Entry 8: The tired, stupid, continuous and pernicious view of books.

Please stop it. Just stop it. Stop the segregation of books into classes, into "highbrow" "middlebrow" and "pop fiction." Stop the debates of whether a book is art, genre or pulp. Stop having an exalted status of what a book should be. With an 800 page novel, stop nitpicking cliches in a handful of sentences. Stop putting your subjective belief on what literature should be into a rule everyone should follow. Just stop it.

I read Evegenia Peretz Vanity Fair piece on the backlash to Donna Tartt's bestselling and Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch. I got steamed. All the greatest hits of this stupid fight are here: the gatekeepers at the august literary magazines and journals whining about how the book isn't good because it's not real life; the suggestion by their own critics about their dubious integrity in that they may be really envying such success; the divide between the hoi polloi and the literary snobs. No matter how sophisticated and smart this community or any community professes itself to be, one thing is true of all people and all groups: at heart, they can be as childish, dumb, and savage as children. Just because they use five dollar words and have THOUGHT DEEPLY ABOUT THE BOOK does not ameliorate this condition. (Full disclosure: It's a fucking great book.)

And their adulation of "literary novels" is that they eschew genre and are true to life. Realistic. One critic is quoted as not wanting a novel to be stage-managed. I got news for you, critic: every novel, every piece of art is stage-managed, contrived, manufactured, created to elicit emotions in the reader through things that might happen in a life, and things that are very improbable in a life. The thing about wanting a book to be true to life was familiar: it reminded me of my high school self, when I had the same thought. I was an arrogant ass in high school (on this subject, and okay, maybe a little generally). I remember in drama class holding up a copy of The Thorn Birds and wishing that instead of the movie we got, with Richard Chamberlain, they had just filmed the entire book, as it happened. Later, when I got wiser, I found out this is not a good idea for adaptations.

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But the critic's opinion sounds the same note of being juvenile with an idealism better suited to high school boys who are so into Camus, man, and life sucks. There are tons of books that depict real life in all its complexity and emotion, and have genre elements, genre endings. Just last week I was reading Sadie Jones Fallout, about the theatre scene in London in the 1970s. Her young people are on the verge of creative ambition and love affairs, and they're confused. We get a lot of this, depicted honestly and with sympathetic, sensitive grace, but the book also has a cliched ending you've seen a billion times in romantic comedies. Does it lessen the book? No, the prose is still gorgeous and there are lessons to be learned, if one looks for them, about how to be in a relationship, how to honor your friends, and stuff about the entertainment scene.

The mistake with judging a book is judging the whole book based on some parts, when other parts are good and real. Taking a part for the whole. This is what Francine Prose does in her review of The Goldfinch. She focuses on a handful of sentences with cliched expressions in them. The greater story doesn't interest her. Tartt's dazzling passages aren't remarked on. Neither is the true to life depiction of a certain kind of boys's friendship, or the depiction of grief, or the rollicking good time one has reading it, and its naked, honest emotionalism and specific world. To be a critic, a lot of people think, is to focus on the negative instead of the positive. That's wrong. The positive always has greater value than the flaws. To look for the flaws is analogous to being a pessimist and not see the joys of life.

Books are the life's blood; that's why they should be cherished, not held up to an impossible ideal that allows only few members. It's not that important that a book be perfect, or that every one should be high art. There's a place for airport thrillers, for suspense novels, mysteries, romantic comedies, any other genre. That place is called pleasure. Book's are the life's blood because it's easy for them to give pleasure. Even with a Jeffrey Deaver or Richard North Patterson book, it's easy to find pleasure, if not in the prose, then in the story, in what happens next(I'm using examples of authors I've never read to illustrate that they surely must have good points and give pleasure to their fans).

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And critics aren't scientists. They're not infallible. The Great Gatsby, as the article points out, was reviewed badly when it came out. Critics are just as subjective and biased as anyone of us doing anything. It looks like James Wood has a very specific standard of what a novel should be—he wrote a nonfiction book with that kind of title. His review of Tartt's book was one of the stupidest I've read. He actually told Tartt how she should have written her novel, as if he was the one writing it. That is the stereotype of the critic as the frustrated novelist. He's not the priest of literature; neither is Prose. It's time they admit their own biases, and as biases, and get off their high horses. (Oh, no, a cliche!) Because for all their hatred of genre, of cliches, the endless war about what literature is a big cliches of its own. Aren't they supposed to hate those?

So a Fuck You to snobbish debates about what literature is.