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.