I admit to intellectual insecurity
February 12, 2014 | 6:25 pm
Here’s an excellent essay anatomizing my hostility towards the adolescent excesses of science fiction – and most other forms of literary genre prejudice whatsoever. Writing in Salon under the title “Is the literary world elitist?,” Laura Miller states – in an article that itself is a round-robin response to Eleanor Catton’s own piece on literary elitism – that: “Intellectual insecurity is, alas, a pervasive problem in the literary world … One of the favorite gambits of people secretly uncertain about their own taste is identifying some popular book of incontestably lower quality than their own favorites and then running all over the Internet posting extravagant takedowns of it and taunting its fans.” Remind you of anyone?
Miller dives into the relationship between literary taste and reputation. “Catton underplays the degree to which our relationship to any given book is also a relationship to its reputation — which is just another way of saying a relationship to everyone else’s relationship to the book.” And, she continues, “When I get the chance to quiz someone who seems disproportionately passionate about the snobbishness of literary critics or the rabble’s appetite for trash, there’s usually some highly charged personal history behind their indignation … readers get way too much pleasure out of pissing on other readers’ preferences and/or jumping, on the slightest pretext, to the conclusion that their own are being ridiculed.”
As it happens, the English literary critic I.A. Richards performed “a series of experiments” back in the 1920s that demonstrated how much readers’ responses were influenced by preconceptions and prejudices – and which became a cornerstone of modern literary criticism. As the University of Cambridge Faculty of English introduction to his work explains, “he gave poems to students without any information about who wrote them or when they were written.” The results that he recorded in Practical Criticism displayed responses and readings wildly at variance with the actual works’ canonical status – with students often making bizarre, highly personal and unwittingly revealing judgment calls. Even the best of us can be lost without landmarks, it seems.
However, as Miller outlines, that wayward personal judgment can be a pretty toxic mixture when combined with insecurity. “It’s usually those with the least faith in their own opinions who become the most outraged when the consensus does not agree with them.” And, “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.”