Is the Literary World Elitist?

Of course it is. We who have read comic books and loved them have known forever that the literary world also is full of emperors with no clothes. I as a woman also recognize that far too many novels by male writers about men become or became the toast of the male-oriented literary world even though novels by women about women often are or were just as good or better. Recently, an issue cropped up that was covered in Salon, in which a literary author was chided in online reviews of her book for using pretentious language, specifically the word “crepuscular.”

I find this article and the comments debating it especially entertaining because one of my more well-educated friends taught me the word “crepuscular.” Since learning it,  I have used it frequently and defined it to people who clearly don’t know what it means. Practically, it means I live in a North Atlantic state on the east coast of the U.S., an area overrun with white-tailed deer. Deer are crepuscular; they prefer low-light conditions. Therefore they are likely to run into the road and hit my car at any shady time of day or night. Because they are not nocturnal, 4 PM is just as dangerous an hour as 10 PM. The deer are everywhere, in suburbs and out in the boondocks, in the median strips on big highways, and more. They’re a menace, and talking about them with accuracy is both fun and necessary. Crepuscular indeed.

Pretentious use of language is one of the few joys of people who are highly educated but who do not work or reside in academia or speak exclusively to those who do. Perhaps attorneys and doctors live a similarly vocabulary-privileged life. They use the big words they learned, and expect everybody around them to figure out what is meant. (You go home with a diagnosis of “epicondylitis” and tell your spouse you have tennis elbow.) As for the rest of us, we speak mostly to people who do not understand the big words we know, and we constantly have to dumb down our language to be understood at all. It’s very frustrating. It’s like knowing how to do very intricate tango steps and only finding dance partners who can’t do any steps at all.

I once had a boss who ridiculed me (or attempted to) because I used the word “labyrinthine” to describe some frustrating aspect of our work. Knowing big words and daring to use them seemed pretentious to him; in his world, anything educated was to be mocked. To me the word I used was the most precise description of our job dilemma, and it was used without any intent other than to express my frustration. The irony of the situation was that our work was distributing books and magazines. The limitations of my employment were never more obvious than when he tried to put me down for using a “big word.” He also knocked me for using the word “eke,” as in eking out a small amount of something, and that’s not a big word at all. Oh, well. It was a short interlude in my life.

As a novelist, I see myself falling into the opposite trap. I am so used to dumbing down my language that I use pedestrian words when my novel likely would benefit from more elegant choices. I have taken a few writing courses that strongly suggest I should be using metaphors, similes, and more complex word arrangements. Yet I want to be intelligible to the people reading my stories, so my automatic choice is to write in the vernacular, not in the literary style that would make understanding the meaning of my words something that readers would have to work to get. I’ve had that experience as a reader, and I don’t like it. I had a huge debate with my father over what was not said but he insisted was implicit in an Agatha Christie short story. I disagreed strongly with what literary critics claimed was the implied ending of Villette (by Charlotte Bronte). I hate the idea that the author does not tell me what happened, and I refuse to do that as an author myself.

I adore big words because they are far more precise than small words. But I do not live in the literary world. I don’t read literary fiction unless I trick myself into it by proposing some worthy piece to my library book club. Most of the time, literary fiction leaves me cold. It depends too much on unhappy endings, for one thing. It too often shows a world of mean-spirited, selfish people, for another. I prefer to read stories with a guarantee: a happy marriage, a solution to the murder mystery, etc. If I did routinely read literary novels, I believe I’d be in dire straits. I’d be setting myself up, over and over, to be depressed about life. No thanks. I can do that without reading a book. I want an author to propose a problem and then solve it.

Recently I read a lovely, thoughtful literary novel, but I knew that the uplifting arc of the story was sure to dump me out in the cold merely because it was a literary novel. And so it did. Just at the point of greatest happiness, the heroine gets run over by a truck. Really. A truck. If that isn’t the biggest piece of deus ex machina external plotting ever, I’m Howdy Doody. After all those pages of things getting better, the author felt it was necessary to end the story on a “Life sucks.” note. Literary novelists seem to have sworn an oath never to provide a happy ending. Apparently they fear that if they write happy endings they will be accused of not being quite literary enough, and of pandering to the hoi polloi. The hoi polloi would be me, the person who would rather not see the novel’s central figure get run over merely because the idea of a happy ending is insupportable to the author and to the author’s intended readership.

Back to the original question: Is the literary world elitist? And by strong inference, is anyone who uses a “big word” a literary snob? Yes to the first, and no to the second. Mere use of language to be precise carries no imputation. Using the word crepuscular in speech to an individual who clearly does not know what it means is a form of boasting only mitigated by immediately defining the word, thus adding to that person’s store of knowledge. I’m the kind of person who is glad to learn something new. Others might not be, and thus they would feel snobbery is involved. Using such a word in a book isn’t elitism or snobbery at all, because, as the original article writer points out, it’s dead easy to find definitions for anything via the Internet. You’re reading a book. You can put it down or go to another screen and look up the word. Quit whining. That was a favorite phrase of my long-ago boss, and he was right. Whining couched as an outraged book review is still whining.

Copyright © 2014 by Irene Vartanoff

One Comment:

  1. People amaze me sometimes. This fairly recent idea that it’s “elitist” to be educated…who DOESN’T want to learn new words? When did it become a point of pride to stand up for one’s own ignorance? (Actually, I think I know when it started — around 1980 when Ronald Reagan and his ilk began shamelessly pandering to “anti-intellectuals,” cynically stirring up class warfare between the “heartland” and so-called elitists and intellectuals, to the point where rich, East Coast Ivy Leaguers like the Bushes were pulling on cowboy boots and pretending to be jus’ plain-talkin’ friends of the everyman…)

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