Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Am I A Book Snob?

This is Miss Leyow’s fault. 1985, way back in our first lit class, she warned me that if I were to really get a hold of literature, get into the magic and wonder of books, it would change everything about how I see the world—for better or worse. That was both promise and warning, something exciting yet ominous. Twenty-two years later, somewhere between stealing from Borges and shouting in envy at Bolano I realized that I just might be a book snob. This terrible secret I had long suspected and kept to myself, fearing the repercussions of being seen as an elitist, which can be a double curse for a black man; worse a Black Man in America ®. Recent debates in black American fiction have made it even worse, with clear battle lines being drawn between commercial and literary fiction as the former fights for inclusion and the latter for higher standards. It means much when self-published author Shamontiel’s most withering criticism of Mat Johnson (Author of The Great Negro Plot) was that he was ‘elitist.’ So many writers, black and white respond to this with insincere pluralism as if, of course War and Peace and Peyton place belong on the shelf together, right beside Danielle Steele and Toni Morrison. I knew because I used to be in their number. Then I reached 36.

Nothing sharpens your focus like age. I’m now at the age where I’m neither cool nor dead and am four years from my first prostate exam. This does many things to man including reducing his tolerance for bullshit. This is a roundabout way of saying that far from hiding my book snobbery I am quite proud of it. Snob, like nigger and bitch are words that were once bestowed on others as an insult. I feel like becoming a rapper and claim the insult for myself, except snob just does not have the poetic ring or the exciting sense of the forbidden. But that’s the word that I have been given.

The irony about us book snobs is that our tastes are far more inclusive than those of the people who criticize us. I have been calling Buffy the Vampire Slayer the last great work of the 20th century for years now, but people who watch the Lifetime Movie Network tell me to grow up. And put away my X-Men comics while I’m at it. And yet for all our supposed hatred of mainstream and genre fiction, it is us, not them who have been championing Walter Moseley and George Pellecanos for years. It is us who have kept Ice Berg Slim and Zora Neale Hurston alive. It’s us that realized that Georges Simenon was onto something and Mickey Spillane was not, despite the former selling far more than the latter. The only thing we hate is literature that insults our intelligence, whether that is Omar Tyree or Elfriede Jenilek. For some people (who have never heard of Jenilek), that’s enough to call one a snob.

This calls to mind my previous blog about highbrow and lowbrow lit. In that blog I was more diplomatic, trying on terms for size and refusing to claim any. This blog is different. I just don’t see why I should apologise for reading Stendhal and wanting to talk about it. This coming September I might even teach a class on The Charterhouse of Parma. I don’t see why I should hide that reading Steppenwolf scared the daylights out of me because I came across an irrefutable argument for suicide. Or that I know my Faulkner from my Welty. And that yes, the new translation of Roberto Bolano’s the Savage detectives has me going from one delirious peak to the next, like those orgasms that men don’t get to have. The difference is that I don’t hide it anymore to defend Eric Jerome Dickey.

There are reasons against snobbery of course, but it wasn’t until my 36th birthday that I realized that they were bullshit. To defend a black writer merely because he was black was and is still ludicrous, something that our forbears Richard Wright and James Baldwin never stood for even when there weren’t many black writers around and any writing was better than nothing. There must be something deeper at work. Something else perhaps, not in necessarily in all book elitists but in myself that forced me into the book snob closet. Then I remembered. Like most screwed up things in my life I got that from school.

I remember once, talking to a neighbour about dimming myself down in school. She was appalled to hear this, but my good friend Danielle backed me up because she had done the same. Dimming down works like this: in order to win more school friends and influence people, I set my brain on dim, acted less intelligent than I was. This saved me from the wretched nerd category, which in high school was the worst kind of loser. But I found myself dimming even when I got to work, where displays of intelligence were simply uncool, unmanly, and just plain wrong. I came across people who were quite proud of never reading a book. And never planning to. I went to a church that lauded the barely literate believer, proclaiming that it’s better to have a G.O.D. than and Ph.D. I came across college educated men who thought a lack of cooking skills made them straight and women who saw no problem with acting stupid to get a man. In short I came see that using one’s brain and appearing to do so was simply not done. And it made no difference if you were a writer.

This is compounded in the black community where criticism of another writer is seen as not just an attack, but also a declaration that the critic is calling himself better than the writer. Not a better writer mind you, but a better human being, a more valuable one, a snob. It makes no sense trying to get these writers to see otherwise. They will go to their graves not understanding the difference between critique and attack and will in turn attack you personally. But who is being the snob? My criticism of commercial fiction never extends to the writer, but their criticism of people like me often does. Am I a snob because I know that Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude proved that John Barth’s 1966 essay on The Death of Narrative was hogwash? Should I have kept that to myself? How about my annoying habit of sticking to the Pevear-Volokhonsky translations of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky because Brits tend to treat those guys like Victorians? Is this snobbish enough yet? How about me going four paragraphs without mentioning a black writer?

I’m just not sure what literary pandering achieves. I was reading Flaubert at seventeen, so why would I read Tom Clancy at 36? Why regress? No pianist goes from Schubert to Chopsticks. Nobody grows from adult to infant. Why is this regression cool? Why is a discriminating taste uncool? Literature is the only art form where the mere attempt to do it is supposed to confer legitimacy, not whether it is done well. New York City ballet is not hiring baton twirlers and the twirlers are remarkably non-plussed about it. So what’s so bad about having a summit of writers and not inviting Tyler Perry?

Maybe Snob, like nerd or fag is a way of quickly dismissing someone we do not understand. People still think I read these mountains of boring books for no reason than to appear smarter than everybody else. They cannot imagine that maybe I read Beckett’s novels because I actually enjoy them. Because they cannot enjoy or will never try reading these books they assume that no normal person would either and anybody who claims otherwise is either faking it or elitist. They think we wear black turtlenecks in summer, sip chamomile tea with our pinkies stuck out, speak of metaphysics then talk down to all commercial and self published lit. And yet the last time I ran into a fellow book snob we were gushing over some old issues of X-Men, which many commercial fiction writers consider beneath them. This is bullshit of the worst smelling order.

And what’s the opposite of a book snob, a book ho? Do you really see no difference between Erica Kennedy’s Bling and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty? Do you really think calling Smith a superior writer is an attempt to be snobbish? Well then so be it. If you are a book snob it’s time to come out of the closet. You might not think you are, but if you bought Pete Dexter instead of Tom Clancy, Junot Diaz instead of Jackie Collins, then you are a lit snob my friend. It makes no sense denying it anymore. You might as well take off those shades as you buy The New York Review of Books, or try to slip the Paris Review underneath that In Touch. I’m starting to like my book snobbery. I like not having my time wasted by people asking my opinion of books I will never read but used to praise because the writer is black. I like going on about the difference between Gaddis and Gass and why Camus is smarter the Sartre. Snob-haytas think that us snobs think we’re special and you know what, maybe we are. After all, if everybody is special, then nobody is. That’s from the Incredibles, a cartoon movie. Some snob I turned out to be.