The Circles of Literary Hell

"But, you don't actually think that's good, do you?"

It was usually Harry Potter they were asking about. It's the kind of question you get asked when you're a writer, and the kind of question you get asked even more when you're a literature professor.

I always watched to see if they were surprised or disappointed when I said yes, not only did I like the Harry Potter books (and I do - I usually reread the series once a year), but that I also thought they were good. I've taught the books at two different universities. 

(We all understand that there is a difference between liking a book and thinking it is good, right? And that we can acknowledge a book is good without liking it, and that just because we don't like it doesn't mean it's not good? We get all that, right? Excellent.)

Though now that I'm not teaching, the question takes on an expectation of professional jealousy. Like, what do I think about E.L. James, or Stephenie Meyer, and doesn't it bother me that they sell all those copies when "good" writers don't?

I use the scare quotes for a reason.

You may have noticed that Dan Brown has a new book out, and so the literati are yet again having convulsions over the fact that he is going to sell eleventy million copies, and make approximately a bazillion dollars, and that this is clearly horrid, because he can't actually write, and really, wouldn't it be better if someone actually good made those sales and that money.

Look, Dan Brown is not my kind of writer. I don't like his prose on the sentence-level (and sentence-level prose is something that matters to me as a reader) and if you ever want to see me go into a wild-eyed and snarly-haired rant, do ask me about the portrayal of medieval history and theology in The DaVinci Code. But the fact that he (or James, or Meyer, or fill in the name of whatever writer we're collectively grumpy about this week) is going to sell all those copies doesn't bother me in the least. In fact, as a writer, I find it very interesting, because clearly he is doing something in his writing that a lot of people respond to. 

When we read, we read for any number of reasons. Maybe we read for beautiful prose, or for hot sex, or to watch clever people solve mysteries, or to educate ourselves, or to scare ourselves silly, or because of great characters, or a fast-moving plot. Maybe we look for a combination of those things. And writers tend to have different things that they are interested in doing in their writing, sometimes even from book to book. There isn't a magic formula for success - either critical or financial. If there were, we'd get the checklist with our editorial notes.

And I have a real problem with this idea that only what is "good" deserves financial success, or that something is off when what is "not good" sells eleventy billion copies.  Because I think there is a judgment implied there that carries over to the reader - like, we can dismiss the thoughts of Twilight fans, because we've already decided we can dismiss Twilight.

One of the best undergraduate papers I ever received was a comparison of lycanthropy in Twilight and in the lais of Marie de France. It is - and I know this is going to shock some of you - possible to like to read a wide variety of books from a wide variety of writers. People read for all sorts of reasons.

I'm not saying that I think writers and books should be immune to criticism, that we cannot rigorously discuss the flaws in a work. I absolutely think we should have those discussions. But I think they should be discussions based on the actual works, not our perceptions of what they will be, or must be. And that we should be very careful in our evaluation of a book (or of anything else), not to imply that there is a right way to respond to it, that there is something lacking in a reader who actually thinks it's good.