This month Lindsay Ellis discusses the Literary Cannon, or how books become “worthy“, in It’s Lit.
I swear that when I started posting these videos that I didn’t know the series would cover one of my pet topics. Worthiness, important books, snobbery, guilty pleasures, are all things I love to bang on about. This video feels like a worthy addition to my posts on the topic.*
Let’s explore what makes a book “important.”
Literary critics, writers, philosophers, bloggers–all have tried to tackle where and why and how an author may strike such lightning in a bottle that their works enter the pantheon of “Classical Literature”. Why this book is required reading in high school, why other books are lost to history.
It’s Lit! is part of THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, an eight-part series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. This all leads to a nationwide vote of America’s favourite novel. Learn More Here: https://to.pbs.org/2IXQuZE
For us readers, the answer is “Never! How could you ask such a silly question? What’s wrong with you? Do you even book, bro?” But the reality is that a significant chunk of the population have not read a book in the last year, and/or aren’t regular readers. We have to admit: some people don’t like reading.*
I have a pet hypothesis** on this. During school, mainly high school, kids start to hate reading. This is because teachers, academics, literary people, policy makers, and general busybodies, start to decree what kids should and shouldn’t be reading. As a result, kids are “forced” to read books that they aren’t interested in or that have won an award or are a “classic” or that fill a certain level of appropriate snootiness that appeases book snobs.
One of the authors, Annie Ward, presented at a readers summit recently and one of her slides has made it to social media. It covers some key points for how educators become “book wardens” who restrict reading and undermine reading ownership and choice. Book Wardens tend to:
While I have frequently focussed on the snobbery aspect to this problem, particularly from the reading/publishing industry itself, there is more to this. Take for example “just right” books and adults. What image do we conjure up when someone mentions comic book readers? Pimply teenage boy? An obese virgin loser who still lives with his parents? You know, this guy:
The problem with that series of assumptions is that it is a form of reading snobbery. How could a comic be entertaining to anyone who isn’t a loser? Or similar statements that you’ll hear from people who have never read a comic book and battle to wrap their head around the art form.
In other words, even as adults, we are encouraging people not to read.
But don’t worry, as Dav’s second-page shows, we can all make a difference to people by encouraging them.***
*A quarter of people (24-26%) haven’t read a book recently. I’ve previously discussed the reading figures for the US, UK, and Australia and it is interesting how the figures come together. Suffice to say, reading is not a favourite hobby for most people.
**Hypothesis because a theory is something pretty solidly supported, whereas a hypothesis is a question you want to answer. Join me in my scheme to change the values that will stop the positive feedback of the colloquial usage of theory today!
***Although in fairness, the literary snobs are trying to encourage people to read. Their failing is that they think what they like should be what everyone reads. They have us talking about guilty pleasures and judging what we read by their standards rather than just letting us read stuff we enjoy.
Every now and then I like to look back through older posts on my blog. It’s a form of masochism built upon equal parts fascination with forgotten ideas and revulsion at missed typos and awkwardly phrased run on sentences that really don’t know when to end, that should have ended sooner, and aren’t something I do anymore. One snarky post caught my eye and I thought I should retread that ground.
The post was based upon an article in The Guardian, one of the last bastions of book snobbery that manages to not trip over its own superiority complex – sometimes. The article had decided that all of these new-fangled e-readers weren’t filled with the right kinds of books.
Kindle-owning bibliophiles are furtive beasts. Their shelves still boast classics and Booker winners. But inside that plastic case, other things lurk. Sci-fi and self-help. Even paranormal romance, where vampires seduce virgins and elves bonk trolls.
Ahh, good, they’ve figured out what people actually enjoy reading. Do go on.
The ebook world is driven by so-called genre fiction, categories such as horror or romance. It’s not future classics that push digital sales, but more downmarket fare. No cliche is left unturned, no adjective underplayed.
“So-called” genre fiction categories of horror and romance… This article was published by a so-called newspaper.
At this point, you can see why I originally wrote about this article. Like many of these worthiness arguments, the article is quick to deride any genre book, particularly e-books in this case, as not having “classic” potential. You know, classics like The Godfather (crime), Lord of the Rings (fantasy), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (science fiction), Frankenstein (horror), or Pride and Prejudice (romance). Why would anyone ever read dreck like genre fiction?
As I’ve said before, I could easily write a post-a-week pulling apart one of these articles. They are very common and rely on the same handful of bad arguments. In my original response to the article, I wrote that literary fiction – the preferred genre of the authors of these sorts of articles – and biography markets have been kept afloat by this sort of snobbery. People like to be seen reading high-brow stuff, and people like to give worthy books to friends and family. Not one person has ever bought a political memoir to read, they are always a Father’s Day gift. And as the article states, e-book readers don’t have to let people see what they are reading, so they don’t have to pretend any longer.
The reading public in private is lazy and smutty. E-readers hide the material. Erotica sells well. My own downmarket literary fetish is male-oriented historical fiction (histfic). Swords and sails stuff. I’m happier reading it on an e-reader, and keeping shelf space for books that proclaim my cleverness.
Well, maybe people will pretend just a bit longer…
Since this was an article from 2012, the talk of e-books was as they were ascending in popularity. Growth in the e-book market has since slowed, with the market being 20% of the total sales for the major publishers, down from a high of 28% five years ago. Of course, in the fiction market e-books are more like 50% of sales for the Big 5 publishers. And those publishers are having trouble with new fiction titles, as they haven’t had any “big titles” selling well, instead relying on genre fiction backlists and the sudden interest in political books… Wait, what?
It puzzles me why the author of this article insisted that e-readers are filled with garbage, particularly since the arguments supporting the claim lack evidence. A large chunk of book sales from major publishers are e-books, so it can’t all be the dreck titles, can it? What proof do we have that e-readers only contain Twilight fan-fiction and Dan Brown* novels? The proof we are offered is that anything genre is garbage: checkmate person who reads books! So maybe these article writers at The Guardian are onto something, maybe e-readers like the Kindle are filled with garbage.
*Sorry Dan**, you and James Paterson are my go-to punching bags here. If I’ve offended you or James by suggesting your books aren’t high-quality writing, then I’m quite happy to edit out those comments from my blog for a small six or seven figure fee. Just post me one of the bags of money you use as a pillow, that should cover it.
**Language expert take on Dan Brown novels: “A renowned male expert at something dies a hideous death and straight away a renowned expert at something quite different gets a surprise call and has to take an unexpected plane flight and then face some 36 hours of astoundingly dangerous and exhausting adventures involving a good-looking (and of course expert) member of the opposite sex and when the two of them finally get access to a double bed she disrobes and tells him mischievously (almost minatorily) to prepare himself for strenuous sex. Where are we?” And another.
Penguin Australia recently published an article suggesting reading was awesome for your health. Previously I have posted science-backed articles on the benefits of reading (1, 2), so more science telling us that readers are awesome never goes astray. Although, as much as I love some good old confirmation bias, I can’t just share that article without some commentary from the further reading. I mean, the article title is a play on An apple a day keeps the doctor away… that can’t pass without some mockery.
Reading can provide hours of entertainment and pleasure, impart knowledge, expand vocabulary and give insight into unknown experiences. Additionally, research has shown that it has a variety of physical, mental and emotional health benefits. If you need another excuse to pick up a book, here are six ways reading can benefit your health.
And if those six reasons don’t encourage you to pick up a book, then think of them as six ways you’ll be superior to other people.
Improve brain function
Neuroscientists at Emory University in America conducted a study and discovered that reading a novel can improve brain function on a variety of levels. The study showed that when we read and imagine the settings, sounds, smells and tastes described on the page, the areas within the brain that process these experiences in real life are activated, creating new neural pathways.1 So next time you’re indulging in an armchair adventure with a great book, you could technically claim you’re working out – your brain, that is.
This study was rather small, consisting of 21 university aged participants who had 19 days of baseline brain scans before 9 days of scans as they read Robert Harris’ Pompeii novel. Warning: they had no null group in this study, only the baseline comparison, so any conclusions drawn should be done next to a salt shaker. It does, however, draw similar conclusions to previous research I’ve discussed.
Obviously, stimulating the brain by engaging with a story is going to light up parts of the brain, but there is the implication that using our brains in this way will strengthen pathways. Calling it a workout for the brain is probably a stretch because it isn’t like our brain sits around doing nothing the rest of the day. But for me, the more interesting thing is the shared response among participants. It proves Steven King’s adage true about writing being a form of telepathy.
The big unanswered questions here are how does this compare to any other shared activity, and how does it compare to other similar activities. I’d bet crypto money – always best to keep bets symbolic – that any other activities would see similar responses.
Increase longevity and brain health in old age
Researchers at Yale University School of Public Health found that, ‘reading books tends to involve two cognitive processes that could create a survival advantage.’ According to their results ‘a 20% reduction in mortality was observed for those who read books, compared to those who did not read books.’2 And the longer you live, the more time you have to get through your to-be-read pile.
This study nags at my skeptic-sense. Nothing immediately jumps out and screams “This study is nonsense, don’t believe it!” but I can’t help but feel like it is. They sampled 3,635 people in the USA and compared readers to non-readers for longevity. Don’t worry, they factored in stuff like age, sex, race, education, comorbidities, self-rated health, wealth, marital status, and depression. But I’m still left with the nagging sound of my statistics lecturer telling the class that correlation doesn’t equal causation. See this example about storks and babies!
My suspicion is that there is something unmeasured that is confounded with reading that is the actual causal factor. This factor is probably also available from other activities, thus other activities will also increase your lifespan. Just my suspicion. Happy to be proven wrong.
Reduce tension levels
A 2009 study by the University of Sussex found that reading for just six minutes can reduce tension levels by up to 68 per cent.3 Researchers studied a group of volunteers – raising their tension levels and heart rate through a range of tests and exercises – before they were then tested with a variety of traditional methods of relaxation. Reading was the most effective method according to cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis. The volunteers only needed to read silently for six minutes to ease tension in the muscles and slow down their heart rate. If ongoing stress is an issue take a look at these simple stress management tips.
This claim is hard to pin down. It’s not like other studies haven’t shown reading (and yoga, humour, cognitive, behavioural, and mindfulness) have impacts upon stress levels. But unlike the linked studies, Lewis’ study hasn’t been published. The source in the Canadian National Reading Campaign links to The Reading Agency in the UK which cites an article in The Telegraph. Now, I suspect that this was probably one of those studies done for a report that no one has read because the only publicly available material on it is the press release. But it could also be rubbish research that didn’t get published because of claims like 300% and 700% better than other activities sound like made-up numbers.*
Increase emotional intelligence & empathy
Numerous studies have shown that reading books can promote social perception and emotional intelligence.2 Studies have also found that when a person is reading fiction, they showed greater ability to empathize. Similar to the visualization of muscle memory in sports, reading fiction helps the reader use their imagination to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.1 For books that’ll test your empathy, push your moral boundaries and ask ‘what would you do?’, take a look at this collection.
I don’t know why they referenced the same two studies again as they didn’t look directly at the issue of emotional intelligence and empathy. I’ve seen better studies, such as the one I mentioned in my piece on Literary Fiction In Crisis, and this one that literary people like to wave around because they can’t afford a Ferrari. So while this appears to be true enough, it is worth understanding why (read this one and see how lots of books have differing levels of literary merit).
While some scientists believe reading before bed can inhibit sleep due to heightened brain activity, researchers at Mayo Clinic recommend reading as part of a relaxing bedtime ritual that can help promote sound sleep.4 This, coupled with the tension-relieving benefits of reading, can vastly improve both the quality and quantity of your sleep. You may want to stay away from page-turning crime and thriller novels though – you could be up all night…
Clearly these people don’t read thrillers. Am I right people? Huh?
Anyway, it is worth reading what the Mayo Clinic actually said:
Good sleep habits can help prevent insomnia and promote sound sleep: Create a relaxing bedtime ritual, such as taking a warm bath, reading or listening to soft music.
That’s right, it wasn’t that reading helped you sleep, it was that it could be part of a relaxing bedtime ritual. Could. They didn’t recommend it so much as used it as an example of a relaxing activity that wasn’t playing on the computer or watching TV (i.e. screen based). So this is overstating things a bit.
Improve overall wellbeing
Researchers at Italy’s University of Turin published an analysis of ten studies of bibliotherapy: the use of books as therapy in the treatment of mental or psychological disorders. Their findings showed that participants in six of the studies saw significant improvements in their overall wellbeing for up to three years after partaking in a course of reading therapy.5 With that in mind, here are some books to help you achieve mindfulness and find happiness in the everyday.
Worth reading the actual link on this one. In summarising they have made this sound like wellbeing benefits were being measured in most of the studies out to three years when only one of the ten studies did. This could just be me nitpicking, but it does overstate the results in my opinion.
As with many of my posts breaking down a sciency article, you can see that at best the claims are overstated, or as I’ve summed up previously I think you’ll find it is more complicated than that. And as much as I like reading – and I’m sure many of you reading this do as well – too often this sort of science isn’t actually helpful.
Sure, reading is awesome, but if you’re going to stick someone in an MRI to prove it, how about comparing it to other activities and including a nill treatment. That’s called good science! Readers don’t actually need some scientist to tell them their hobby is awesome (or maybe they do), and they especially don’t need overstated claims about that science in articles, it goes astray.
* Seriously, check out this “abstract” quote:
Abstract: Tested against other forms of relaxation, reading was proved 68% better at reducing stress levels than listening to music; 100% more effective than drinking a cup of tea, 300% better than going for a walk and 700% more than playing video games. Reading for as little as 6 minutes is sufficient to reduce stress levels by 60%, slowing heart beat, easing muscle tension and altering the state of mind. ‘Galaxy Commissioned Stress Research’, Mindlab International, Sussex University (2009)
Two months ago (November 2017) the Western Australian Government released its Writing Sector Review. Okay, most of the readers here are international, so you’re probably shrugging your shoulders and reaching for an atlas – atlases are still a thing, right? But after my recent post on support for the arts (I was in favour as long as the support was for all authors, not just those deemed worthy/literary enough), I thought this review highlighted many of the same points and might be interesting.
Okay, that’s probably my West Aussie bias talking. But if it is a problem, just mentally substitute your local area name in place of Western Australia. The points raised appear to be universal. Well, Earthiversal. Well, Writerversial.
The Department of Culture and The Arts had nine recommendations in their report:
Recommendation 1: Maintain current levels of State Government funding to the writing sector This point is at odds with the rest of the list. Lots of new stuff to fund but no extra funding to go with it. But I guess this is why they are writers and not economists.
Recommendation 2: Create a hub for writing and creative thinking at the State Library of Western Australia building This makes sense, especially if this extends resources out to the larger library network in the state. And a coffee machine, this needs a coffee machine to be a creative hub.
Recommendation 3: Conduct a distinctive annual Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards The Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards This is something that used to happen but became biennial. I’ll have more to say on this point, mark my words.
Recommendation 4: Use investment in the writing sector to achieve synergies with existing Statewide library services to extend and enhance community engagement in the reading of Western Australian writers Honestly, why wasn’t this already a thing? “Sorry, we don’t have room for you West Aussie authors on the shelves, James Patterson just published 12 new books.”
Recommendation 5: Foster professional development for writers to enable them to navigate the increasingly complex areas of rights and multimedia opportunities This is already available, but an expansion would be welcome news to all of the state scribblers. The isolation of Western Australia from the rest of Australia, let alone the rest of the world, is something that needs to be addressed. I wonder if there is a worldwide… network that could be used in some way to facilitate this.
Recommendation 6: Foster an environment to maximise the potential of Western Australian writers to be published Like reminding the rest of the world that we exist. Or giving us decent internet. Or a can with a string attached.
Recommendation 7: Enhance data collection about Western Australian writing to provide benchmarks and evidence for policy development Enhance? Starting would be good. As noted in the report, the Australia Bureau of Statistics stopped collecting data in 2003-04. Also great to see a report admitting they didn’t have evidence to base their recommendations upon.
Recommendation 8: Provide support for screenwriting and playwriting Aside from all of those tax breaks that film and theatre already get….
Recommendation 9: Establish writer-in-residence opportunities at National Trust properties (Source) This is a specific focus thing about promoting literature with a local history emphasis. I’m sure that will make someone happy. Like sleep medicine specialists.
The overall emphasis of the report is that Western Australia isn’t a cultural backwater yet it is treated as one. So the state government should do something about that by promoting locals writers, local stories, and more people to wear neck scarves and beret caps.
This is very similar to the calls from The Guardian last month, which I covered in my recent post, Literary Fiction in Crisis. The government should be doing more to support, develop, and nurture artists. The publishing industry is somehow not being asked to do this. Apparently, they are all tapped out, and definitely not owned by the biggest and most profitable media organisations.
There are a couple of big assumptions built into this report. The first most obvious one is that Western Australia isn’t a cultural backwater. Having lived here my entire life, I can confirm we are a backwater, and not just culturally. I think we need to accept this fact. Maybe if we grabbed a couple of cold beers and watched some sport it would help us get over ourselves.
The second big assumption is that writers in Western Australia are worth funding. Why? What exactly is the government trying to promote with this funding? Is there a return on investment intended? These things aren’t really defined, just asserted as true. Now, don’t get me wrong, everyone loves a government handout, just ask the banks who nearly destroyed the world’s economy. But I’d like to think that this funding is a bit better justified than it appears.
The other big assumption is that support should be directed at literary works. This is a common theme to these reports and the articles I discussed previously. The report recommends the Premier’s Book Awards be annual again, which they want to be used to promote West Aussie authors and Western Australia as a successful writing habitat – possibly with the inclusion of an emphasis on “emerging” and “developing” authors. I note that they aren’t proposing to support genre authors, nor have awards to promote them.
Why wasn’t there a conclusion that the Premier’s Book Awards should include Spec-Fic, Crime, Thriller, Romance, and YA segments? Are these not worthy? Do these genres lack enough subplots about recovering from cancer and relationships with cats? Because we can fix that.
As I noted in my Literary Fiction in Crisis piece, we could acknowledge that arts are an important aspect of our culture and support ALL artists with grants – not just the “important” literary ones. The initiatives that are meant to grow and sustain the writing sector always seem to be only for part of the writing sector. IF writing is to receive government assistance then it would be nice to see it not playing favourites without some damned good justifications. Until then it appears that some animals are more equal than others.
Edit: A recent article touched on a point about art vs sport and the taxation of people in those fields in Australia. Interesting what we promote as important.
In framing initiatives that will grow and sustain the writing sector, the following issues arising from the research and consultation process have influenced the consultants’ advice.
The creative process – the act of writing – is severely hampered by lack of time and money
Market development is a critical issue for everyone working in this sector in Australia, and one which WA needs to address with some urgency. WA’s isolation from decision-makers and peergroups exacerbates this
Proximity to Asia and the alignment of significant time zones offers a considerable opportunity for WA writers (and to the creative industries in WA more generally)
Market forces are causing publishers to become more conservative and mean they are not building writers careers in the same way. How is this gap to be filled?
Collaboration between allied and sometimes competing parties is an emerging model in Australia and internationally. With the disruption of internet and digital technologies there is a greater need for publishers to cooperate and negotiate with other firms, including competitors, or others such as games, software and media companies in order to create new products.
For emerging and small publishers, distribution can be a major hurdle
Self-publishing without an experienced guiding hand is a minefield for new writers
While authors still seek traditional publisher relationships there has been an increase in publishing innovation and technology driving new models. Australian publishers are experimenting across digital platforms with changes to royalty and subscription agreements, and providing free ebook downloads which helps make niche publishing projects viable
Digital opportunities are encouraging a more direct relationship between writers and readers, publishers and readers, booksellers and readers
Sales opportunities in the digital marketplace do not fundamentally alter the economics of publishing but have provided more opportunities for scholarly publishers
The WA writing sector is supported by a range of community-based writers’ centres, facilitating organisations and by writingWA
Throughout WA there are also 231 public libraries which provide a nexus for writers and readers in a geographically challenging state.
There is a strong regional literary festival culture in regional WA – often initiated or supported by the public library. Geraldton, Kununurra, Avon Valley, Broome, Margaret River and Mandurah Festivals are all initiatives of, or have strong links with, their public libraries, and funding from DCA, DRD and Royalties for Regions, delivered via writingWA
The history and capacity for publishing Aboriginal stories by Aboriginal people is a strength of WA writing
There is a need to increase the diversity of voices and participants in the writing community
Recent and current infrastructure developments, plus the proposed reconfiguration of SLWA offer opportunities for increased writing-based activity and activation
Changes to governance arrangements at Screenwest and its greater emphasis on the telling of WA stories offer opportunities for writers
Literary Fiction in Crisis was the headline lede for a series of articles in The Guardian last month. Long known as a balanced and inclusive arts publication (/sarcasm) they sought to highlight a serious problem and a solution for literary fiction.
In case you haven’t heard, people aren’t reading literary fiction. Book sales are dropping. I covered this in my post on Australian Fiction, and US Fiction, and the Guardian article covered the UK figures in its first piece in the series.
Let’s try not to think too hard about sales being in value terms and not volume. I mean, ebooks aren’t usually priced cheaper or anything and would hardly contribute to this revenue figure whilst being more profitable. Clearly, we need to get onto blaming the real culprits. Stupid kids these days are playing Tweeters and Facepage instead of buying books.
One reason suggested by the report for the decline in literary fiction sales is the recession, happening at the same time as the rise of cheap and easy entertainment. “In comparison with our smartphones, literary fiction is often ‘difficult’ and expensive: it isn’t free, and it requires more concentration than Facebook or Candy Crush,” the report’s authors write.
Won’t someone thinking of the starving artists!!
The researchers looked at the 10,000 bestselling fiction titles over the last five years and found: “Outside of the top 1,000 authors (at most), printed book sales alone simply cannot provide a decent income. While this has long been suspected, the data shows unambiguously that it is the case. … What’s more, this is a generous assessment. After the retailer, distributor, publisher and agent have taken their cut, there won’t be a lot of money left from 3,000 sales of the 1,000th bestselling title. That we are returning to a position where only the best-off writers can support themselves should be a source of deep concern.”
OMG, you’re telling me that artists have to have day jobs?* Oh the humanity! Surely this must be a new thing… Unless it has literally always been a thing. If only there was a graphic somewhere that could highlight the proportion of authors who make a living writing…
The second article covers some of the same ground before highlighting a couple of important points.
This continuity imperative has long been built into the foundations of commercial publishers, who expect many of their most successful writers to cough up a book a year. And as publishing has become more centralised, with much of its power now concentrated in three giant conglomerates, it has become more ruthless.
The brutal truth is that through the 1980s and 90s it was possible for the literary novelist to make a living on advances that didn’t “earn out”. They were supported by an old-fashioned value system that sanctioned the write-off of losses for the kudos of association with an “important” writer and a belief that literary value could be offset against the profits of more pragmatic publishing.
These points are ones which are not made often enough. In an industry that runs on the work of part-timers (88.5%), the proceeds to these employees are decreasing, the time commitments are increasing, and the investment in their careers is decreasing. Where are the three articles criticising this problem?
Of course, we need to steer the ship away from that iceberg of issues. The second article instead makes the argument that the UK Arts Council should fund more authors (and let’s assume the implication is that other governments around the world should do the same).
Unlike the performing arts, publishing has always been a largely commercial sector that has had to square its own circles. This is reflected in the fact that it gets only 7% of the funding cake handed out by the Arts Council, compared with 23% to theatre and 11% to dance.
Personally, I want to see Arts Council funding to be decided in a Thunderdome. It would be great to see starving artists facing off against one another for grants. The fit and agile dancers doing battle against the people who spend all day sitting and typing. They could stream it on Pay Per View and raise some extra arts funds.
There will be those who argue that this just shows that literary fiction is a hangover from the past, and the poor dears should knuckle down and resign themselves to writing what people actually want to read. But few would dare to make the same argument about experimental theatre or dance.
Yes, I’d argue this. And I would dare to make the same argument for theatre and dance. Thun-der-dome, Thun-dur-dome, Thun-der-dome!
The third article in this series makes just this argument – just to be clear, for writing what people want to read, not fighting in the Thunderdome. It doesn’t mince words and goes straight for the jugular.
This article goes on to imply that literary authors could put some effort into writing stuff people want to read, mainly via utilising compelling plots, which the author feels is a major flaw in literary works. I think he misses an important point. Authors can write whatever they want. But I do agree that authors can’t expect to earn a living from this unpopular writing, nor have people like it, nor have it be accepted as appropriate (e.g. racism). Pleasing a small club of literary snobs with worthy books doesn’t entitle authors to a full-time career.
Of course, nobody is proposing supporting genre authors. They aren’t writing important fiction and are thus not real authors. They deserve to starve! This is the main issue I have with the argument to fund literary fiction. Somehow we’ve glossed over all the authors who aren’t making a living writing genre, as though they have nothing to contribute to society, and are thus unworthy of arts funding. Admittedly, a very good study, mentioned in the second article, does show there are clear empathy differences between readers of genre and literary novels** – although why is still a question to be answered. So there is an argument to be made for literature support.
As I see it, there are a few paths we could tread. The reading industry could acknowledge that most authors are part-timers and do more to support this reality while they balance a day job with their art. Or we can acknowledge that arts are an important aspect of our culture and support ALL artists with grants – not just the “important” literary ones. This latter option could be easily and justifiably funded by taking government funding out of popular high-level sports – i.e. no more free stadiums for you football! Let’s just hope that sports don’t go up against arts in the Thunderdome.
*Side note: we could probably even refer to the artistic projects as the Side Hustle. This piece by Zen Pencils is quite good and captures the idea behind the author dream.
**Worth reading this paper, which I’ve linked directly. I expected this to be a small sample, poorly analysed, poorly reasoned, paper that was written to elevate snobbery with pseudoscience. It was actually a very solid study. Although, it is worth noting that literary merit was on a spectrum, so literary could be found in many titles. This included Raymond Chandler in the top third of literary titles, which surprised me (last spot was James Patterson, which should surprise no one).
Edit: A recent article touched on a point about art vs sport and the taxation of people in those fields in Australia. Interesting what we promote as important.
Edit: A Twitter thread about the origins of what we call literature versus genre caught my eye. The basic summary is that after the industrial revolution you had class divides between readers. Workers got to read one type of magazine, whilst richer managers (but not the capitalists) got a fancier magazine. The stories that were published in the fancier magazines became literary, whilst the rest was genre. So when I say that literature is based on snobbery, it is quite literally the snobbery of class divides in “Western culture”.
When I think of literature I think of an older guy sporting a greying moustache, sipping a sherry, wearing a smoking jacket, seated in a library of leather-bound books in front of a simmering log fire. The guy speaks with an aristocratic English accent and expounds on the greatness of some book that other older men dressed like him, sitting in similar log-fire warmed libraries, also like to read when not shagging the maid.
Now clearly not everyone who reads literature fits this image. Some probably can’t even afford a maid to shag. But it does appear to be an image that people aspire toward, an image that informs what they deem literature, and thus what they deem worthy of reading. Rather than judging any written work based upon its lasting artistic merit – although that definition is so subjective as to be useless and ideal for starting pointless arguments…. (cough) – people seem intent on creating boundaries before a work is allowed to be judged. They must defend Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works.
Normally I’d launch into a whinge about how speculative fiction is unfairly maligned, or how I’ve read crime fiction that has more artistic merit than most literary works. But instead, I’m going to talk about graphic novels. In an article on The Conversation, Catherine Beavis explained how the graphic novel Maus came to be part of the literature curriculum.
Despite this explanation, there was always going to be someone in the comments telling us how a graphic novel can’t be literature. I assume they wrote their comments whilst wearing a smoking jacket and taking a break from shagging the maid.
Well well……..so it’s art as literature.
Why not a more well-known comic (sorry graphic novel).
Not saying this isn’t a worthy addition to any curriculum, but more as social comment rather than literature.
Surely the novels of great Australian writers should be preferable – Winton, Malouf, Carey etc.
Let’s break these points apart one by one. As will be seen from further comments, the argument primarily revolves around the feelpinion that because graphic novels contain pictures they are art and thus not literature. A similar argument could be made for movies being TV shows and thus we could abolish the Oscars… actually, that isn’t a bad idea. Anyway, I guess we’d better break the news to the literature professors that Shakespeare’s plays need to be taken off of the curriculum.
The argument then moves to the “I haven’t heard of it, so it can’t be good” assertion. Maybe because they realise this isn’t a great argument, they immediately distance themselves from it. But we start to see the “worthy“ argument being formed. I’ve argued many times that “worthy“ is a great subjective argument put forward by people who think they are worthy.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a literary argument if someone didn’t cite some authors they deem worthy. For those unfamiliar with Winton, Malouf, and Carey, they are award-winning Aussie authors who write “interior histories” and about “people rebuilding their lives after catastrophe” and “people who experience death and will never be the same again”. None of those statements could be applied to a graphic novel about someone who survived the Holocaust… No sir.
Their list of worthy authors is as subjective as their comments about graphic novels and Maus. I could similarly ask why the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy isn’t on the curriculum. It has a lot to say about society and has entered the lexicon, which is more than can be said for any of the other authors mentioned nor the graphic novels being shunned. I could say the same again about Superman or Spiderman, which have implanted ideals and phrases of morality into society, regardless of whether people have read those graphic novels or not.
*Steps on soapbox*
I personally welcome any work into the class that will encourage kids to read, think and learn. And to anyone who derides graphic novels, they are clearly saying they don’t or haven’t read any.
*Steps down from soapbox*
The commenter responded to criticism of their subjective opinion:
That may be so, but my bigger point was that literature = words.
This is art with captions.
Not disputing that it may be hugely popular or good (even great)…
but literature it ain’t.
I think the appropriate response to this is a head shake. The problem is the black and white definition of what literature is, whilst ignoring the fact that the graphic novels fit the definition of literature. Pointing out the flaws in these opinions is as easy as saying that graphic novels, with very few exceptions, are composed of words. They also use graphics, but that is often a collaboration between the writer and the artists they work with. Thus, by the definition of “literature = words”, graphic novels are eligible to be classified as literature.
But anything to keep only the “worthy” books in contention as literature. Can’t have that kids stuff being called literary!
So I named three contemporary Australian writers – call me subjective.
I am not knocking the (art) form…just that it (to ME) is not literature.
Your opinion is obviously as valid as mine……don’t get huffy.
The last point here is one that irks me more than irksome irkers on an international irking junket. Opinions are not equally valid. That sort of subjectivism nonsense eats away at reality and suggests we “just don’t know, man”.
The commenter made a subjective list, so I put together some examples that were superior in quantifiable ways (impact on society, entering the lexicon, referenced by society) to show that the subjective claims were more worthless than a $9 note because clearly not much knowledge or thought was put into the claims.
There is also the idea of literary critique and argument, rather than stating feelpinions. I’ve stated an opinion and argued it, offering reasoning. The examples I countered with aren’t necessarily the best choices, but I have justified and quantified my argument, something you learn in high school literature class. Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer, so clearly, someone in the literati agrees. And surely a Pulitzer prize winner is worthy of being on the curriculum. But of course all opinions are equally valid and “I’m entitled to my opinion”, dammit!
Surely the whole point of literature is that the reader has to imagine the scene described, the way words are spoken, the implications of what is said and much more. It’s all in the mind, which develops through reading.
A graphic novel presents the words and pictures with almost no imagining required. The number of words is hugely reduced to give way to often wasted space. In the example above there are 21 words, which if in normal lowercase type could be written in 10% of the space.
Sorry I’m not convinced graphic novels have any merit for senior students.
Shakespeare’s plays give stage directions and poetry is often deliberately obscure. So how do those examples fit this exclusionary definition of literature? I’m sure some artists would object to the idea that they aren’t conjuring a scene that develops in people’s minds. And is the idea to only allow readers to imagine a scene? Isn’t it about conveying ideas and emotions too? Isn’t this some great mental gymnastics to try to maintain Fort Literature from invasion by the Lesser Works?
The second paragraph is also exemplary of someone who hasn’t read many, if any, graphic novels. So, of course, this commenter wouldn’t be convinced that graphic novels are of any merit. First, they’d have to know something. But that doesn’t hold them back from commenting.
While I’m in the mood for alienating folks, let me also say that this is a good example of dumbing down literature.
Give the kids a picture with limited words and maybe they’ll get the idea.
Don’t kids these days have the attention span to read a novel?
The last graphic novel I read was 480 pages long and took many hours to read. It covered sexual identity, morality, the greater good argument, do evil deeds make us evil, etc, as issues. The last “literature” novel I read was about a woman who manipulated people to get what she wanted. It was ~300 pages long and took many hours to read.*
This argument is typical of people who have a snobbish attitude to something based upon pure ignorance of the topic. Similar statements have been made throughout time, decrying the dumbing down or declining standards of today’s youth. Oddly enough it has been proven false again and again only to be spouted once more.
There is a similar article on The Spectator – a home for uninformed opinion – which argues that if we let graphic novels into literature we have to let in everything. They must defend Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works. Maybe I’ll address that one at some stage when I’m feeling masochistic, but I’m going to leave it there. The maid has arrived.
*This comparison was true at the time of my original comments on The Conversation. I’ve read many graphic novels since, but no further literature novels.
Update: Nerdwriter made a particularly good video discussing Maus and how it is constructed as a story and piece of art. Every frame, every image, the whole page, has meaning. Kid’s stuff indeed.
Update: A great video essay about how you can’t judge art objectively.