Joel Stein and Literary Snobbery

by Cosmo Houck

Maybe (definitely) because I’m a fan of speculative fiction (read: sci fi), I can be pretty sensitive to how people critique the things I read. My genre of choice has a torturous, conflicted relationship with the literary mainstream, and that can lead to skepticism towards people who wholly disregard certain classes of books. Because of that, I’m going to take this chance to react both to Julian Sanchez (who, alas, I have already written about once today…I swear I read other things) and Joel Stein.

Last week Stein participated in a roundtable at the New York Times covering youth fiction, and suggested (strongly) that adults should stick to adult fiction. The choicest line of the piece: “I’ll read “The Hunger Games” when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.” I think this is a good point.

Stein has taken some abuse for his position. It’s not hard to imagine why: a lot of people like The Hunger Games, and Harry Potter, and Twilight. He comes across as a bit of a snob.

He is, however, a snob that Mr. Sanchez would like to stick up for. Sanchez is naturally more reasonable about it–like me, he has read Harry Potter and The Hunger Games (apparently we share a distaste for glittering vampires)–but he thinks there is some core truth that Stein is getting at. Basically, it’s probably not a bad idea to put down the youth fiction and read some higher brow stuff–in fact, it’s like going to the gym.

The core of his post boils down to making this point:

…while there’s often a surprising amount of thematic sophistication to mine in literature aimed at kids and teens, let’s not kid ourselves that it’s equivalent to what you’ll find in the best literary fiction. Well-rounded adults  need their share of that too, and some of the most rewarding of it can be hard going.

Needless to say, Sanchez sees the sort of “snobbery” Stein represents as potential motivational fodder.

I’d like to complicate this a little. I’m a huge snob. In middle school I fostered a festering resentment of the Harry Potter books; not because they’re “bad” or I don’t like them or because I’m “above” them, but because I felt like their popularity distracted from youth fiction that was just as entertaining but far more interesting.

Take Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. They may not be as relateable or quite as easy and smooth to read as the Rowling novels, but they’re a hell of a lot more ambitious. At the core is an inversion of Milton’s Paradise Lost, and a scathing critique of Christianity and religion at large. It doesn’t all hang together, all the time, but there’s an aspiration and intellectual core there that doesn’t exist in The Hunger Games or Harry Potter.

Here’s one more: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and its sequels. Ender’s Game is a phenomenal, and phenomenally entertaining, book, and contains some interesting reflections on politics and brutality and childhood. All great, and I think more convincing than Collins or Rowling. However, where Orson Scott Card really starts to get interesting is in the trilogy that follows that first book. Gone are all the battles and action, and in their stead reflections on death and being and life take the focus. In seventh grade I couldn’t put down Speaker for the Dead, and I still find it and the two books that follow it compelling reading that is far more than “youth” fiction.

And that gets to the core of my problem. I think that we should strive to read things that challenge ourselves as much as possible. It’s hard to know where that will come from, however, and it’s not always clear how we delineate genres. It can’t be verbal complexity; I don’t think I know a teenager with whom The Sun Also Rises would resonate like it does with me, but it doesn’t get any more straight forward than Hemingway. Likewise, I’m not sure where to draw the line thematically–books like Speaker for the Dead grapple with complex issues with nuance that’s entirely foreign to the Harry Potters of the world. And we sure as hell aren’t going to do it by genre–we sci-fi fans have been relegated to the literary gutter for far too long.

As a snob, but one who tries to keep an open mind, I think I’ll put it this way: I want to read things that demand more out of the reader than passive engagement. Books that do more than “sweep you along”, but force you to take stock and think. It doesn’t much matter who it is written for, so much as what you take out of it. Being a snob, I have no choice but to consider myself the ultimate arbiter of this arbitrary measurement. I judge if something is “worth” (beyond being pleasurable) reading using the simple maxim passed down from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: I know it when I see it.