A Case for Literary "Snobbery"

by Elison Alcovendaz

It's like clockwork. I'm at a social event. Somehow or another I end up talking with someone who knows or finds out that I write. They mention such and such book, because, OMG, they loved it. It was just, like, the best thing EVAR. I've practiced my face in response to such questions. I'm a nice guy. People know me that way. But when I hear that Twilight was the best book a person ever read, or that Fifty Shades of Grey was the most well-written story since, well, Twilight, my natural inclination is to check my watch and politely walk away. But instead I brace myself, make my face look happy, and nod a lot. Uh huh. Oh yeah. Just great. Yeah, when Edward... OMG, when Christian Grey did that one thing? 

Literature has a unique place not only in society but even more narrowly within the arts. If we take a look at some general "genres" of art, we'd acknowledge most of us really don't know that much about them:

1) Painting. Any idea if this could be one of the best paintings ever?:

    Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 - 1669)   St. Bartholomew  , 1661, Oil on canvas   86.7 x 75.6 cm (34 1/8 x 29 3/4 in.)   The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 - 1669)
St. Bartholomew, 1661, Oil on canvas
86.7 x 75.6 cm (34 1/8 x 29 3/4 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Well, shoot, I mean, it is a Rembrandt, so yeah, I mean, maybe it could be one of the best paintings ever? Possibly? 

2) Music. Any idea if this is some of the best "music" ever played?:

Well, you know, this appears to be just stupid pretentious artsy fluff that a lot of people who think they know about music and like to spout something about John Cage would say is really good, probably some of the most innovative music ever, I mean, he's playing a cacti for God's sake, but well, I don't know, maybe it is, or, well, maybe it isn't? 

3) Film. Any idea if this is one of the best scenes ever in cinema?:

Man, I, uhh... what the hell was that? Was that actually part of a movie? 

Most of us don't paint and most of us haven't studied painting and most of us aren't musicians and most of us haven't studied music and most of us aren't filmmakers and most of us haven't made movies, but most of us know Garibaldi's art is not better than Rembrandt's, or that Britney Spears' music isn't more innovative than John Cage's, or that M Night Shyamalan isn't a more artistic filmmaker than Terrence Malick. We get that because we believe the word of people who know more about those topics, which we do because most of us don't know the first thing about brushstrokes or dissonance or when's a good time to use a jump cut. But we know words. We use them. We learn them from when we're in kindergarten. We learn how to put them together in a sentence. How to use them to communicate. To get things we want. To make our emotions known. We might even know about proper semi-colon usage (chances are this is not true; don't use them). And so when it comes to books, which are filled with those words we use everyday, we feel we know enough about them to say they were SO AWESOME. Sure, yes, Gone Girl was so good, such a good twist, I couldn't believe it! 

I'm being a little bit of an ass here, but you get the drift. People don't like people who know more about words than they do because everyone is supposed to know about words. Thus the hate on the grammar police. Thus the reason why an old co-worker told me she was nervous to send emails to me because she didn't write as "well" (never mined tuns of my correspondance had typos galore.). Thus the reason why I can hardly ever have an honest conversation with someone about books.

You might call this "snobbery." I'd call it the one thing in my life I (hopefully) know enough about (other than basketball or poker) to be able to speak passionately and intelligently about it. We all have these things. For example, being a parent gives you some knowledge about being a parent that I don't have. Going to take my word for it on what to do when your little one is fussy? Probably not. Another example: a friend recently graduated with a PhD in biogeochemistry. Bio geo whatta? Yeah, exactly. When I talk to him, I like to hear his passion about his subject, I like to learn more about something he obviously knows way more about than I do, I like to give him credit for the work and study he put in. But even if I thought I knew something about biogeochemistry - say something about the optimal temperature for the decomposition of organic matter to reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere - and he basically told me, even in the nicest of ways, that said opinion was perhaps not the most informed, would I then call him a "biogeochemistry snob?" 

Of course not.

This is why I think English nerds/literary "snobs" get a bad rap. Yes, everyone knows words. But we've probably studied them a little bit more. We've probably read more. We probably know that when you say something is the "best," we know you don't actually mean the "best":

adjectivesuperl. of good with better as compar.

1.of the highest quality, excellence, or standing:

the best work; the best students (dictionary.com)

We know when you say "best," you don't mean "of the highest quality," you mean the thing that made you feel happy or excited or thoughtful or made you cry. It made you feel something. And in most cases, that should be enough. But a literary "snob's" mind doesn't think that way. The snob wants to know how the writer made you feel that way. What words did they use? What types of words? What character development? What plot elements? What narrative voice? What did the author do differently than other authors before her? What invariably happens is you ask someone why something was so great and they say they just "liked it" and that's fine, that's great, but if that is a bit frustrating to us, then try to be understanding. We aren't trying to be "better." We want to discuss the timing of that one scene that made you bawl your eyes out, or the aspects of that one character that made you remember your first love. Let's figure that part out. For us, it's not what happened that's interesting; it's how what happened that is. 

I'm not begrudging Stephanie Meyer or E.L. James. They wrote books that people loved and sold a ton in the process. If I'm being honest, I'd love to have that kind of success someday. But they are not the "best" books and I'll bet even the authors themselves don't think their own books are the best ever or even one of the best books of the last fifteen years. So when you corner a literary snob at a party to talk about books, and you mention that one book that was just the best thing you've read, well, since you can remember, be receptive to his desire to figure out why it was the best thing you can remember ever reading. And if he asks you that, and you respond with "I don't know" or  "I just liked it" and he then makes a polite smile and steers the conversation somewhere else, take his politeness as politeness and not as some elitist act simply to try and make you feel bad. I can promise you that is not the case. We just want our little extra knowledge to have some currency, just like doctors and painters and teachers and biogeochemists get credit for the extra stuff they know and dedicated their time to...

...but then again, I do tell foodies that, OMG, Spam is the best food EVAR, especially with ketchup and egg and rice (YUM), and they respond with faux-vomit faces and expressions that plainly communicate how low of a person they think I am, so please stay tuned for my next installment: DOWN WITH THE FOOD SNOBS!