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What’s “Literary?”

One thing I’ve found that is universally true is this – people lie about the books they read. Ask anyone what they’re reading right now and they won’t tell you the truth. They’ll tell you the thing that makes them sound smart or makes them look good.

Back before Kindle, I was taking an art class. Because it was art, we had a lot of time on our hands, so some of the students would bring in books to read. The girl who sat next to me was reading “Angela’s Ashes” – or so I thought. Because one day, I picked up the book, flipped it open and said, “you know, I heard great things about this book.” Before she snatched it out of my grasp, I saw the title page.

“The Greek’s Pregnant Mistress.”

Yeah, she actually took the cover of “Angela’s Ashes” and pasted it on the front of a Harlequin Romance to disguise it. Not that I can blame her. I eventually read the real version of “Angela’s Ashes” and it really could win an award for “Most Depressing Book Ever.” Can’t blame her for choosing a bodice ripper over that.

Also, what the fuck is a floury potato?

Anywho, this is just one of my weird random shower thoughts, but I think it’s true.  “Good for you” books are like “good for you” food.  Sure, you can tolerate them in a pinch, but you’de rather be reading something enjoyable. Most of us regular readers have our guilty pleasures and we have our ‘go to’ respectable books that we tell people we’re reading whenever someone asks.

That’s why when someone asks me what I’m reading, I claim I’m reading “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison, when really, I just got finished “Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland.” You know, that book from the Cleveland kidnapping victims. I must admit, it did give me hope. For once, the creepy dude keeping girls in his basement wasn’t a white guy. He was Hispanic.

Diversity, people. We’re moving forward.

The funny thing is I have read “The Bluest Eye” and really, it’s not too far off from Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus’ story. Both stories deal with girls trapped in horrible circumstances, ignored by the world and both end with escape. Of course, in “The Bluest Eye”, the escape came from the main character going batshit crazy, but it was still an escape.

But I ask myself, what makes one book literary and the other, not? What makes one book respectable and the other, not? Is it the prose? Because to be entirely honest, I found many a quotable moment in both stories. Was it the theme? Because both have the same theme if you’re willing to read between the lines.

What is literary fiction, exactly? What makes one book respectable and another not? Does the ending have to be sad? Does the story have to be fake? “Angela’s Ashes” won a Pulitzer and it was Frank McCourt’s biography.

Who decides the difference between literary and commercial? Sure, in some cases it’s obvious. Harlequin spews out like 500 “Greek Billionaire” titles a year. I get that. Those people are writing from an outline.

But why isn’t Harry Potter held up as a literary work? Why isn’t Tim Dorsey recognized as a literary figure for his Serge Storm series? Why is Lev Grossman considered a commercial writer while J. R. R. Tolkien is a master storyteller that we learn about in school? What’s the difference?

Mainly, I want to know why we feel the need to lie about what we’re reading. I want to know what literary is and why it gets to be that in the first place.

One thought on “What’s “Literary?”

  1. Literature is like food: it’s a matter of taste. So are sex and alcohol, but that’s a different blog post. Currently, I’m reading: “The Aquitaine Progression” by Robert Ludlum; “The Orphan Tsunami of 1700” by the U.S. Geological Survey; “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs; “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century” by Barbara Tuchman; and “Subterranean” by James Rollins. I’ve had “Aquitaine” for some 25+ years, but only now got around to reading it. It’s so hard to follow from a plot perspective I had to put it down. “The Orphan Tsunami” is about a catastrophic tsunami that struck Japan’s Pacific coast in January of 1700, which scientists have now traced back to an equally catastrophic earthquake that struck the Pacific Northwest of what is now the U.S. I felt “Miss Peregrine’s Home” would satisfy my lust for the supernatural and macabre, and it does – to a point. Otherwise it reminds me of grade school. “A Distant Mirror” is more of a textbook – a massive textbook – about life in 14th century Europe. It began with Tuchman’s interest in the “Black Plague” of that period, but she found a lot more happened in the 1300s. “Subterranean” also started to fill me desire for the supernatural, but it’s starting to descend into a cliché monster story.

    Yes, I really am reading them! I just rotate them like I do alcoholic beverages; one weekend is vodka; the next is wine; and so on. I also rotate my own stories. I get bored easily, even with stuff I’m writing, so I often move from one story to another. Regardless, you know the literary adage: if don’t read more than the Bible or the TV guide, you’re a dumbass! Wait…no. I think it’s more like, writers need to read as much as they write. They say it’s to help you become a better writer, which is true. But I say it’s necessary so you won’t imitate those other writers.

    That some books win certain prizes is almost as mysterious as why some films or TV shows win certain entertainment awards. But at least the literary awards are less of a popularity contest than, say, the Oscars. Cinemaphiles say Katherine Hepburn was one of the greatest actresses because she won 4 Oscars. But I feel Kim Basinger is ten times a better actress, and she never won shit. Maybe best hair style, but nothing in acting. Like I said – a matter of taste.

    We each know what we like and shouldn’t have to apologize or make excuses for it. Now, on to writing and drinking!

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