Confessions of a Downmarket Writer Or The Death of Literary Snobbery (Please)

 

E-readers were the biggest selling Christmas gift in the United Kingdom in 2011, just like they were in the United States in 2010, and now our British cousins are worried. Not that digital will overtake print—that’s so American, so focused on the shop trade. No, our British cousins are worried that people will stop buying “good” books.

The Guardian alone had two articles (that I saw) in January and February about the “downmarket trend” in e-books. Apparently, when no one is watching, the Brits prefer—gasp! horrors!—genre fiction.

That’s right. You read this correctly. The Brits download novels from Mills & Boon (romance novels, for the non-anglophile), and crime novels and, oh horror upon horrors, Christian fiction.

An article by a literary snob whom I’ve never heard of named Antonia Senior (really? Is that her name? Really?) titled “Ebook sales are driven by downmarket genre fiction” (The Guardian, February 5, 2012) worries that such downmarket fare will lead to the demise of the publishing industry. People will stop reading to impress and will start reading for pleasure.

How awful. The entire reading-to-impress industry, I mean, literary fiction, is doomed. At least according to Ms. Senior. She cites a study by Publisher ‘s Weekly and Bowker that show the first thing people buy when they get their ereader is—brace yourselves—literary fiction.

Then she clarifies: “But this figure includes classics. Most new Kindle owners buy an avalanche of classics in their initial excitement.”

Honestly, I can’t see why that’s a problem. I noticed the same trend here over Christmas when the Kindle free bestseller list was dominated by such terrifyingly bad writers as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Jane Austen. (Wait! Two of them are British! They must be upmarket.)

But Ms. Senior dismisses this trend with a single question. “Are they read?” she asks. Apparently, she wants us to believe that new Kindle readers buy classics to impress and then go on to buy things they’ll actually read.

And what will they actually read? The next item in the Publisher’s Weekly list, clocking in at 19% is science fiction. Oh, dear. Oh, no. The world as we know it is coming to an end. And yes, I typed that cliché. Which shows what a downmarket writer I am.

She continues with her little snobbish analysis with this lovely observation: “The reading public in private is lazy and smutty . . . . Publishers say that there is little real change going on, just substitution: those who buy genre books start buying digitally instead. I’m not so sure it’s wise to underestimate the boundless idiocy of the unobserved reading public.”

I shook my head as I read the entire article, thinking What’s with this woman? Then, as I searched for the link for a friend who wanted to see such snobbishness on view, I found a second article by someone named Robert McCrum (Okay. Now I’m convinced these names are made up. Maybe by Dickens himself).

In “It doesn’t matter if it’s downmarket or digital—it all helps sell books,” (The Guardian, January 2, 2012), he writes, “Literature and snobbery are intertwined like the holly and the ivy . . . . Books are vehicles of aspiration and self-promotion (who hasn’t rearranged their coffee table before a dinner party?)”

To answer his question, um, that would be me. With one caveat. I move things off all table-like surfaces so that people have places to set down their plates. Of course, that could be because I’m downmarket. I don’t use fine china and silver at my dinner parties. My money is tied up in books, not impressive silverware collections.

Yes, I’m making fun of our British cousins here, but they’re just admitting something I’ve been complaining about for years. Literary snobbery. Unlike Mr. McCrum and Ms. Senior, I find literary snobbery abhorrent. I read what I read when I read it and where I want to. Yeah, I’ve been embarrassed by the occasional book cover—not because I’m reading genre fiction, but because the cover is startlingly bad. (My eyes still haven’t recovered from those Fabio covers of the 1990s.)

I think literary snobbery is harmful to reading and to readers. While I miss getting on a plane and seeing what my fellow flyers read, I don’t miss the sideways comment from a superior friend—”You really read that stuff?”—or, worse, the snide remark by a bookseller—”So, you’re the kind of person who reads that crap.” (And yes, a bookseller actually said that to me. I never darkened his doorstep again.)

What these literary snobs don’t seem to understand is how classics get made. Classics become classics when enough readers read them, and remember them long enough to pass them on to friends, family, and the next generation. Who will our children’s children read one hundred years from now? I’d bet on J.K. Rowling. She sold enough books that readers will remember her a decade from now, and when those readers have children, those children will read Harry Potter books. They’re timeless and they’re fun.

You know, like Dickens, that horrible downmarket writer whose work sold better than anyone else’s in the 19th century. Back when he was writing, the literary snobs considered him downmarket. Just like they considered Jane Austen downmarket. And Mark Twain, well, he was just a humor writer. Very downmarket as well.

Too bad their books are forgotten. Too bad no one reads them any more. Too bad they’re not literary fiction.

Oh, wait! They are! At least, according to our snobby friend, Ms. Senior. Poor woman. What she’s really lamenting is the loss of opportunity to sneer at her inferiors. First music went digital, so you couldn’t peruse someone’s record collection to see how terrible their taste in music was. Now paper books are vanishing, so you won’t know if the person in the seat next to you on the plane is a troll or thinking human.

The next thing you know, people will stop using real silver at dinner parties.

What is the world coming to?

Oh, heck. I think I’ll find my e-reader and sink into a lovely volume of . . . um . . . something much more impressive than science fiction. If only I can figure out what that is.

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