Thursday, April 21, 2011

In Defense Of Derivative

I should probably preface this blog post by saying that I've been Little Miss Cranky Girl the last couple of days.  I'm at the point where just about everything is irritating the hell out of me.  I'm not kicking puppies or taking candy from babies just yet - but I'm being just unreasonable enough that I probably shouldn't be hanging out on the Internet right now.  Of course, has this stopped me?  Of course not.

This week Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, A Visit From The Goon Squad.  This book has been critically lauded since it was published, and honestly I was not only happy that a woman won it, but also that the committee didn't go completely off the reservation like so many of the other literary awards did this year (I've spent most of the fall and winter reading these announcements going "Huh?" and "Who?!?!")  Of course, in true "literary genius" fashion, Egan ultimately did what so many others like her have done before.  Instead of saying, "Thank you, it's a great honor, I worked really hard yada, yada, yada" she took the opportunity to tear down genre fiction (in this case, chick lit) in the wake of her victory.

Now, I'm not going to rehash that here.  I mean, just because Egan has won the Pulitzer doesn't mean she's incapable of being ignorant (Yeah, I just said that....).  The Smart Bitches have a nice rundown with links and various comments for your perusal, so I'll direct you there.  At the end of the day, I expect this kind of statement from writers like Egan.  This kind of shit is like oxygen in that community.  So while it annoys me, it doesn't surprise me. 

What continues to surprise and annoy me though are people in my profession who should know better.  I'm often asked what makes a good collection development librarian, and my stock answer is someone who can leave their personal opinions and various biases behind when they walk through the office door.  Nothing gets my goat more than when I hear a librarian say something like, "Oh, nobody in our community wants to read that."  Or librarians who build their library's collection as a shrine to what they personally like to read.  A big part of being a librarian is biting your tongue.  Every time I have to buy a new Danielle Steel novel a small piece of me dies inside - but you know what?  I still buy it.  I might think she's a gawd-awful writer, and it pisses me off no end that people classify her as a "romance writer" - but just because I think her books suck eggs, doesn't mean that someone else out there isn't allowed to like them.

Just because I don't like it, just because I don't understand it or necessarily "get it," doesn't make it wrong.  Crap is in the eye of the beholder.  What's derivative drivel to one reader, could be the Great American Novel to someone else.  What is mind-numbing garbage to one reader can be a deep and profound reading experience for another.  Also, newsflash: there is good crap and bad crap in every corner of the book market.  No one "type" of book - be it mystery, science fiction, romance, general fiction, history, self-help, true crime etc. holds the market share.  There is plenty of both to go around, believe you me.

Look, at the end of the day, the world at large needs genre fiction.  It is the job of genre fiction, all genres, to reinforce everything that is right and "good" about us.  And by "us," I mean human beings, society and civilization at large.  Genre fiction holds up a mirror.  The hero's journey, good vs. evil, the resiliency of the human spirit, love, acceptance, our collective sense of justice - these are all themes and ideals that genre fiction reminds us of over and over again.  Yes, The Real World isn't fair.  It can be a cold, dark place that chews up innocence and spits it out.  But genre fiction is there to remind us of what we strive for.  Genre fiction is the goal.  Think about it, when you ask a little kid what they want to be when they grow up, none of them ever say:
"I want a life filled with loneliness, toil and misery." 
Genre fiction is not new.  Go back thousands of years and think about legends that were told around communal camp fires.  About stories that bards and minstrels relayed from village to village.  If you're going to slam romance novels for happy endings, you have to tar and feather a bunch of other stuff with the same brush.  Hell, Odysseus eventually got his ass home!

I take a fair amount of crap as a romance reading librarian.  I hear it from colleagues, library users, and garden-variety assholes.  I had someone say to me recently, when they found out I liked romance and mystery novels, that I must like "predictability."  Sadly, since I heard this while representing my employer I couldn't tell the guy to kiss my big white predictable ass.  He got the condensed version of this blog post.  But you know, his statement didn't really bother me that much.  I mean, I expected it from him (trust me, I just did), just like I expect it from someone like Jennifer Egan.  I know me expecting it doesn't make it any less annoying.  It doesn't make them any less wrong.  You don't like it?  Fine.  But don't tear me down for liking it.

And sadly, it's that tearing down I still see from too many in my profession.  You don't like it?  Fine.  Don't read it.  But that doesn't mean you shouldn't buy it.  That doesn't mean you shouldn't collect it.  That doesn't give you a free pass to alienate or belittle.  And dear God in heaven, don't try to "educate" the poor huddled masses who you think are sadly misguided in their reading choices that they genuinely enjoy.  Our job is to make it available.  To put it "out there."  It's not our job to beat people up.  It's also not your job to cause the Mutha-Effing Librarian Of The Year's head to explode .  Folks, I don't need any help in that department.  I'm halfway to crazy all on my own.

25 comments:

Molly O'Keefe said...

Amen

Anonymous said...

I'm with you, Wendy!

nath said...

I don't get why we should defend our preferences, our likes. Yes, I like romance, so what? What does it have to do with you? How does it affect you? why can't you just leave me to read in peace?!?

Also, it's great for Ms Egan to have won that Pulitzer Prize... and she can be as snobbish as she wants... but the reality is going to be: How many people have read your books? If you asked 100 people outside have they ever heard of Danielle Steel or Jennifer Egan... we all know what's the answer's going to be.

Shari Anton said...

Bravo!

AlohaJan said...

You go, girl! You are definitely in the right place at the right time, & I'm grateful that you are in the collection development department of MY library system!

Ruth said...

Amen!!! I get so tired of people thinking their opinions are THE opinions and if you don't agree with them about what makes "good literature" then you simply are too stupid to understand what it is. I wish more librarians did understand that the collection is about the users and not them, even if they die a little every time they buy a certain book. There is a book out there for every reader, and no one book speaks the same story or language to every reader of it. The reason I like one book may be similar to the person sitting next to me, but we most definitely didn't read the same book (at least figuratively speaking). Every book is written by the author but it is told by both the writer and a reader.

LoriK said...

"Think about it, when you ask a little kid what they want to be when they grow up, none of them ever say:

"I want a life filled with loneliness, toil and misery." "


And abuse. Don't forget the horrible, wrenching abuse. I like and admire plenty of lit fic, but a lot of it does fall under the category of things I can't read too much of without wanting to slit my wrists.


I'm sorry that the world is on your last good nerve and I hope things improve soon. In the mean time, thank you for being a good librarian even when so many people don't recognize your awesomeness.

RJ Scott said...

It's odd, the coincidence today of me remembering when I was pregnant with my daughter. The connection?? I was Ill and my brother in law came to visit when I was in bed. I HID my romance book when he wasn't looking. I was under the impression he would think less of me. That was fifteen years ago, he is the first person proud that I am now writing romance (though given it is MM he would probably skip the sex scenes as hubby does. I never had the conviction to defend my love of romance. I do.

Rj x

Ps typed with one finger on iPhone ... Excuse *misstaques* X

Jeffe Kennedy said...

Applauds!!

Big Sis said...

*Sigh* *Sniff* I love ya sis. You make me so proud.
(I really LOVE that you throw down your title at the end...LOL).

Karen W. said...

Fabulous post, and I'm with you 100% on everything you said!

Leanna Renee Hieber said...

I could kiss you for this post. I write Gothic novels. I adore the Gothic as a literary form but I've learned it has its passionate haters and detractors. So thanks for sticking up for genre fiction, it's my favourite kind!

Edie said...

You are the awesome sauce.
Amen.

little alys said...

*applause*
Good for you, Wendy. Thank you for writing this post because goodness knows you are 100% right (esp. the Danielle Steel part, a little bit of me dies everytime someone that knows I like romance asks if I read her stuff).
I don't know why, but I actually do get surprised everytime someone with some skills (or even those that do not) start taking a snobby stab at a genre and start tearing down at the person! I always wonder, "don't you know any better?"
This is probably why it took me forever to stop hiding my romance novel at the bottom of a pile of books, or looking sheepish paying for them. And worse yet, having to hide the cover when I'm just trying to read because rather than say "oh that's not for me," some know-it-all has to start attacking me personally. Like "oh, I'd never expect you to like reading those books." X_x Yes, I do. Get over it.
Go, Super Librarian!

Anonymous said...

Bravo! I'd gotten sick and tired of feeling like I had to apologize for some of my reading choices. If you don't like it - don't read it! But don't tell me what I should or shouldn't like!

Cheryl said...

Okay, Wendy. I'm giving you fair warning. If I ever get close enough, I'm going to hug the stuffing out of you. (What a great blog post!)

Tiffany said...

I came across this post when a friend shared it on Twitter. As an avid reader of fantasy novels who occasionally mixes in some "literary" fiction to keep it fresh, let me just say that I nearly leapt from my chair and yelled "TESTIFY!" while reading this. Except then I remembered I'm at work. But I'm cheering. Thanks for this.

Samantha Kane said...

I have such a huge crush on you. Especially when you're wearing your Mutha-Effing Librarian of the Year big girl cranky pants.

Anonymous said...

Crankily correct!

Patrice said...

This is great! I wish I could be so eloquent when someone asks "What are you reading?" and gives me the fisheye and derivitive comments for reading a romance or paranormal or urban fantasy. Sadly at that point, depending on what pants I have on at the time, they are more apt to get a rejoinder of "Shut the F up you idiot". Which may reinforce thier opinion that genre fiction rots your brain. LOL

Karen said...

Bravo !!

No need for apolgies for being "Little Miss Cranky Girl"

I think what bothered me so much about Egan's remark was the sheer negativity of it all. I mean, it's just bad mannners to be so disrespectful.

She got her 10 minutes of fame, and blew it. It seems very short sighted of her.

Hilcia said...

My answer to this has always been, "read and let read." (In this case write and let write). Judgmental, biased readers/writers -- I don't care what community they belong to -- get on my nerves.

Lynnd said...

Wendy, you rock!

Wendy said...

OK, no way I can respond to everybody here. I suck and shouldn't have slacked off on my blogging this weekend ;)

But did want to reiterate a comment Karen made. I'm not one of those "women should always be nice to women" types, but it's the timing of Egan's comments that bothered me the most. I mean, you win the Pulitzer and you react to it by...tearing down someone else? That just strikes me as really sad. And wrong. Nobody says she has to like All Fiction, but accept your honor with a little grace. Geez.

As they say, timing really is everything.

Amber (aka BBB) said...

You know what struck a chord with me was the notion that librarians can influence what we read by their collection development decisions.

In other words, librarians who use collection development as a way around censoring books of which they disapprove. By not buying it in the first place, they restrict access.

It's more insidious than simply removing a book already in the collection. And just as wrong.

I have stopped defending my reading choices. But every so often, a thoughtless comment disparaging others' reading choices gets my goat anyway.