A Moment of Jen
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Tuesday, March 06, 2007
posted by Jen at 3/06/2007 09:23:00 PM

Every once in a while, I like to surf over to the National Book Critics Circle’s website, so I can find out what the smart folks are talking about (hopeful, as ever, that they won't be using the big words that confuse me).

Today’s visit did not disappoint. On Thursday, the Circle is sponsoring a panel discussion on genre fiction (i.e., thrillers, romances, mysteries and other books that typically exist outside of the regard of the critical establishment). Among the topics for discussion: “Why do critics review genre fiction so condescendingly? Why does genre fiction get so little critical attention?”

One woman – one brave voice in the wilderness – stepped up with this answer:

"Because genre fiction is inferior; because it's not worth wasting our time on as a national organization of critics….” Deirdra McAfee writes. She goes on: “I am unhappy to note that this panel, like last year's, lets the pop press and the less-educated basic readers dictate our concerns as critics…We should be talking about how to encourage what's good to be better, and what's better to be great, not how to open the gates more fully to the annual flood of mediocrity for readers who, if we could help them see the difference, would read better books, not worse ones.”

At first I was all like, whoa, I haven’t seen this kind of snobbery since Homer Simpson tried to shop at Costington’s.

Then I thought, Deidra McAfee must be some great shakes if she’s laying the smack down this hard.

A visit to Ms. McAfee’s website did not disappoint. No novels yet – hey, novels are hard – but she’s been “widely published in print and online.” Also, she describes one of her short stories as being “a fiction on a fiction, the brushy vital verge between fact and dream.” I’m not even touching that. I will just leave you to consider it on your own. Brushy…vital…verge. If you say it three times while looking in a mirror, will Harold Bloom show up?

And thing it hit me (after I quit snickering, and looking over my shoulder for Harold Bloom)…. OMG, she’s right!

I mean, isn’t it book critics’ job to act like the combination town scold/church lady, bravely holding their collective nose at the degraded, down-market tastes of the day?

Doesn’t it mean that the Apocalypse is coming if their gaze wavers for even an instant from the MFA-holding, quarterly-publishing, Park-Slope-dwelling literary wonders of the moment to discuss the books that the “less-educated basic readers” actually read, discuss and enjoy?

It is their job to act in loco parentis, to pry the Potter and Picoult out of our hands and gently but firmly turn our gaze toward more salubrious works of literature.

It is their task to force us, for our own good, to trade our mere plot-driven entertainments for the latest New York Times-approved blood-drenched boy-soldier memoir (except I think I just bought that at Starbucks, along with my half-caf with-whip decaf cinnamon latte. Oops).

“Worthwhile literary fiction is hard enough to find,” McAfee complains, and I can’t disagree. How would I know about Finn, the much-celebrated literary debut by Jon Clinch, if I hadn’t read all about it in The New York Times or Newsweek or USA Today or Harper’s or the Atlantic, or Elle, or Entertainment Weekly, or the Denver Post or the Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times or the Cleveland Plain-Dealer or the Christian Science Monitor or the Chicago Tribune or the San Francisco Chronicle or the Hartford Courant? How, I ask you? How?

I urge the critics to rise up in righteous indignation and cancel this panel immediately if not sooner. Then, I urge them to institute a system of public shaming, whereby the “less educated basic readers” will wear dark-red letters to identify their secret shame. “M” for “mystery lover,” “T” for “thriller addict,” “R” for “romance fan” (with a special car decal for anyone who’s read those Harlequin/NASCAR crosscovers), and maybe a Cosmo with a slash through it for chick-lit aficionados.

Walter Mosley, a writer who moves with grace and with ease from literary to genre to speculative fiction to porn and back again, is supposed to be on the panel. I expect he’ll have some interesting things to say

In other news, thanks to everyone who offered to send, steal, or otherwise provide me with Thin Mints. In the wake of my ER visit/cookie crisis, my husband, no fool he, bought me a box, so it’s all good here. (I think the funniest thing that resulted from that post was my Mom called to complain that she couldn't read the post on MySpace, and I had to explain it's because she's...not my friend. Not ever something you want to say to your mother).
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