Thursday, May 31, 2012

Literary Merit Vs. Popularity: A Novel Debate

Allow me to step outside of my role as imagination archivist for a moment...
There is another visage I possess, the one most people see on a daily basis. The one that keeps me invisible among the throngs of civilians going about their lives. This unseen role still has its own opinions, though, and there is one it would like to share.

Over the past few weeks when I worked at the local bookstore, about the only book people have been buying (or ordering, as the store continuously sells out of it) is Fifty Shades of Gray by E.L. James, an erotic novel about a young woman in a sensual love affair with a wealthy and handsome billionaire. This is also the same book that most library systems reportedly will not carry. The reason? They will only buy books that possess “literary merit.” Fifty Shades of Gray, apparently, does not qualify as such a book.

What, exactly, defines “literary merit?” According to the College Board’s “Engaging Students with Literature” Curriculum, literary merit entails: 1. The written work has been judged to have artistic quality by the literary community (teachers, students, librarians, critics, etc.); 2. The themes are complex and nuanced; 3. It does not conform to formulaic expectations; 4. It entertains the reader and is interesting to read.

Books like Fifty Shades, and other popular series such as The Hunger Games and Twilight, hit upon the last of these definitions, even if the definitions themselves are vague (aren’t terms like “entertaining” and “interesting” subjective?). But does popularity make a book genuinely good? There must be something about these novels that draws in so many readers. It can’t be that the majority of the population prefers “junk food” reading to the decadence of truly innovative, original, finely-honed writing. Right?

In contrast to these trendy titles, look at this year’s finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson; Swamplandia! by Karen Russell; and The Pale King by the late David Foster Wallace. (Sadly, there was no official award given this year, as the judges could not come to a consensus for a winner.)

How many people have even heard of, let alone read, any of these books? I do not recall these novels being strongly marketed, or having received any push in promotion after being nominated. One would think that there would be more public encouragement to read novels that were selected as the best written works of the year.

So why does it seem like what is popular in fiction these days does not coincide with what is deemed to have literary merit? Why do so many readers gobble up pop-culture movie fodder fads, and pass over the in-depth portrayals of the human condition and psyche?

It is not to say readers cannot like both, but novels like Fifty Shades have tapped into a particular type of emotional fascination with readers that many “merited” books don’t. It is the “taboo fantasy”—not just any fantasy, like traveling to an exotic place or falling in love with the ideal person. Fifty Shades is an erotica boasting very vivid, very extreme sexual scenarios; Hunger Games has rebellious teens defying an oppressive authority, and becoming hailed warriors in a bloody battle where they must kill fellow competitors; Twilight…don’t get me started on what’s wrong with Twilight (and, ironically enough, Fifty Shades was originally conceived as Twilight fan-fiction). The main complaint I have heard about these books, these stories where the authors self-indulge in over-the-top fantasies, is that they are poorly written—not that the plots are weak or the characters lackluster, but that the writing itself is mediocre and boring. In other words, it is writing that requires no thinking whatsoever, on either the author’s or the reader’s part.

So I ask, can we not be entertained while also being made to contemplate, to be enlightened, to expect more out of our literature than just, for lack of a better term, eye candy? Can a book not only make us feel, but also think? Or will Emotion and Intellect always be duking it out for dominance in the literary world?


  1. Hey there,

    I love the topic and the post.

    Normally, I don't argue with the success of books. Even a blockbuster like The DaVinci Code was very hard for me to not criticize. Dan Brown must have done something right, compared to me, who has a fraction of a flyspeck of an amoeba stain compared to his book sales.

    As for the academia/intelligencia...They were pretty harsh critics of Stephen King when he was a young author, and now he is looked upon with near reverence. If Stephanie Myers and Suzanne Collins can sustain a lengthy career, they too may find a level of respect that they do not have now.

    It brings up a good discussion that appeared on Rachelle Gardner's site a few weeks ago - critical success or best-seller status.

    What say you?

    1. Hi Joseph,
      Thank you for your comment...I was hoping this would stir up some opinions from people, and you make good points about how authors who don't receive critical acclaim now may be viewed differently down the line.
      I realize I was coming from an emotional place on this topic when I wrote the article (how unbais of me, eh?)...and I took a look at the Rachel Gardner discussion you mentioned. I found it interesting how the first twenty-some replies, people were saying they would much rather produce a critically-acclaimed book that sold few numbers rather than a best-seller that received poor reviews. So...none of those people want to make a living as an author? It seems like the more moralistically "noble" answer to give, in theory, but you can't tell me all those people would turn down a book contract offering them hundreds of thousands of dollars for a book they know is not "life-changing" or is mere fluff.
      Hmm...seems I'm being contradictory to what I said in my article...although the article was more directed at readers, not aspiring writers. I would never want to deprive a new writer of their chance to be successful, and I would want their book to do well, even if it is not the next great American novel or "mentally stimulating." But I guess I also wish readers would take a little more time to balance their reading between the "junk food" and the "gourmet," as I put it. Seek out some lesser known titles, and explore some novels that may get overlooked, rather than jumping on the bandwagon.
      Thanks again for your comment, Joseph. I really appreciate that you read my blog (as I do yours :) )

  2. One more thing...I prefer to read the gourmet titles, but I prefer to write escapism entertainment. Makes no sense, I know.