Snobbery & The Author

Authors are, for the most part, nice people. Anyone who likes books is surely someone you could get on with…but, what if they only liked one author or one genre?

I once met the friend of a friend, an elderly gentleman who was obsessed with the books and life of Stephen King. He showed me his temple to the author, which had once been his dining room, but now held thousands of hardbacks and paperbacks, including foreign editions, on shelving on every wall…as well as a unit mounted to the back of the door! The only furniture was a buttoned brown leather Chesterfield chair occupying the centre of the room, with a coffee table alongside for him to rest his book and sherry glass on. He didn’t read any other authors, considering them inferior. I dare say, he could have won Mastermind with Stephen King as his specialist subject, but his devotion was peculiar.

Writers can be snooty about strange things, including how they learned to be writers. For an unpublished author, one route to success appears to be attending a creative writing course, for we see stirring stories of students being snapped up my literary agents, getting a publisher and winning a literary prize. Certainly, one of the best ways of getting anywhere is talking face to face with influential folk in the book world. Attending a degree course or a residential workshop, might validate your own writing, teach you useful techniques and give you confidence, but would you end up writing in the same way as every other attendee? This is a criticism that has been levelled at such courses.

I admit I feel a bit jaded when I read the fluff for the latest hotshot debut author, to see that she graduated from the University of East Anglia Creative Writing course with an M.A., where she was taught by Margaret Atwood who introduced her to her literary agent. It’s easy to end up feeling shut out….But, am I being a hard-done-by snob or are they with their elitist smugness?

Literary snobbery is pervasive, even if it’s not admitted to. Some male readers won’t touch books written by women, and it’s easy to see how divisive things get when looking at book reviews. In 2013, The London Review of Books published 72 reviews of books written by women compared to 245 written by males. The New Yorker came in at 253/555 which is better, but the Times Literary Supplement fared poorly with 903 male writers and 313 female. The TLS employs far more male reviewers than female, despite the fact that 80% of fiction is bought and read by women. Asked about the discrepancy, TLS editor Peter Stothard said he was “only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books” continuing “while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the TLS.”

While we’re on snobbery in book reviews in newspapers, what about self-published books? They never get reviewed by the mainstream press. In the last year, I can only recall one example of a self-published book being mentioned, and that was only because it had been snapped up and heavily promoted by Penguin Random House.

It’s sometimes said that female writers receive lower book advances than male writers, but things look fairly even in a survey done by Jane Friedman, so perhaps market forces are eradicating the snobbery shown by book reviewers:

What about snobbery among book readers? Some people stick to one genre; fans of Romance are particularly loyal, which is one reason why it’s the best-selling genre. I’ve known Science Fiction readers who look down on normal fiction. Some despise genre writing, only tackling highfalutin literature. I once had a girlfriend who only read heavyweight novels that had won literary prizes, as if that would improve her intellect.

When looking for readers of my first Cornish Detective novel, I deliberately asked two acquaintances to offer their thoughts, as they normally read Chick-Lit and Travelogues and I intended to market my Crime novels to a mass audience. Both of these women are unafraid of expressing opinions, making them better than choosing friends or relatives who might fear upsetting me. I asked them why they didn’t read crime stories, and they answered, “I didn’t think I’d like them”…which is snobbery based on ignorance. They enjoyed my novel, offering useful thoughts on how it could be improved.

With my own reading, about half of it is in my chosen writing genre of Crime and half of all of the books I read are written by women. I rarely read pure Romance stories, though I like novels with a love story as part of the plot. I forced myself to read a James Patterson co-written Romance in the Bookshot series, which might just be the most masochistic act I’ve inflicted on myself this year! Sacking the Quarterback made me feel ill like I’d injected saccharine into a vein! A ten-year-old could write better.

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I don’t often read Speculative, Fantasy or Science-fiction, not because I’m snobby about them, more because my brain’s too feeble for the leap needed to immerse myself in those worlds. Most of the Historical fiction I read has a criminal component, such as the Matthew Shardlake series by C. J. Sansom.

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I’m unsure exactly why, but I avoid detective novels set from Victorian times to the 1970s; I think it’s because they predate technological and forensic developments, seeming like an easy option to me. It’s not, as historical facts need to be researched.

In what I write, I’ve tackled most genres, except for Romance, though I penned a couple of novellas with a romantic element and many love poems and song lyrics. I like to think that my crime writing has a literary quality but that might be me having delusions of grandeur!

Author Caroline O’Donoghue makes some good points about chick lit haters, in this article. Her ire is also directed at the covers that publishers use to market this genre, something I had a go at in an old post.

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My local library recently reorganised the layout of their shelving units, introducing a couple of free-standing carousels. From 20′ away, it was obvious to me what sort of paperbacks were displayed on them, as one was dark in colour with shadowy figures and guns—the Crime books, while the other was all pink and pastel blue with twinkling silver highlights for Romance.

The thing, is these are established colour schemes, a visual shorthand of what genre of writing a book fits into, so it would be foolish to buck the trend.

O’Donoghue complains that Chick-Lit books don’t get discussed in mainstream media book pages, and she’s done something about it, by starting her own podcast. She’s got a point, as with British newspaper book reviews, I can only think of the Daily Mail which has a section devoted to Chick Lit.

Most newspaper book review sites have a separate section for Crime and Thrillers, but sly snobbery is rife when it comes to giving literary awards to these genres. Just as it’s rare for a comedy film to win an Oscar, so best-selling Crime novels are overlooked for writing prizes. It was a small miracle that in 2018 for the first time a graphic novel was nominated for the Man Booker Prize.

It’s really reverse snobbery, isn’t it? If a genre is popular, selling millions of units, then it’s looked down upon by critics and committees of judges.

Are you a snob about the books you read?

Are there some genres you’d never write or read?

Do you think some genres are easier to write than others…such as children’s books, bodice-ripper romances, Westerns, Graphic Novels or Erotica?

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