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‘Hogwarts would be an absolute hive of sodomy’ — Lev Grossman.

April 19, 2011

Lev Grossman

But he means it in the nicest possible way. Actually Grossman, literary critic for Time magazine and author of a novel, The Magicians, called “a Harry Potter for adults,” is making an impassioned plea for the relevance — nay, dominance — of genre literature.

I was going to write about Jenifer Egan winning the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Goon Squad (shutting out Jonathan Franzen’s once overpraised now already nearly forgotten Freedom. Yet. Again.). Or perhaps the (alleged) expose of Greg Three Cups of Tea Mortensen as a lying fraudster. But I can’t pass up a quote like that: “absolute hive of sodomy,” indeed!

If I were British I might be offended. Hogwarts, after all, is a co-ed institution, while the famous tradition of sodomy and general physical abuse in England’s elite public (which is to say, private) boarding schools seems in large part to stem from the absence of girls. It would be interesting to know how much sexual abuse of underclassman takes place in all-boy American boarding schools, would it not?

Of greater interest is the synchronicity of Grossman’s remarks, coming as they do only a few days after 85 outraged British genre authors signed a letter protesting the “sneering tone” toward popular literature on the BBC show “World Book Night.” Led by the venerable sci-fi authors Iain M Banks and Michael Moorcock (good lord, Moorcock’s still alive? I read him as a boy!),  the signatories included writers from the children’s, horror, fantasy and crime fiction categories.

Noting the popularity of the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” series, fantasy novelist Stephen Hunt said, “The sweeping under the carpet of the very genres of the imagination which engage and fire readers’ minds shows a lot more about the BBC production team’s taste in fiction than it does about what the general public is actually reading.”

That’s very close to what Grossman told an interviewer at The West Australian (he had to go to the Antipodes to say this stuff?), though not nearly as pithy or quotable. For example: “There is a certain brokenness among American literary publishing,”Grossman says. “I find it quite incredible, the energy and attention given to publishing books that are bought by only 10,000 people.”

Literary novels, he adds, “suck up a lot of the available options for marketing and publicity. No wonder people are reading less and less – because they’re told that this is literature, out on the front tables,” even though too many such books are by authors who are “placing a premium on the difficulty of the reading experience.”

Hmmm…Don’t you find this strikingly similar to the current Republican stands on taxes and social services? Both say: Let’s take from those who have little and give it to those who have much. On the one hand, it’s cutting social services to the poor and giving tax breaks to the rich. On the other, it’s taking advertising resources from literary novels and giving them to popular fiction.

I have a hunch Grossman has’nt thought this quite through, philosophically. I’d be very surprised to learn he’s a Tea Partier.

As charming and amusing as Grossman’s remarks are, they’re also, as our English cousins would say, bollocks. Sure, there are lots of ponderous self important books like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest that get praised to the skies even though they are essentially unreadable.

But literary fiction, even when it only (only?!?) sells 10,000 copies remains a cornerstone of literary culture. And it coughs up dynamic works all the time: Egan’s Goon Squad is one excellent example, and even Freedom is a good and highly accessible novel. It’s merely a conventional piece of social realism that Tom Wolfe could take home to his mother, and therefore nothing special in my estimation.

And let us not forget that Grossman’s own The Magicians was widely praised (that handy “Harry Potter for adults” line came from no less than The New York Times). It was a bestseller. I’m afraid Grossman, though funnier, is singing the same song as Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, who claimed they are ignored by the literary establishment for being female — despite bestselling books, movie adaptations, millions of fans.

C’mon Jodi, Jen, Lev: Don’t be sore winners. As I said back then, “Money and devoted readers are not enough. They want critical esteem as well.” I got news for you. The math goes like this: Write literary fiction, you receive literary esteem. Write popular fiction, you get popularity — if, in both cases, you are also very good and/or very lucky.

Still, I have philistine streak, too, and Grossman’s remarks confirm my growing conviction that I’ll never bother catching up with Wallace. But who knows? Maybe I’ll convert to Catholicism someday and feel the need to do penance for all my hideous sins. Instead of marching up and down Las Olas Boulevard, flagellating my naked torso with a cat-o’-nine-tails, I’ll just read Infinite Jest instead.

From this vantage, I can’t predict which would be more painful.

Meanwhile, I take seriously Grossman’s suggestion that he’s put the “adult” back into adult fantasy. The Magicians goes near the top of my reading list. I’ll report back with a count of how many instances of sodomy it contains.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2011 12:05 pm

    If I write children books, will I get children. When you write you want your book to get the acclaim it is due. Some times it happens, some times business will decide that. I guess success lies some where in between. My self I will take devoted readers and the money. The acclaim can come but some times it is political in a sense. Woops , wait a minute, the children are here. Lots of them.

  2. April 19, 2011 9:11 pm

    Tea Bagger for sure. Half a brain engaged, the rest wallowing in what stinks. 10,000 copies! I’d give my left … to sell 10,000 copies. Advertising? What’s that? Elite pigs.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 19, 2011 9:21 pm

      I’ve found it’s always the genre writings arguing that real literature lies in the genres. They often make good points, but the overall argument is ridiculous.

  3. Connie permalink
    April 22, 2011 6:37 pm

    I’m late reading this (as usual) but I just wanted to warn you: scale your expectations down for The Magicians. Way, way down. By the end of that book I actively hated every character in it, hated the plot and wanted everyone to die (Mr. Grossman did not oblige me). I can’t remember ever having such a violent emotional reaction to fictional characters, ever. I was never a fan of the Narnia books, but my dislike was so intense I feel it goes beyond that. (I read Narnia when I was in high school, too late, I think, to fall in love with that particular series).

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