Sunday Salon: In Praise of Elitism (sort of)

A few weeks ago, I was talking with someone about books and authors, and she remarked that someone who preferred established, well-known authors to first-time authors was being “elitist.” As it was an off-hand remark, I didn’t pursue it, but I haven’t been able to get the comment out of my head; thus, the one-liner becomes perfect blog fodder.

The thing that took me aback about this comment is that I tend to prefer established authors to unknowns, so by her lights I am being elitist. But of course I don’t think of myself that way. I’m merely being choosy, investing my limited reading time in known quantities. I’ll take risks and try new authors now and then, but usually only after someone with taste that I trust tries first. (As Eva recently noted, other readers are my canaries in the coal mine.) And I’ll confess to some degree of snobbishness about certain kinds of titles: cozy mysteries involving knitting, baking, or other domestic hobbies; just about any novel in which an author or other historical figure solves crimes (unless said person was actually a detective); literary/monster mash-ups; YA paranormal or dystopian romance series; romance that isn’t by Georgette Heyer; all titles using the formula Becoming [Insert Name of Famous Person Here]. Does my suspicion of these kinds of books make me elitist? If so, is that such a bad thing?

We all make choices about what we read. Making choices requires standards. And depending on what they are, those standards could easily lead to accusations of elitism. But elitism is subjective. My disinterest in knitting mysteries could lead someone to call me elitist. I could then turn around and apply the label to someone who won’t read Stephen King. Some would consider anyone who ever chooses reading over television to be elitist. It’s all relative. But if being choosy constitutes elitism, I’m all for that. I’d rather be choosy than not.

For most, people, however, elitism is an attitude. It doesn’t just involve being choosy; it involves looking down on others who make different, less “refined” choices. By this definition, I’d only be elitist if I devalued a person who reads knitting mysteries. I’d like to say I’ve never applied my snobbishness about certain titles to readers of those titles, but I can’t. I can say that I’m not proud of such snobbishness. I’ve also sometimes assumed with no good evidence that people who are taking in a steady diet of Proust and Nabokov and Woolf look down on my sometimes pedestrian reading choices. Maybe they have, but I don’t know that. (And if they have, why should I care?)

This whole idea of literary elitism made news in bookish circles this week when two prominent awards came under fire—one for being too elitist, the other for not being elitist enough. Because of a perception that the Booker Prize “now prioritises a notion of ‘readability’ over artistic achievement,” a group of literary experts are establishing The Literature Prize to honor ambitious and high-quality literature published in English in the UK. (For more on this development, see the discussions at Tales from the Reading Room and Savidge Reads.) On the flip side, the announcement of the National Book Awards finalist list, from which likely contenders such as Ann Patchett and Jeffrey Eugenides were absent, led Laura Miller at Salon to complain that the NBA tends to favor books written in a style that put off a lot of readers. For what it’s worth, I’ve generally preferred Booker winners to NBA winners because the Booker tends to highlight good reads that are also high-quality and even adventurous in style and scope. Neither list is perfect, though, but how could it be? Every reader has different standards, and my perfect list could be your populist crap and another reader’s turgid nonsense.

People read for all sorts of reasons. Some read for escape, some for intellectual stimulation, some for emotional gratification, some for all these reasons. Even the same reader can choose different books for different reasons. That lover of Proust may also love Harlequin romances or pulp thrillers from time to time. Just about any reader will look like an elitist to someone and be looked down upon by another. What’s important is not that we make the most “elitist” or the most “democratic” choices, but that we each find the books that offer what we’re looking for and read those without worrying about how others label our choices.

In Other News: Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon is coming up this Saturday, October 22. I’m planning to participate, but I’m not looking to read for the whole 24 hours. I’ll read for as long as it’s fun. As usual, I’ll be donating 10 cents for each page read to charity. This year, I’m reading for the Haiti Micah Project, an organization that provides food, health care, and education to impoverished children in Haiti. A group from my church recently visited Haiti through this project, so the need there is very much on my mind.

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28 Responses to Sunday Salon: In Praise of Elitism (sort of)

  1. Harriet says:

    I am with you here — rarely read new authors, prefer the tried and true — and I’m sure there are people who would call me elitist. But your remarks are very much to the point, as always.

  2. gaskella says:

    I just looked at my list of books I’ve read this year.There’s a sprinkling of debut novels from new authors amongst all the established ones, but I would say that a lot of the authors in my list are ‘new to me’ be they debut or established – I prefer to think of it that way. When I do read the newbies though, I’m perfectly happy to audition them for you!

    On the elitism side – being choosy is good and that’s not the same thing. I welcome the new prize, but it got off to a poor start with the press in the way it was portrayed.

    • Teresa says:

      I love reading “new to me” authors, and I will sometimes read books I’m heard nothing about by authors I’ve heard praised. That feels like less of a risk. And you’re definitely among my reliable auditioners!

      I agree about the new prize. I’m especially interested in how putting US books in the mix will cause things to shake out. Not many prizes include US and UK books. (I can only think of the Orange, the IMPAC, and the National Book Critics Circle.)

  3. Tony says:

    There’s elitism, and there’s reading any old (new) rubbish that publishers think you should be reading now…

    …I think I’ll stick with elitism ;)

  4. Lisa says:

    Another wonderfully though-provoking Salon post. I’m comfortable at this point in my life reading what I want to read, but I’ve rarely had anyone to talk about books with. I joined a couple of real-life book groups, but I’m a more voracious reader than most of the members and I read different kinds of books, which sometimes draws comments that, while kindly meant, make me uncomfortable – do I sound like an elitist or a book snob? I do have the kinds of personal prejudices that you mention, but I’m happy enough to see people reading without worrying too much about what they’re are reading – that’s probably my greatest snobbism, now that I think about it: people who don’t read at all. On the other hand, blogging feels like the freedom to talk about whatever I’m reading – if it’s Heyer or a mystery or the occasional re-read of a childhood favorite – knowing both that someone out there is reading the same thing, and someone else thinks it’s a waste of time and brain space – and that’s fine with me.

    • Teresa says:

      You’re absolutely right that one of the nice things about blogging is that we can just about always find someone who’s reading what we’re reading–or who would like to. That makes it easy enough to ignore those who would judge.

  5. cbjames says:

    I consider myself an elitist who enjoys reading trash. I do seek out and read high-brow stuff, sometimes stuff even high-brow readers find high-brow. But I also enjoy out right trash reading on a regular basis. So I’m currently reading Lawrence Sterne’s classic novel Tristram Shandy and Joe McGinnis book on Sarah Palin while I’m waiting for Haruki Murakami’s new novel to come out next week.

    Maybe that just make me something of a mess.

  6. Frances says:

    “For these reasons, the National Book Award in fiction, more than any other American literary prize, illustrates the ever-broadening cultural gap between the literary community and the reading public. The former believes that everyone reads as much as they do and that they still have the authority to shape readers’ tastes, while the latter increasingly suspects that it’s being served the literary equivalent of spinach. Like the Newbery Medal for children’s literature, awarded by librarians, the NBA has come to indicate a book that somebody else thinks you ought to read, whether you like it or not.” (Laura Miller)

    As a spinach lover, I am concerned about this “ever-broadeneing cultural gap” not just for the reasons discussed in the Miller piece but because of the tendency sometimes apparent in the literary community to dumb things down a bit to appeal to the reading public, to assign it a value perhaps out of keeping with their own standards. Tournament of Books thing. Either or proposition so limiting. As all here suggest, I frequently consume ice cream right after that spinach salad.

    • Teresa says:

      The either/or proposition bugs me too, especially when people try to pigeonhole others according to their preferences, which may in fact just be preferences of the moment.

  7. Vasilly says:

    I’m a huge re-reader so I rather re-read old favorites over new books by new authors. I can’t say that it’s because of elitism but because I love rereading. I don’t read romance whether it’s by Heyer or not, rarely read westerns, and don’t care for mysteries period, but I refuse to judge others for their preferences. I don’t care. There’s too many people who don’t or can’t read for me to care about what books those who read pick up.

    As nice as awards are, I rarely pick up a book because it’s been nominated for one.

    This topic is pretty similar to the one that Trish at Eclectic-Eccentric wrote about today.

    • Teresa says:

      Such a good point. It’s great to see people reading at all, even if they’re reading something different from what I like. Why should it bother me, as long as the kinds of books I do like are still available?

      I do enjoy following awards lists and will often at least look into the nominees, but I’m under no illusions that there are the best books of the year.

  8. litlove says:

    This is a great take on the latest debate, Teresa and I agree with you wholeheartedly. Elitist and snob are among my most detested words in the English language. They mean nothing other than that you are ‘different’, that you don’t always follow the ‘masses’ or the lowest common denominator. It’s the cry that unusual children have always had to ward off in the playground. We have to fight so hard in our societies to allow people to do anything that isn’t fully established within the cultural gaze as okay. I don’t think that’s right at all. Be your own person, make your own choices, live and let live – that would be my motto.

    • Teresa says:

      Exactly! As much as I dislike actual snobbery, I find that a lot of the time people use the word to put down people whose preferences don’t match those of the masses.

  9. Jenny says:

    I feel like the snobbery charge very often gets leveled by people whose feelings are hurt that other people think the kind of books they read are dumb/pretentious/whatever. Everyone knows de gustibus non est disputandum, but they want to dispute tastes so they bring up this snobbery charge.

    That came out incredibly critical of snobbery-accusation-levelers so I will just add that some people — fans of all genres! — are snobby about books they don’t enjoy. Like they somehow make a virtue of the fact that they don’t like X kind of book or Y kind of book. That’s just people being a jerk, and is not the same thing as liking some things and not liking other things WHICH IS WHAT EVERYONE DOES.

    …I was arguing about this pretty heatedly today. What a timely post for me this was.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ll admit to being snobby about books I don’t enjoy, but I do try to recognize it and not be a jerk about it—easier said than done sometimes. What I hate is when people assume snobbery or lack of sophistication based on what people like.

  10. anokatony says:

    I continue to read authors I like but am always open to read new authors I’m not familiar with one time. That is one of the balances I try to maintain, familiar vs unfamiliar, male vs female, just published vs older. Once in awhile I’ll give an author a second chance if I didn’t like the book I read first.
    Somehow I don’t think it is elitest to try to read the best avialable.

    • Teresa says:

      I like to try and keep those kinds of balances too, but more and more I avoid being the “guinea pig” for a new author. I’d rather wait and see what others think first.

  11. “But if being choosy constitutes elitism, I’m all for that. I’d rather be choosy than not.”

    I totally agree with this. I’d rather pick great things to read than force myself through things that are just average.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve read so much that’s just average out of a misguided desire to be open-minded. Sometimes average is OK, I guess, but I’m happier with my reading when I’m choosy.

  12. Jeanne says:

    The reason I started a blog was to talk to people who could like “great books” without feeling obliged to specialize and people who could like poetry but didn’t know it because they’d been made to hate it in school and people who didn’t go around, as other Jenny says, trying to make some kind of virtue out of not liking any book. This is not to say that I’m not interested in differentiating high from middle and low culture, but to say that I think enough of us do that already.

  13. rebeccareid says:

    Interesting discussion. I think I’ve heard it before in one way or another. Personally, I want my classics because I’ve found those are books I’ll like. But that doesn’t mean I don’t also love some modern writers (Toni Morrison, anyone). It’s all about choice. Readers make a choice every time they pick up a book. There are too many books to read them all.

    • Teresa says:

      Exactly, and we all have our particular ways of choosing. Choosing one book means not choosing something else, at least not at that moment perhaps not ever.

  14. sakura says:

    I’m partial to new authors but that doesn’t mean I’m not choosy. And I think readers have to be choosy just because there are so many titles out there and you can’t possibly read them all (I know, it’s terrible). In some ways I do think I am affected by labels given by publishers for marketing reasons and that does annoy me when I reflect on why I am choosing certain books.

    • Teresa says:

      I didn’t mean to imply that preferring new authors means not being choosy. Even if you were to stick entirely to new authors (which I know you don’t), you’d still have to be choosy from among those. I think some choices do elicit more negative judgment from other readers, which is just silly.

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