On Snobbery & Literature

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snob

noun \ˈsnäb\

: someone who tends to criticize, reject, or ignore people who come from a lower social class, have less education, etc. (Merriam-Webster)

Snobbery is a fact of culture, and we’re all guilty of it in one way or another. While some people tend to be snobby in general, there are also many specific ways snobbery can reveal itself, even if we don’t think about these actions as directly snobby.

I think as an English major (current or former), you’re exposed to more than your fair share of snobbery in some respects. “Oh, you haven’t read ______? But it’s a classic!”

No, I have not read all that many classics. But that doesn’t make me less of an English major, less of a reader, less of a lover of words than someone who has made it through countless odious tomes of dubious quality just because they are “classics”.

I try to be conscious of the things I am snobby about, and I am aware of the same in the people I love. My mother openly admits to being an intelligence snob; my roommate and friend is a food snob, and I am a dog ownership snob.

Being snobby about specific things I think tends to correlate how much something means to you and how much you care about the quality of the product or idea. And while these are not negative ideas per se, it is important to remember that being snobby does not help anyone see the value in what you are discussing in the same way that you do.

I think many people are guilty of snobbery in literature, and it both helps and hurts us all as writers, readers, and artists. Feeling like something is important for its cultural value helps us push our boundaries and explore new ideas, but valuing a type of literature over another de-values some truly great works. Gimmicky cover design does the same.

Even bookstores are snobby, whether they are digital or physical. Separating the “Literature” from the Sci-Fi, Romance, Mystery, and others subtly dismisses certain works before they even come off the shelf. “Chick Lit”, typically written for women by women is often dismissed as a lesser, despite the fact that many excellent writers tackle similar themes to what can be found in the “Literature” section. Snobbery and sexism all at once.

So where do we go from that? How do we fairly evaluate books on a level playing field without letting our preconceived cultural perceptions get in the way? How can we be proud of what we like without feeling the need for the approval of others on our own tastes? How can we acknowledge that something we find to be irritating or of low quality speaks to someone else in a different way?

With all that said, I will not back down on being snobby about Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. Some things, I just can’t change about myself.

The Worry List

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I don’t like clutter. My childhood room would tell a different tale, but these days I can’t work or focus when there’s clutter in my space. My mind works the same way. When I can’t sleep, it’s because so many thoughts are crashing around my head, competing for space. It’s like I need to think about them all at once or they’ll slip away. And for some reason, that’s terrifying.

I’m not the only one in my family who gets worried and anxious easily. I can trace it back quite easily, and as problems go, there are worse ones to have, I suppose. But the same thing that makes me hyper-responsible can also be my worst enemy; it can make me so overwhelmed that I can’t focus on anything fully, and everything begins to take far longer than it should.

It is in these moments that I find comfort in listmaking.

There is something about writing everything down that just makes dealing with the anxiety more manageable. In those moments when I am paralyzed by the incessant, clanging noise of thoughts, I reach for a piece of paper, most often a notecard. And I write out another worry list.

My worry lists are nothing more than spaces for me to keep my thoughts so I don’t lose track of them. It becomes a combination of the things I need to do, the things I do not have time for, the things I want to do, and the worries that are not actions, but feelings. I write them all down, together, and until I have a handle on things, it is a sort of anchor for myself, a reality check. It is not only a reminder of the things that I think, but a reminder of how special writing is; this tool we have to capture memories and emotions and tasks without them getting lost or distorted with time.

Unlike my other lists, the worry list is rarely used, but of utmost importance.

The odd thing is that in the space and time of de-cluttering my mind is often when I get the most inspiration. It probably has to do with the act of simply writing things down—an act I neglect far too often, when the words that I write to help keep a roof over my head swallow anything else I might produce and keep me from calling myself a fiction writer. But that too, probably, is an excuse. Maybe it’s time to stop getting swallowed.

Jargon and the Kentucky Derby

Animals, Editing

Editing is a world of jargon. There’s jargon within the editing & publishing industry, of course, and then there’s the jargon that appears in the materials to be edited. Jargon isn’t simply limited to lofty academics or scientists; it is present in pretty much every field or hobby you could think of. As a non-fiction (and often even in fiction) editor, you’re kind of like the proverbial wall of spaghetti for information—you are thrown large amounts of jargon from different fields, and some of it is inevitably going to stick.

This was made very clear to me on Saturday while my dad and I were watching the Kentucky Derby. When I was little and we went to the racetrack, I never paid much attention to the races themselves. The thrill was wholly in seeing the grace, power, and breathtaking beauty of the horses. That has always been my primary motivation for watching horse races. However, through editing the non-fiction book Sham: Great Was Second Best (an account of the overlooked rival to the great racehorse Secretariat), I learned quite a bit of information and jargon related to horse racing. When we were discussing and watching the race, I realized I was using these terms, and spouting off information about things like how many miles the Kentucky Derby was (1 ¼ by the way), what a furlong and a length were, and why racehorses have such weird names. As a kid, I guess I just thought the point of the names was to be silly. Now that I know each name has to be unique, I understand the difficulty a bit more. Honestly though, this task would be easier if the horse racing world just switched over to the method they use for show dogs: using a kennel name (or in this case, stable name) to help identify the animal and ensure uniqueness. The problem with this, of course, is that racehorses often change owners and trainers a lot. But I digress.

One of your primary duties as an editor is to spot inconsistencies and fix them. As you make your way through the manuscript, you always have to think about how much the audience for the book will know. Do they need the jargon explained? Is the jargon consistent? Do the explanations make sense? On several occasions, I have felt like a fool for querying about some aspect of the subject I don’t understand. But then I console myself with the knowledge that if I don’t know something, chances are neither will the average reader. I’m just asking the questions for them so they don’t have to.

That is one of the most satisfying aspects of editing for me. You’re always learning. No two books are shaped in the same way, and you’re always learning about new topics. After reading a manuscript about seven times, you kind of get sick of the topic, but a little distance makes the knowledge rewarding again. For a person like me, with way too many interests, editing is like a knowledge sampler. Plus, you have the added benefit of knowing you helped polish the piece to the point that its beauty and original intent is able to shine through.

Congratulations to Animal Kingdom and his various caretakers for winning the Derby. I like to see the long-shot take it. It’s a comforting reminder that although the odds may predict results, they can’t set them in stone. And, like editing, horse racing requires a lot of adaptability.

Violent Reactions to Literature

Literature, Writing

In my 400-level fiction seminar class, we are reading A.M. Homes’s The Safety of Objects. For some, this is not an easy book to read– all of Homes’s characters are dysfunctional, insane, depressed, etc. Out of curiosity, I decided to look it up on Amazon to see what others were saying about it. Many responded positively to the collection, as I did. However, there were others that were so offended that they literally threw the book out. One person who informally reviewed the book on Amazon called it “pornographic humor”.

This brings up the very common questions of  the distinction between literary taste and good literature; if it was the right time for a particular person to read the book; cultural readiness; believability, and reader interest. There are so many facets to the good literature vs. personal taste battle that it is, and will continue to be, argued about at great length.

People often get violently angry about literature they find offensive. I’m not the type to get offended by art, be it film, literature, visual art, or poetry, but I think that partially has to do with my world outlook and my status as a writer. I wonder how I might have looked at this book in a different cultural context: not as a student of fiction, but as a mother, or even a student in a different major. Would I have seen the value in this text then? I think the answer would still be yes, because of the person I am. I’m not saying that some of the stories did not make me uncomfortable: “A Real Doll”, though one of my favorite stories, was also very creepy. But to me, discomfort while being engrossed in a story is a sign of good literature. The ability to evoke such feelings in one’s audience is quite an accomplishment, one Homes should be proud of. Though cultural context is a very influential factor on one’s literary enjoyment and comfort level, I really think it depends on when the person was introduced to a certain type of literature, and how it was presented to them.

At least one person reviewing the book on Amazon stated how Homes was a sick person. That seems to me to be an interesting conclusion to jump to from reading fiction. That’s the key word here: fiction. In the past, I’ve heard advice from a lot of people running along the lines of “write what you know”. Now, this may be good advice for some, but to me, there are a lot more interesting things to write about out there than my own life. If I wanted to do that, I’d write a memoir. I may in fact do that one day, but the point is, I enjoy writing stories about characters who have very different lives than my own. I relive my days in memory, I don’t need to relive them on the page, under the guise of fiction. Then I am never thinking of new things to build on. I do use elements from my life at times, but my fiction does not typically reflect my life, and I don’t believe that Homes’s does either.

For those offended by the sexual situations and the flawed characters, I can’t really help you. I don’t know about everyone else, but I enjoy reading all kinds of fiction: both uplifting and creepy, exciting and sad. Nobody’s perfect, and it’s not interesting to read about someone that is. However, I do understand that for some, reading can be an escape from the stress of everyday life, and would prefer not to read such content. In that case, I’d move on.

That brings us back to personal taste. There have been many stories that I have scratched my head at because of my literary taste, but I still appreciate for their artistic qualities. Use of language is an example. I prefer a simple (not simplistic) prose, because I feel it does not clutter up the images of the story as flowery prose does. Some people who are more interested in poetry than I am may prefer that style. Outright condemnation of a book because it contains themes one finds inappropriate, or is in a literary style that does not appeal, is doing a disservice to a book that could open the world of fiction to another reader.

Responsibility is always punished

Pets

A couple of days ago, I got proof that the clueless always win. I was walking to work through the North End park on the waterfront, when I saw this woman walking her dog. She had him on a prong collar to control him, and was simply minding her own business, enjoying the first sunshine in several days. As I approached, a larger Fox Terrier mix ran up on them, unleashed, and started taunting the other dog. The woman’s dog, who had appeared to be very calm and well-behaved when left alone, became upset and started growling at the intruder. As much as I was watching the dog, I was watching the owner. I knew that look. I’d given it many times since Moose, my English Setter/Border Collie came into my life. This is him:

My Moosie

Moose came to us with a nature that included a lot of animosity toward other dogs. I got him when I was eleven, and it was extremely frustrating to take him anywhere (4-H, walks, to the beach, etc.), even though I love him to death. I sympathized with this woman, because I knew what an uncomfortable situation she was in. After what seemed like a long time, this man came casually walking up. The conversation that ensued went as follows:

“Is that your dog?”

“Yes”

“Oh”

That was it. The terrier continued to circle, and kept dodging his owner. I could tell she was shocked at his nonchalance, as was I. Apparently, because his dog didn’t have behavioral problems, he thought it was O.K. to just let his dog run around, provoking other animals. Unfortunately, in that situation, the clueless might assume that it was the woman’s fault for bringing her “dangerous dog” to the park. What the situation did was put her in a very uncomfortable position, when all she was doing was being a responsible dog owner. I felt like going up to the man and telling him that unless he had his dog under complete voice control, he should have had him on the leash, so that no one would have been put in an awkward situation. Even if the encounter isn’t your fault, I know how embarrassing it is to have your dog go off on another dog.  You can’t win with people. Even if you are responsible with your dog’s aggression, the clueless will always walk away the winner. If your dog is friendly, great. I have another dog who loves every dog he meets. That doesn’t mean I let him run around loose. People need to keep dogs on leash or under voice control. There are off-leash areas for a reason. Give a dog who hasn’t had a great past some chance to leave the house. Responsible owners shouldn’t lose. People who care so little shouldn’t have dogs. After all, someone could get hurt. Rant over.