As a follow-up to my post last week, I was going to jump in with a response piece. Now I know why you write, so here’s why I read. But Miriam totally beat me to the punch. How dare she?!
So it’s an about face and on to talk again about commercial versus literary fiction. Or really, commercial versus literary authors. On Saturday, I was going to attend an event called An Afternoon of Failure which was a bunch of authors getting together to discuss whether we have failed literature or if it has failed us. I figured it would be pretty self-congratulatory and very anger-inducing, but what can I say? Sometimes you need a little dose of pretension to get the blood boiling. Of course, as is only fitting for an event called “An Afternoon of Failure,” I sat down on my couch shortly before I was to leave and found myself waking up two hours later having completely missed the whole thing. Oops! Regardless, this sounded like a bunch of marginal authors hanging out together mourning the state of current literature and making some absurd argument about how books stopped being good after…(fill in the blank).
As someone who just plain loves reading, I often feel caught between the hyper-literary and ultra-commercial. It doesn’t really make sense to feel trapped since the lines are so superfluous, but both groups tend to take themselves too seriously. Whether it’s literary authors griping about how “good literature” never sells or commercial authors whining about how dull literary fiction is, it’s still snobbery. Over at The Morning News’s Tournament of Books this morning, Jennifer Weiner who often bemoans the ways commercial fiction is belittled said that Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD was “no fun.” I literally gasped in horror. She went on to say, “Egan’s book seemed more like an exercise in Let Me Show You How Clever I Am than anything as lowbrow as entertainment.” Which completely misses the point since the book is wildly entertaining AND fun AND funny. But more relevantly, it’s the kind of inter-author sniping that is so common and so mysterious.
I’m not going to lie: sometimes it’s super fun to see authors on the attack because people who write for a living tend to come up with THE best put-downs. I still don’t fully understand these sorts of literary rivalries, though. Is it the competitive nature of the industry putting people on edge? Is it petty jealousy? Is it a sincere belief in one’s superiority? Haters gonna hate. But I wonder why other people think that is.
To close, I’ll offer my favorite ever moment of inter-author bitchery. Mary McCarthy (sadly, no relation) went on Dick Cavett and suggested, regarding Lillian Hellman, that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” It’s too good. So maybe the better question is, how secure do you have to be in your own intelligence and wit to take an author on?