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Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Popular, esteemed, and accomplished...

I received two Terry Pratchett books at Christmas, one by him (Snuff) and one about him. And I asked, well hinted heavily, for the second one. Anyone who knows me will tell you ‘I don’t read autobiographies.’ So why, you may ask, did I want this book. Well I’d unashamedly say that the Discworld books are my favourite series, the only other series coming close would be the original Douglas Adams ‘Hitchhiker's Guide’ books.
Because of this I’ve developer at least a passing interest in the people who wrote these books, again something not particularly in my nature. Most times I would read a book without any interest in the author, like I would watch a film without any interest in the scriptwriters, director, or actors. But some people do stand out. I could only name a handful of actors, and I am only interested in about the same amount of authors.

A critic may say ‘you are interested in Pratchett because he is popular,’ and that may very well be true. But critics seem to all too often, and ready, to attribute popularity with some distain somehow. And I would argue that popularity in and of itself isn’t what made an author interesting to me, no that would be their work...
I wouldn’t dream of knocking J.K. Rowling’s work and she is definitely a very popular author, but that doesn’t make me personally interested in her books or in her as an author. I mean no disrespect, and it’s understandable because I was never in her target readership group. So what makes Pratchett, or Adams different for me?

To be honest it’s a hard question to answer. I like the work of other authors, in the same way I like the work of some actors or directors, but I have no interest in any of them as people.
I think this is where the ‘esteemed’ factor comes in, at least for me. I personally hold the work of some authors in higher esteem than most. Unlike professional critics I get to be entirely subjective in this choice, and I don’t need to justify anything past the fact that ‘I like it’ and the same holds true for all those ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Twilight’ fans out there. We do not have any ‘thought police’ (at least not yet) and I personally think some people should remember that a bit more.

Critics; and a certain portion of readers, the portion that often introduce themselves as ‘well-read;’ will talk about ‘accomplished’ writers, then reel of a list of ‘literary’ authors that most readers haven’t heard of. If they like these works, then fair enough. Who am I to nay-say? But if it’s for intellectual snobbery then why bother. The average Twilight fan will never read Tolstoy, and that is a snub neither at the Twilight fan nor at Tolstoy.
Another one of my all-time favourite books, and another one that got me interested in the author, was ‘Alice’s adventures in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll. Like most people I was introduced to this as a child and the images have stayed with me a lifetime... Now if that isn’t the mark of a ‘truly’ good book I don’t know what is.

I understand that people can attribute words like ‘esteemed; and ‘accomplished’ to the story constructs, construed ideas, and ‘perceived’ technical quality of the writing, which can lead to a leaning towards the ‘high brow’ road. But I think there are always two ways of looking at this. Unfortunately most critics may go for the ‘high road’ approach, whilst vastly significant portions of the potential readership are taking the ‘low road.’ So am I saying that most readers are low-brow? I’m sure most readers don’t think of themselves as particularly ‘low-brow.’ All I’m saying is that a lot of books which have often been described as ‘low-brow’ are very popular; in terms of sales, hence readership figures; while those lauded and accomplished ‘literary’ works are only ever bought by a much reduced audience.
Some of these ‘accomplished’ and ‘esteemed’ authors were never popular. Some were not popular in their own life and have become so posthumously over time.
What I am saying is that there are no writes and wrongs when saying what people like. People like what they like, and conversely dislike what they dislike.
I do however get a bit irked when the intellectual snobbery factor comes into play. It can both discriminate and put large portions of potential readers off certain books, simply because they are seen as ‘arty’ or ‘literary.’ I have truly enjoyed some ‘literary’ books, I have also truly enjoyed some throw-away paperback pulp... it doesn’t make me a bad person...

I know I’m not going to come up with any earth-shattering revelations here, or even change anyone’s perceptions, but I’ve read a lot of the same old types of reviews over the Christmas break, full of the same old biases, and just wanted to have a little vent.

I’d be interested in any of your views on this, and thanks for reading.

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