Friday, March 26, 2010

Literary Elite vs. Literary Underclass

by Rachel

Robert McCrum’s article in the Guardian is probably one of the most interesting reads I’ve had in a while concerning literature with the ranking of class.  McCrum gives us a rundown of who he believes sits at the top and who’s at the bottom of the heap in literary society.

At the top of the British ladder, McCrum – with the help of a recent Ian Rankin interview, places the poets. “To be a poet,” he says, “is to be a member of an elite.”  Next come the playwrights. Third down the line are the literary novelists, which McCrum points out are “rather middle-class types who spring from bourgeois society in all its complexity.” Crime authors, thriller writers and spy novelists are then all grouped together, followed by – clumsily put – the literary underclass: the writers of celebrity biographies. The writers of children’s books are given a slight mention at the end – some are on the “right side of the tracks”, and others are too rich and famous to care.

Do you think authors of different genres earn more praise or respect than others because of their “class”? And, while the article gave insight on literary class in Britain, do you think there’s a cultural difference when it comes to literary rankings?


  1. This seems pretty much like a no-brainer; you don't have to look any farther than the romance genre to find authors who are unfairly maligned for the work almost as much as readers are for reading it.

    Science/speculative fiction writers fare little better. Margaret Atwood and Audrey Niffenegger both come to mind as authors whose work has been very clearly set "above" the SF genre despite the clearly SFnal aspects of it.

    Both of these genres, I note, aren't even on the radar in this article.

  2. Not to mention children's book authors barely being on the radar--to me they are huge stars in the literary universe.

  3. There is a willful disdain for commercial fiction among some fans of literary fiction (not this one). In my creative writing program the professors insisted we read literary fiction to the exclusivity of all else except the classics. The faculty who were most ardent in this were most often the unpublished professors, many of whom seemed to hold the majority of American readers in disdain for not reading the books they thought they should.

    Apparently a lack of readers made these obscure books all the better, just as a lack of viewers makes a film all the more likely to win an Academy Award. The thing that really made these great minds mad was when a book was both popular and good. Harry Potter griped them because it made tons of money and was read by everyone. Apparently those are two qualities a “good” book should never possess.

    Book snobs have been around forever. They write books intended to be unpopular, griping stuff about their unresolved issues with their parents or spouses, and then they resent the public when the public reacts accordingly.

    I am always flabbergasted by unpublished literary writers who refuse to even consider reading a book by Stephen King. Makes sense to me. You’re trying to publish your novel, so it’s best to ignore, or better yet, do the exact opposite of the world’s bestselling novelist.

    After all, the common masses are uneducated louts and would never respond to a true work of art like the manuscripts lingering in countless drawers of bitter professors, unpublished and unread like great art should be.

  4. yes i think there is definitely a class system but only to literary people of course! i think it goes something like poets and playwrights, literary novelists, all genre, children/ya (literary and then genre) and ghostwriters. not saying i agree with it especially as i write ya but that's how it seems to me.

  5. I have my own matrix: sells well, doesn't sell, required in school, not required in school. Everything else is just ego.

  6. Great comment, Anon 6:32. This scale seems to be in reverse order of financial viability. Any publishing list that puts J.K. Rowling at the bottom is a little silly.

    I do think it's amazing that romance and women's fiction writers don't even get a mention--so far below the radar we don't exist, I guess.

  7. I resent that children's literature is barely mentioned, but maybe because it has it's own rank system. Some of the best literature in the world is written for children.

  8. I suppose I am not entirely surprised this class system, in which the British society is so entrenched, creeps into book-talk, but it still stirs up all manner of heated thoughts.

    (Can he be more snarky: "USA, which, as we are always being told, is a classless society"? Yes we know you've read Howard Zinn. )

    It seems to this whole games, as he calls it, is unnecessary and condescending, especially in that tone of the piece.

    So what class does a person belong, when he thinks it's sport to display his prejudices?

  9. @ Angela,

    I don't know about Niffenegger, but Atwood has always been adamant that her work is 'literary fiction', and not SF. It's generally located in the general fiction or literature section of the bookstore. She did that precisely to remove her work from the SF stigma.

  10. It all counts as entertainment doesn't it? That's what motivated Shakespeare.

  11. I think many people have different ladders. I've always admired the mainstream authors who have the courage to claim they are the one True Non Genre, and even keep resolving to read The Brothers Karamazov and discover the resolution to the problem of evil and the existence of God. Lots of science fiction writers would make a similar claim, putting themselves at the top of the ladder - though I have to admit much of the stuff I love reading has no major insights into the human condition that I can find. Mystery writers and romance writers usually confine themselves to claiming the best books in their respective category deserve a place in mainstream literature, which I think is kind of wimpy. After all, sex and death are the ultimate brackets of our lives, aren't they?

  12. This makes me happy, because I find the existence of writers who give a shit what other people think quite affirming.

  13. I have to say, as a YA author (and former historical romance author), I think these class lines are obvious at any large gathering of publishers/writers. They are almost always completely based on assumption (ie. children's writers must dumb down their work -- THE GIVER? dumbed down? I don't think so). Anything that is popular means that it appeals to a large audience, ie. panders. Sigh. I try very hard not to judge a book by its genre, but by the ideas and thoughts and emotions that it rouses in me as I read it. I long for the day when every critic does the same (I think the majority of readers are already there :-)


  14. How can a format (because that's all poetry is, a format) be "elite"? That's like saying a memorandum is more professional than a business letter without considering the relative value of the content in each.

    I certainly think some works of art are better than others, but elevating formats and genres is the lazy way out. It seems like primate social signaling masquerading as taste. Poets makes the right sounds and gestures, and get promoted to the head of the monkey troop.

  15. Some of my favorite authors are either at the bottom of this pile, or barely mentioned. (I agree, Romance and Children's authors are not given the respect that some of them deserve) But then I don't judge by genre. I judge writing.

    The reality is that this is not the way 'elite' in this case is defined. Judging by genre is the way it's been for as long as I can remember. I am waiting for the day that is no longer the case. But I won't hold my breath.

  16. Obviously, there is an inverse relationship between the quality of writing and number of books sold. That's why the greatest modern writer is Knut Nims.

  17. Oh, wow, it is so generous of McCrum to let us know what we are supposed to value, since we can't figure it out for ourselves. Next, maybe he will put the races of mankind in order of value for us. Oh, and weather. I'd hate to be reading something set in a warm climate when everyone but me knows that icy settings are the real quality test of writing.

  18. Going with nelsonleith's assessment, I guess I'm the head of the monkey and its tail, having written both a book of poems and working on a middle-grade novel!!!

    I was just talking to someone yesterday about this very issue, how differently poets are seen (and revered) in Europe as opposed to America, even in the publishing world. Unless you're a well-known poet in America, it's almost impossible to even get your book of poems read, let alone published. "There's no money in poetry!" is what I've been told. "No one reads poetry." another said. Well, poetry is alive and well in places like France, Britain, and Spain, so I'm actually considering translating my poems into French!!!

    A pity really because every time I do an "open mike" poetry reading somewhere, people come up to me afterwards and ask where they can buy my book of poems! No, I haven't considered self-publishing.....not yet.

  19. "Well, poetry is alive and well in places like ... Britain"

    Hmmmm. There are small presses and government arts grants, but a poet can expect three figure sales and three figure advances. So 'alive', yes, 'well', not really.

    What's being discussed here is not some broader social status, it's how people are treated at literary festivals like Hay on Wye. Poets always get treated well compared with, say, thriller writers. It may be because Hay's in Wales and they count as druids.

    But poets planning to emigrate to the UK because that's where the streets are paved with gold may be in for a shock.

  20. Anon: How does "....translating my poems into French." become emigrating to the UK or that the streets are paved with gold??? The UK is smaller than the state of Oregon and yet, in the States you can't even expect a 3 figure deal for your poems. Instead, the unknown poet has to spend money entering contest after contest (each with an entry fee) with the hopes that a university press will publish a poem or two or hitting the jackpot with a chapbook!


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