The Quiet Scream in the Library: A Cynical Rant About Literature

I don’t always like fiction.

This may seem weird to say since I am a writer, I have an MFA in the field, and I used to do book reviews on NPR (actually I did those reviews for over three years, you can find them here), but it is true. Painfully, painfully true. I just don’t always enjoy reading fiction.  And it is rare on a relaxing Sunday afternoon that I feel like turning to a piece of fiction to pass the time.

I know… I know… blasphemy!

The problem is I believe that I have studied and analyzed literature to such a point that I have practically (and academically) taken the pleasure out of it.

It’s the great college conundrum! A question every college student has to ask him or herself- Do you go into a field around the subject that you love? Yes, you will enjoy the classes more than you would, say, in a different field but it also may impact how you view it for the rest of your life.

In other words, once Dorothy sees the wizard behind the curtain you can’t put the wizard back. English majors like me are Dorothys. And no matter how much we wish it, we can’t bring the “magic” back.

Doing the book reviews has also impacted me as well, but in a different way.  It took away some of the hope I felt for the future of the artform.

See, it gave me a very deep understanding in what is going on in literature and publishing today. For every good book, I would read a dozen awful ones (and don’t get me started on the “notable” book lists and literary winners… oh the stories I could tell).

I walked away from that experience thinking not only that great literature was rare, but I was the only reader noticing the problem. I mean, clearly, the publisher who sent me the book for review didn’t see the problem. At each bad book, I felt like that one citizen in the fable shouting that the Emperor had no clothes…

Look! You can’t think that is good, can you!?! You can see his bum! It’s a bad book and should not have been published. Oh, and get him some clothes!

There are times, I must admit, during my darker literary moments when I would argue with my writing friends that literature is dying and no one knows or cares.

What makes great literature unique was slipping away. Melting around us like snow in spring.

A lot of cynical book critics (like me, and I take that mantle reluctantly) point to movies and television as Suspect One for the murder. I can see points in their arguments. These thoughts would even sneak sometimes into my reviews.

  • The books that felt more like a screenplay (and were written like one with short sentences, no descriptions and definitely no artistic prose).
  • A sequel that seems intent on just setting up the next “episode”, as compared to telling the story of that one specific book
  • Characters that are only briefly described or developed

I could go on and on.

Now… Each time I begin a paragraph in this post. I can hear the counter arguments coming at me. I know you are out there! Like, if Stephen King (or a pulp writer like him) was a bad writer he wouldn’t have the career he has; they have major publishing deals you don’t (you, Mr. Southard, are just bitter); and (the hard one to answer) so what? It makes me happy.

Yes, you might be happy, but I am not. I wish I was, but I’m not.

So maybe this is a selfish post? Well, it’s a blog, I am allowed to be selfish, right?

The fact is I know myself as a reader. I know what I love and what gets me going; what made me become an English student all those years ago and made me agree to review books.  Here are some of them.

Prose- I’m not talking about poetry, I’m talking about a beautiful turn of phrase or description. Something that takes my breath away with the capture of a moment on page. I don’t need to feel like I am there, but I still get emotionally swept away by an author who knows their craft and are skilled in the language. They are doing more than setting up a scene, they are helping you experience it right down to your gut.

Something Original- So many books today are cookie cutters (especially those that make up a series). They have beats and we have all heard the song before. I want to be surprised. Not just in plot, but in all aspects. I want it to feel new, a step forward in literature. There is nothing that turns me away faster than a book that firmly grasps a genre in a choke-hold; or a description that says the plot is “something that meets something.” But what if I don’t want that something? 

Strong Characters- A two-dimensional character is painful to read (especially when they are playing the role of the sarcastic best friend, am I right?), it is much worse when it is a stereotype. For a stereotype, by definition, is always insulting someone (and if you don’t see it, it’s not you).

I want characters that feel real. I don’t care if they are on a distant planet or under the ground, if they are well-developed, I, as a reader, can tell. Simply saying someone is smart, looks like Harrison Ford and has a Mickey Mouse watch is not enough (I’m talking to you Dan Brown).

Recognizing the Art- Symbolism and other artistic flairs in literature don’t have to be loud. A great example of what I mean is Pride and Prejudice, a book rich in literary devices. But sweet, witty and creative Jane never throws them in your face. She uses them to make her story better, more artistic, more for the ages.

Let me make something very clear, when I say literature I am not like some professors who point to James Joyce (who I do respect) and Faulkner and other more difficult to read authors. I’m talking about people whose work dwell within the rules and understanding of the artform. They are doing something more than simply telling a story.

Their stories relish being on the paper, they sing there. 

The problem is the Dan Browns of the world will continue to be published and the Wally Lambs will continue to be praised as long as readers continue to support them. And from the self-publishing market, to smaller genre-focused houses, to the major publishers, they will each choose a series or a book that checks all the boxes for a sale over something new. And literary fiction is usually always about the new.

It is depressing, it is sad.

It is the reason I don’t enjoy fiction today. I wish I could end this with a silver lining, a glimmer of hope. But for every positive story of an author on wooden wings flying through the clouds and touching the sun, there are below them a thousand broken wings of authors who tried and failed.

It is becoming  a big f**ing mess.

How do we fix this before it is too late? Do we accept literature’s fate? Existing only in the college classrooms and collecting dust in libraries?

It’s a fundamental problem and I struggle with it in many ways. For example, as a parent I am happy that my kids enjoy reading, but am I having conversations with them about what is good and what isn’t? They might enjoy a series, and no matter how bad I view it, is it wrong for me to take that away from them? As a parent I say hell yes let them read; but as someone who wants them to recognize good writing over poor, I don’t know. We have book clubs for kids all across the country (in bookstores, schools and libraries), do we focus them on literature or just meeting a quota? Most of the time it is about the quota because we want them to keep coming back.

Buy! Buy! Support your local library!

There are no easy answers here and I really wish there was one. I do love literature. Some of my favorite summers was those times I discovered a great book and author. It is what inspired me to go down this yellow brick road, to become a Dorothy.

The fact is I left Oz a long time ago and I dream of the days I can get back again.

Did you like this conversation? Do you want to add your thoughts? Feel free to comment below. I’ll be curious to hear what other readers feel.

2 thoughts on “The Quiet Scream in the Library: A Cynical Rant About Literature

  1. Hi Scott! I haven’t been by in a while, but I am certainly glad I stopped by this morning, lol! I connect with so much of this post, and it also brought to mind my issue with current cinema. Too much of what is being put out there on the big screen is predictable, rehashed, and even remade from decades prior. There is so much great stuff out there by great authors (and screenwriters), but if it doesn’t fit the predictable money-making mold for the reading public, many of it doesn’t make it. It is sad. As a parent, I encourage reading of any kind with my 10-year-old. I was tickled when she became fascinated with a pretty heavy fantasy series by an indie author. For whatever reason, the imagery and characters speak to her on a deep level, and it pleases me. Of course I have no answers. Just some stuff to think about, I guess. Sorry for such a long comment! I was actually thinking about you and your writing lately, so the timing of this is such a coincidence! Hope things are going well!

    • Thanks. I never complain about long comments. All good.

      Things are fine with me. Right now just focusing on finding an agent or publisher for my new novel. Probably some of the bitterness I feel in this post comes from that experience. So much is so genre-focused. Oh well…

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