news about Patrick O'Brian definitely. Otherwise it's looking as if I need to be both dead and Scottish... :D

Louise

eta - I'm assuming it was a slip of the typing finger to call Patrick O'Brian American?!

raburrell
05-23-2009, 05:57 AM
Brilliant! Which are the biggest UK names in historical fiction over there? That'll give me a clue as to how much chance I stand.... Is Iggulden there? George MacDonald Fraser? Alexander Kent? Ken Follett must be, I'd guess, because of being bestselling in other fields as well.

Any and all ammunition gratefully received!

Louise

I've got two Kate Mosse novels in my library at the moment. Oddly enough, my husband purchased them, and he's not usually a big reader... so they couldn't have been too terribly hard to find on the shelves. (Then again, he's an expat, so perhaps this was simply a case of Britdar.)