Issues on the Ether: The Literary Elitism Question

In Discussion by Porter Anderson

10 February 2014 iStock_000020675865Small photog AngiePhotos texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Our Live #EtherIssue Chat is Wednesday
  2. The Literary Elitism Question
  3. “Uncon­scious Incompetence”
  4. Wednesday’s #EtherIs­sue at 11 a.m. ET / 4 p.m. GMT
  5. Last Week’s Topic: The Matur­ing Self-Publishing Dialog

Our Live #EtherIssue Chat is Wednesday

Publishing Perspectives Editor in Chief Edward Nawotka and I will host a live Twitter chat on this week’s Ether topic(s) at 4 p.m. GMT / 11 a.m. ET / 8 a.m. PT. We’ll use the hashtag #EtherIssue as we do weekly. Join us and watch for @PubPerspectives and @Porter_Anderson on Twitter.

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The Literary Elitism Question

Elitism 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.

This is from an essay by Eleanor Catton. It appeared in March 2013, before the New Zealand novelist won the

Eleanor Catton /

Eleanor Catton /

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?

As you may know from some other writings along the way, I’ve found this issue disturbing for some time, particularly because the digital dynamic seems to support some genre-fiction work more readily than it does literary fiction.

As long as I’ve been covering publishing, I’ve been running into this in various ways and settings. How overly sensitive might people be? An Ether reader once took me to task for an upbeat use of the word “literature” because—she maintained—it referred only to literary fiction, not to all fiction. My positive reference to “literature,” she went on, was an insult to her because she is a genre writer.

That’s a case of actual ignorance—the term “literature” comprises all forms of written prose and verse, not just what the industry calls “literary.” And it’s also a show of the insecurity Miller writes about.

When I get the chance to quiz someone who seems disproportionately passionate about the snobbishness of literary critics or the rabble’s appetite for trash, there’s usually some highly charged personal history behind their indignation.

I’m especially fond of what we normally classify as literary fiction, myself, and don’t mind declaring that bias. To the surprise of many (and the mistrust of some), my regard for literary work doesn’t preclude my reading and enjoying other work, especially science fiction.

One can have preferences without prejudice. This seems to come as news to some.

Considering that genre fiction is thought to sell so much more readily than literary, I’m always surprised at the vehemence with which some people will describe literary fiction as boring and “pretentious”—as if vampires prancing around in ill-researched period costumes aren’t pretentious in their own fashion; as if utterly implausible science fiction isn’t a form of pretension at warp speed.

The whole issue turns out to be highly complex.

Certainly Catton’s point about a consumerist element has validity. As Miller has said in a series of tweets with me, making an important clarification of the issue, “It’s readers thinking of themselves as customers to be served, not as imaginative collaborators with authors,” an attitudinal stance on the parts of some readers.

Certainly Miller’s point about intellectual insecurity seems to have a place here, too.

SalonIn any case, she writes:

The result of all this baggage is a preposterous, resentful pecking order in which readers get way too much pleasure out of pissing on other readers’ preferences and/or jumping, on the slightest pretext, to the conclusion that their own are being ridiculed.

And if, as some of us worry, literary-fiction writers are having more trouble finding a footing in the digitally enabled world of entrepreneurial authorship, this, surely, is something that should concern us all. Can we really afford to have a key component of our overall bookish canon be especially hobbled, either in the consumerist corridors of online retail (Catton) or the cultural insecurities of an anti-intellectual age (Miller)?

In early May, in fact, I’ll be moderating a town hall session in Boston at Grub Street’s The Muse and the Marketplace Conference on the question. What Every Literary Writer Needs To Know About the Digital Disruption is to include on its large, carefully chosen panel Grub Street executive director Eve Bridburg; Amazon’s Jon Fine; Kobo’s Christine Munroe; the Atavist’s Evan Ratliff; Electric Lit’s Ben Samuel; Tumblr’s Rachel Fershleiser; literary agent April Eberhardt; and Bookigee’s Kristen McLean.

The conference anticipates making a live stream of the session available here on Publishing Perspectives, and we’ll have news of that for you closer to the date, May 2.

For our purposes here, however—and for our #EtherIssue live discussion on Wednesday—I suggest we take the topic to a broader application and turn to the question of quality in self-published output, which was part of our debate last week (summarized below).

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“Uncon­scious Incompetence”

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

In a follow to Chuck Wendig’s helpful, controversial How Self-Publishing Is Turning Into a Shit Volcano—Wendig joined us last week, in part to discuss some of his writings on this in #EtherIssue—Suw Charman-Anderson turns to the Cornell University work of David Dunning and Justin Kruger. Theirs is a concept, referred to as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, that’s nicely summed up in the abstract on the Sage Journals page for their study. From that I quote:

People tend to be blissfully unaware of their incompetence. This lack of awareness arises because poor performers are doubly cursed: Their lack of skill deprives them not only of the ability to produce correct responses, but also of the expertise necessary to surmise that they are not producing them.

As is sometimes said about amateurs, the problem is that they don’t know what they don’t know.

And in other words, or better yet, in Charman-Anderson’s words in Why the Self-Publishing Shit Volcano Isn’t Going To Stop Erupting Any Time Soon:

The problem is that people are generally very bad at accurately assessing their level of skill in any given area, especially an area in which they are inexperienced. That’s bad enough in a field where there’s an objective measure of capability. You may think you’re the bees knees at tennis, but if you keep losing every game you play, that’s a fairly clear indicator that you’re crap. And it’s not just an indicator to you, it makes it obvious to everyone that you’re crap, so it becomes hard, though not impossible, to maintain the delusion that you’re good. With writing, however, there’s no such clarity.

She’s right to point out that the subjective qualities of opinion and taste compound the difficulty. If nothing else, I’d say that those elements make it all too easy to assume one’s incompetence is, in fact, not a reality but something that simply lies in the subjectivity of others’ perceptions: “Oh, that’s just your opinion of my work.”

One way or another, what Charman-Anderson is getting at is that the digital dynamic has brought many people into the marketplace of writers who intend to sell their work, without being equipped to produce that work well nor to realize they’re not cutting it.

And that brings us to a couple of questions to get us going in our #EtherIssue discussion on Wednesday.

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Wednesday’s #EtherIs­sue at 11 a.m. ET / 4 p.m. GMT

Please give these questions a bit of thought, and join us:

  1. Is it possible that some of the accusations of “elitism” leveled at literary fiction are products of the Dunning-Kruger Effect? — that is, people not realizing that they’re not equipped to recognize their own shortcomings as readers or writers?
  2. How large a part would you say that consumerism–and attitudes it may produce in readers, per Catton’s essay–plays in the quickness you find in some to label work “elitist?”
  3. Do you agree with Miller that intellectual insecurity may be in play when someone levels the charge of “elitism” at work they don’t understand or find interesting?
  4. Isn’t it true that there’s a kind of elitism to genre-fiction defenders who claim that all else is lesser work (literary, nonfiction, whatever).
  5. Why do you think people are so prone, as Miller asks, to diss what doesn’t seem to them to be the “right” kind of content?
  6. And do you think the short-sightedness of “unconscious(ly) incompetent” writers is behind the plethora of low-grade work being self published?

These questions, and yours: let’s have them all on Wednesday at 11 a.m. Eastern, 8 a.m. Pacific, 4 p.m. GMT on hashtag #EtherIssue — see you then.

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Last Week’s Topic: The Matur­ing Self-Publishing Dialog

4 February 2014 iStock_000002845516Small photog PacaYPalla texted story imageAs you’ll recall, our setup story for last week’s live #EtherIssue discussion—Issues on the Ether: How Is Self-Publishing Maturing?— turned on several recent writings (from Chuck Wendig, Matthias Matting, Sarah Shaffi, Joanna Penn, and Hugh Howey, with comments from Wattpad’s Ashleigh Gardner made to Penn in an audio podcast.

In parallel that day (February 5), there were interesting conversations going on relative to agent Donald Maass’ Writer Unboxed state-of-the-industry viewpoint in The New Class System. Notably, Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler went to real length to counter the Maassian interpretation, in Fisking Donald Maass.

The Michigan author Jim C. Hines tried to clear a path between them all in The Gospels of Publishing, with a four-point warning:

  • There are authors doing ridiculously, amazingly well with traditional publishing.

  • There are authors doing incredibly, mind-blowingly well with self-publishing.

  • There aren’t a hell of a lot of people in either category.

  • Being a writer is hard work, no matter what path you choose.

And the rousing online conversation we had demonstrated, if nothing else, that a more mature self-publishing community is, at least, starting to talk to itself in those terms: the multiplicity of options over a uniformity of industry-resistance.

For example, there was pretty wide agreement with a comment about the quality goals of professionally oriented self-publishers:

Chuck Wendig has been especially vocal on the scene of late (see the aforementioned Why the Self-Publishing Shit Volcano Is a Problem), in proposing the community delineate between the often cheerleading culture of self-publishing and the professionalism required for success—and between an author’s writing-for-development and actually publishing for the market.

By #EtherIssue time on Wednesday, author and poet Dan Holloway had added a substantive comment to the column, in which he made a case for how evolving orthodoxy in self-publishing might threaten the author community’s natural diversity.

The sheer numbers of writers entering the author corps via the enabling tools of the digital dynamic were on the mind of author and self-publishing blogger in Richmond, Virginia, David Kazzie:

The UK’s Holloway, whose highest regard is for creative independence (and media representation of the widest field, not just of the highlights), knows how to get a rise out of those of us concerned about standards in self-publishing:

He got himself a quick comeback there from London-based hybrid author and editor Roz Morris:

In Los Angeles, M.E. Welman marveled that the importance of quality could even be an issue.

Lucas Bale in Surrey noted that whether some writers think quality is an issue, many readers do:

Quick agreement from London author and self-publishing adviser Joanna Penn:

Early on, New York City’s Scott Coates had very logically asked for the overview of the self-publishing world we’re all crying for:

I explained that the major retailers’ practice of holding sales numbers proprietary (coupled with many writers’ inconsistent use of standardized “identifiers” followed by researchers used to track books) means that we actually don’t know how much self-publishing activity is really going on—we can’t count the books, we can’t count the authors, we’re running blind, all of us. Do not believe anyone who tells you that he or she knows how many self-published works are going into the market or how many authors are working in the field.

The quality issue continued to animate a lot of our discussion, Canadian author and editor Corina Koch MacLeod asking:

And by this point, our international conversation was spinning along several tracks nicely. Some lines from it:

An interesting sideline came up when it was suggested that there’s a certain chic developing around “the DIY look.” As London’s Dave Morris put it:

Here’s Ontario’s Carla Douglas:

We’ll give Holloway the last word and suggest you peruse the #EtherIssue stream if you’d like to seem more from this energizing exchange. Thanks to all who were with us, one of our best conversations yet. Join us Wednesday for another!

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Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. His Issues on the Ether column appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays, followed by an #EtherIssue live discussion on Twitter on Wednesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read on Thursdays at, and he is a regular contributor to He writes the Porter Anderson Meets column weekly for The Bookseller‘s Friday magazine in London with a live #PorterMeets Twitter interview with a newsmaker on Mondays. More about him is at Find him at Google+

Main image – iStockphoto: AngiePhotos

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.