Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Guest Post: Snobbery and Geekery

I’ve always thought of myself as a literary snob. I’ve got the credentials to prove it. Beyond those, I’ve stuck steadfastly to the notion of quality first and literary fiction only. But lately I’m not sure that my pomposity has served me well. Once I might have rejected everything even remotely smacking of genre out of hand. But even Boychik lit, and that’s about as opposite to literary snobbery as you get, is providing pleasure for me. Add to that my growing stack of audio books which even includes Grisham’s latest (and I'd always been particularly snooty about him, mainly because he earns more than I do), a couple of science fiction novels on their second time round, and my son’s pre-read young adult book, and I’m going to have to throw in the snob towel. Am I growing stupid? Am I following the shortening attention span of the public? Nah. I still love most (not all) of the Man Booker shortlist, and I still love the well turned phrase. Poetry is still my favourite literary form, and there hasn’t been a Julian Barnes novel I didn’t read twice. But I’m not sure I can use genre to define my reading habits anymore. It's just the usual broadening that comes with age (I'm not talking about my bottom).

I’m not entirely sure what the opposite of Boychik lit is. I know most people will say chick lit, but I don’t think that’s correct: chick lit might be parallel, but the rules are completely different and it certainly isn’t opposite. Maybe the opposite would be serious female fiction. But there are all sorts of connotations to the word “serious” that I no longer like in my new egalitarian clothes. Serious smacks of dullness, difficulty, intensity. And since my next novel is going to be funny (that’s my funny, which is a little black), I’m not going to slide in that direction. Instead, I’m going to go the way of all geeks and talk about forms of reading that don’t involve a physical book in the hand. Why? Because I went to bed for the past week with The Lord of the Rings playing on my i-pod, and it had a dramatic impact on my dreams. I also spent some of my time last week immersed in an electronic book of poetry. No, not on the um, Kindle. Instead I used my AA1. That’s a netbook or small laptop for those of you not as geeky as I am. Mine is Linux too (instead of Windows), and you don’t get geekier than that. I've become quite attached to it. When I finished my poetry book, I just downloaded another (in this case, a Penguin classic Jane Austin). Both books were .pdf and easily obtained from multiple vendors. There were no issues with formatting, no high purchasing costs (review copies actually, but the poetry book retails from the publisher for about $2 and the Austin is available free on Gutenberg) – I was able to bookmark and annotate and write my review all on the same machine I read on. Then I did some work on my next novel on the same machine. Best of all, it fits in my small handbag. Acer didn’t pay me to write this (though I'm open to it), and they didn’t provide me with the netbook free of charge either. At $320, it was cheap as chips though, and once they manage some kind of electronic paper screen (e-paper) as a standard or optional extra, I’m sure ebooks are going to replace the reading book. That's the kind of book you read, rather than book as artefact – there will always be a place for a beautiful edition on the shelf. But at least it will only be one shelf.

Of course at the moment the paperback is still a reasonably current sort of technology, and I'm old, so I do like holding one in my hands (still like vinyl too -- CDs just don't have the whole flip side/cover art thing going -- I don't buy them anymore though and they're awkward to store). Considering that I've got print books 3 deep on my 5 or so bookshelves and stacked in boxes under the bed, the benefits of electronic reading (and listening) are starting to seem significant. In the meantime, I’ll share my reading time between the old fashioned product, and the latest gadgets. It won’t have a jot of impact on the real test of quality: the simple response of a reader to wonderful words. That's timeless and technology independent.

Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything, and three other poetry chapbooks, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She also runs the podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks.

1 comment:

daboychik said...

I think I'll leave the ebook stuff alone. That's been a third rail, and passionate as I am about the need for for viable e-biz models, I will refrain from ranting on that subject. For now.

But more interesting to me is the distinction, if there is one, between boychik lit as a genre and literary fiction. Genre is a way of categorizing themes and audiences. It's useful primarily as a marketing tool. But certainly there are genre works that rise to the level of literature. Dashiel Hammet's Thin Man, for example. I coined "boychik lit" in hopes of creating a hipper fratire, one of the newer genres. But in fact both terms are new ways of thinking about old themes. Portnoy's Complaint is certainly boychik lit, if not fratire. Catcher in the Rye could be a model for fratire.

So, yes, Moby Dick is a seafaring adventure novel, and Gone With the Wind could have been one helluva bodice-ripper.

As if anyone gives a damn.