I’ve been considering perceived quality a lot, with this erotica-publishing adventure. When I was in high school and we could “choose” our books for a certain project, the rule was always that the book had to be “of literary merit.” No Stephen King, no Anne Rice. None of those literary bottom-dwellers, in other words.
As a young writer, I internalized the notion that anything written for “the masses”–anything popular, anything with fast pacing, anything my English teachers couldn’t read dozens of Biblical references and Jungian archetypes into–was inferior. If I wanted to be a real writer, I’d write in a detached tone, about characters who were at least half-inhuman. (We could argue about this; some people love John Steinbeck, but to me every one of his characters made me cringe, and let’s just say, capping off the unholy long nightmare that was Grapes of Wrath with a teenage girl breastfeeding an old man? Yeah, no. No, no, no, a thousand times no. Quit bein’ a creeper, Steinbeck!) I’d make certain that my stories contained layers and layers of meaning, no: Meaning.
Not my style of writing. And I really thought, until I was in my mid-twenties, that not settling a heavy blanket of Symbolism and Message over my stuff made me a hack. I had no idea that this was just a style. I didn’t know that all writerly styles are essentially created equal, and that writers of literary fiction don’t necessarily have to sweat harder for their symbolism than those of us hacks out here in the trenches, writing the stuff of mass market paperbacks.
(Thank goodness my stubbornness is ingrained as deeply as my creativity; I fought with my teachers, for years and years. I fought in college, too, until I ended up in the classroom of Jaime Manriquez, who complimented me on my dialogue and said “You write like kids talk. Well done.” No one had ever complimented on an aspect of my writing before. I was twenty-one, man. I’d written–hang on–four novels by then? Stubborn, man.)
I don’t write anything my high school teachers would consider “of literary merit,” and allow their students to read in class. Even the stuff I write that isn’t erotic? Yeah, there’s the ghost story, or the novella about the blind midget, his pony, and his acerbic companion, racing the clock to out-kill a murderous politician called Thumb, who travels through the worlds and delights in the suffering of all people. (His recipe for pizza? People died in the making of it. No, really. Shudder.) But they’re stories that might make you laugh, or cringe, or get your rocks off. The ghost story might scare you a little.
So here we are, almost twenty years after I finished my first novel, and I’ve given up on literary merit. I stopped judging the things I read (Stephen King, Lois McMaster Bujold, Josephine Myles) by standards set according to reading lists clogged full of dead white men and stifled white women. Over it, man. I like what I like. No, I fucking love what I like. I can read Bujold’s Vorkosigan books over and over again for the rest of my life. When I was pregnant? I read the whole cycle twice.
I can’t argue there’s no objective value system for fiction. But I can’t really argue that there is one, either. Some people don’t notice or don’t care about typos. I can’t stand them. And every book, regardless of publishing route, has a few, but if you have a few in the first few pages–I’m not gonna read your book. I’m sure as hell not gonna pay for it. Dialogue kills me. There are books that people adore, that I can’t even force myself through if the dialogue sounds clunky to my ear.
So: literary merit. Good, bad, indifferent? Is there a way to frame “literary merit” that doesn’t essentially shit on a whole lot of books? Discuss!