…is Literature just a load of crepuscular?… great Guest Post from Author Kevin Brennan… #TBSU…

…here’s a ‘thinking’ piece Guest Post from my pal, Author Kevin Brennan… thanks for coming aboard, that man…


Yes, literature is elitist… thank God!

A while back, Salon’s Laura Miller asked the musical question, “Is the literary world elitist?”

My short answer? Yes.

Because it’s supposed to be. The word “literary” has a certain connotation, after all. In fact, the first definition of it in my dictionary says, “Concerning the writing, study, or content of literature, esp. of the kind valued for quality of form.” A few synonyms include: scholarly, learned, poetic, artistic, intellectual, cultured, erudite, and highbrow. Oh, and “bluestocking.” (Not sure what that is…)

Anyway, yes. The literary world is by definition elitist, but to my mind there’s nothing wrong with elitism. If we pretend to care about quality and cutting-edge, then it figures (to me, anyway) that elites in the various fields of endeavor — from the military to the academic to the creative — will be the ones to lead us. What am I not getting about this?

Miller’s essay is a consideration of a piece by New Zealand novelist, Eleanor Catton, who wrote about a reader’s objection to the word “crepuscular” in the Paris Review, of all places. Happens to be one of my favorite words, crepuscular, but in our culture, apparently, its use is likely to get a writer trolled to death in her Amazon reviews. You can read Miller’s piece and Catton’s piece and contemplate the arguments about what all this means. You might read Catton’s novel, The Luminaries, and decide for yourself whether it’s elitist or not. (I haven’t read it.) Or you can just spout an opinion of your own, like I’m about to do.


Literature is an art form. All writing is not art. All fiction is not art. But writing that is conceived to be part of a culture’s creative, perpetual impetus ought to be allowed the flexibility to use any and all tools in its creator’s kit — including a word like crepuscular, for shitsake. (Try ostentiferous on for size!) The minute you let readers dictate the content and style of art (as the corporate publishing biz seems inclined to do), you drive art straight into a brick wall. This is what worries me about the whole Oyster thing, with algorithmic analysis of where in the text readers bail on a novel. Only a matter of time before the readers are basically writing the goddamn books….

It could be because readers don’t like to feel inferior, as Miller suggests. Rather than, for instance, getting excited over a word like crepuscular and looking it up, the anti-crepuscular among us call the writer an elitist and label his book “boring” or “too complicated.” The American gut reaction to lots of things seems to be, “What, you think you’re smarter’n me?”

Again, the short answer: Yes.

According to Miller, there could be a deep psychological wound behind these anti-elite reactions. “A teacher, a parent, a romantic partner, a friend, a roommate, even a co-worker has made them feel ashamed over a book or genre they enjoy or admire.”

I don’t buy it. More often than not, they should feel ashamed (Bigfoot erotica? Really?). But liking some kind of lowbrow pulp fiction is no excuse for not looking up crepuscular. A little initiative please?

Why can’t writers help readers get smarter? Why aren’t brilliant young novelists on television? Instead it’s authors of almost-porn (you know who I’m talking about), popular thriller hacks, celebrities, and the occasional multi-culti novelist with a compelling personal story from someplace like Chad. The last time I saw Jonathan Franzen on TV, it was a few days after 9/11 and Ted Koppel made a fool of himself trying to think of something to ask the guy.

But let’s say the knee-jerk reaction against seemingly elitist writing can be at least partly blamed on a reader’s deep-seated anxiety, isn’t it fair to ask why the whole culture has to be dumbed down? As Miller puts it at the end of her column, “Even if we’re not to blame for our insecurities, we are responsible for recognizing them for what they are. And for growing up and getting over it.”

Amen to that.


Filed under Blether, Scribbling & Stuff

26 responses to “…is Literature just a load of crepuscular?… great Guest Post from Author Kevin Brennan… #TBSU…

  1. The only trouble with elitism is that too often — usually in the hands and minds of those who haven’t earned it — it turns into exclusivism. There’s this idea pervasive in all circles and niches that once you can call yourself good at something, you get to tell others that they’ll never be as good as you if their methods don’t mesh with yours. But being an elite means you actually are great at something, not just that you look like it in contrast to all the people you put down.


  2. We run the risk of writing by numbers and just choosing themes and words people might prefer. But I guess it all depends on who we are writing for. If they don’t like it, they won’t read it…


  3. Reblogged this on Wild and Woolly Wordsmithing and commented:
    Wonderful guest post on Seumas’ blog today. I love language. Every time I get to pick up a dictionary and learn a new word from a fantastic story, my squee factor goes up to a billion. Don’t be afraid to bring that joy to a reader. Even if like me, you’ve had someone chew you out at work for using ‘ubiquitous’ in an email at work when it was the best word for what needed to be said just because the coworker was unwilling to open the internet and look it up, don’t let it stop you from striving to find the right word to use in your writing.

    I’m at Clockwork Alchemy this weekend, sitting at a table among the most wonderful and friendly and knowledgeable authors who (just like Seumas and the author of this post) want to tell a story and share a dream (squeeeee to the infinity, among them is the amazing Harry Turtledove…heart pounding when I plucked up the courage to ask him to sign my copy of The Two Georges). I suppose the author of the review that spawned the article below would call writers alley here at the con elitest, but I am proud and awed to be in such generous, wonderful, and mentoring company. So here’s to picking up the dictionary. Hope you enjoy the post! Thank you Seumus and Kevin for bringing up the topic!


  4. Reblogged this on Reading Recommendations and commented:
    I love it when Authors who have been promoted on Reading Recommendations promote each other! In this case, Seumas Gallacher is reblogging a very interesting post written by Kevin Brennan. Both RR Authors are linked-to above on the Authors Promoted – alphabetical listing Page. After you’ve read and clicked “like” on both their websites, have a look at their RR promotions!


  5. Reblogged this on WHAT THE HELL and commented:
    Our friend Seumas Gallacher is offering guest post slots at his magnificent storefront, so I asked if he’d mind posting this piece of mine from February. He agreed, and it’s up today!

    Muchas gracias, mi amigo!


  6. Very good article. I must say, I love the word crepuscular too. What’s more, I use it. I use it in my YA books too. The way I see it, there’s a place for every word that exists. It might be because it sounds right, it has the right cadence, or the meaning is spot on. I’d never avoid the right word because somebody might not know what it meant and be offended because…because why? Because I’ve used a word that isn’t in their vocabulary? If I was writing for five-year-olds I would use uncomplicated language, but adults are supposed to have a broader knowledge of their language than an infant. Disneyspeak is intrinsically poorer than the language which is a distillation of Greek, Latin, Old Norse, High German, Saxon, Frisian, Norman French, and Gaelic with a spattering of oriental languages for good measure. That isn’t being any more élitist than saying Picasso was a better painter than my dog will ever be.


    • … beautifully put, m’Lady, Jane…. and correctly summarised… if you were to follow the ‘dumbing down’ process , the world would never have seen your wonderful poetry, for example… cheers .:)


    • Thank you, Jane. And I agree completely about the notion of using everything a language has to offer. Where would we be without the delicious puns English offers!? (Among other benefits, of course…)


  7. In fact, since I so much agree with this post, and because my mother was a Brennan, I’m minded to reblog this. Hope you don’t mind.


  8. Reblogged this on Jane Dougherty Writes and commented:
    Some very common sense thoughts about using big words.


  9. Pingback: In defense of lit-fic | WHAT THE HELL

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