The Literary Elitism Question

Image - iStockphoto: AngiePhotos
Image – iStockphoto: AngiePhotos

By Porter Ander­son | @Porter_Anderson
Issues on the Ether: The Literary Elitism Question


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The Literary Elitism Issue

[su_dropcap size=”4″]E[/su_dropcap]litism is a standard of discernment that seeks to exclude everything (or everyone) perceived to fall short of that standard. Criticism can be elitist; censorship can be elitist; educational programmes can be elitist; advocacy and propaganda can be elitist; literary prizes can be elitist; communities and clubs can be elitist; bookstores and websites can be elitist.

Eleanor Catton /
Eleanor Catton /

This is from an essay by Eleanor Catton. It appeared in March 2013, before the New Zealand novelist won the Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries. She goes on about what can and cannot be elitist:

But literature simply cannot be. A book cannot be selective of its readership; nor can it insist upon the conditions under which it is read or received. The degree to which a book is successful depends only on the degree to which it is loved. All a starred review amounts to is an expression of brand loyalty, an assertion of personal preference for one brand of literature above another. It is as hopelessly beside the point as giving four stars to your mother, three stars to your childhood, or two stars to your cat.

Metro Magazine re-ran the essay in December, under the headline Eleanor Catton on literature and elitism.

And as Laura Miller at Salon opens her own reflection, Is the Literary World Elitist? on this, she rightly explains that Catton—responding to an instance of reader indignation at writer’s use of a 50-cents word—”treats the reader’s ire as a symptom of the creeping consumerist attitude in our response to literature.”

Among good reasons to read Catton’s piece, as Miller points out? These lines:

The machine of consumerism is designed to encourage us all to believe that our preferences are significant and self-revealing; that a taste for Coke over Pepsi, or for KFC over McDonald’s, means something about us; that our tastes comprise, in sum, a kind of aggregate expression of our unique selfhood.

Laura Miller
Laura Miller

Where Miller makes the topic her own, in a terrific extension of Catton’s piece, is in pointing out that the reader Catton refers to who was put off (at a Paris Review article’s use of the word “crepuscular”) “was angry” surmises Miller “because the Paris Review piece made him feel ignorant.”

Miller then asks something I hope we can ask on Wednesday in our #EtherIssue discussion:

Why do some people overreact to “crepuscular” or to bestselling lady porn or to any number of other minor irritants involving tastes more or less refined than their own? Why do they take offense so easily when another reader turns up his nose at a book or genre they love or insists on loving a book they deem substandard?


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