Report From the Snob Farm

By John Gilstrap

First an apology about missing my slot last week. My Big Boy Job sent me to Charleston, WV for the week to recertify as an instructor for OSHA-certified safety classes that I’ve been teaching off and on for about two dozen years. The Holiday Inn in Charleston—the one whose closed windows emit a frigid breeze and whose “closed” doors leak enough light to read by—didn’t have working Internet access. Thus, no blog.

I thought I’d give a report on the panel I moderated a couple of weeks ago called “Literary Snobs and Commercial Sellouts: The Truths and Truisms of Literary Prejudice,” the one I introduced in my previous entry here in the Killzone. The panel consisted of mystery writer Donna Andrews, thriller writer James Grady, and literary novelist and PBS radio commentator Alan Cheuse.

I started things off by reading parts of a New York Times article which denounced the decision to bestow a National Book Award on Stephen King. The tone of the article dripped condescension. After my selected five- or six-sentence quote, I just opened it up, and the discussion ran at full speed for an hour and fifteen minutes, during which absolutely nothing was resolved.

Don’t get me wrong. The panelists were all articulate and they were all good sports, but this is the kind of topic that draws more fireworks than conclusions. My only disappointment was that they were all so damned polite to each other. I was sort of hoping for a “Jane, you ignorant slut” moment, but it never came.

A couple of comments did stand out. The first one involved a question from a young lady in the audience. I forget substance of the question, but prelude was fascinating. She is in the process of writing a novel, and by way of defending the literary side of the argument she went on at length about the importance of words and images. In her book, she said, the thrill of writing lies in the beauty of her prose and the vividness of the scenes she creates.

Nowhere in her soliloquy did she mention story as an element of writing a book. When I asked her about it, she seemed rather flummoxed. Having already introduced myself as the quintessential commercial sellout, she seemed unmoved and a little put off when I suggested that while writing is itself an art form, the selling of writing is all business; and that to convince a publisher to invest in the production and distribution of a book, there needs to be some reasonable chance of earning back the investment. That expectation, I told her, requires a good story well told. I’m fairly certain that my observations fell on deaf ears.

The one truism on which all attendees seemed to agree was that movies suck, and that people who write them are talentless hacks. Books, they agreed, are so much better than movies. Every time a screenwriter touches the cherished words of a writer like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the result is something terrible. As discussed at the conference, Marquez reportedly turned down Anthony Quinn’s offer of $1 million for the rights to One Hundred Years of Solitude because he didn’t want those movie hacks to ruin the product of his muse. Clearly, he was less protective of Love in the Time of Cholera.

Thus began the movies-are-crap discussion. As moderator, I did my part to keep things going, but then, as resident script-writing talentless hack, I felt compelled to defend the craft. I explained that when I adapt a book for the screen, I am not trying to recreate the reading experience, anymore than a landscape artist in Yosemite is trying to recreate the great photographs of Ansel Adams. Or vice-versa. Books and movies are entirely different art forms; one cannot replicate the other. The job of the screenwriter—and subsequently of every one of the hundreds of people involved in the production of a film—is to tell a compelling story well. If the story was first told as a novel or short story, credit is given, and that’s where the creative obligation ends.

Here’s some food for thought (and, hopefully, discussion): Movies released in 2008 include The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire, Saw V and Space Chimps. The “quality” of these movies is all over the board, as far as I’m concerned. I’d pay $10 NOT to see Space Chimps or Saw V, and I’m guessing many of you agree.

Together, we’ve made the value judgment that some movies are just not worth our time. Does this make us “cinematic snobs” who are dismissive “commercial” films? At the end of the day, is it all just a continuum that boils down to taste?

13 thoughts on “Report From the Snob Farm

  1. What I hate is when someone tries to turn one of my books into a sculpture. That’s when my snobaterialistic dark side kicks in and I want to go rent SAW XXIV. 🙂 Nice post, John.

  2. Only the blind see Saw.

    When did “story” become a four letter word? Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe told stories. Was it something that happened in the 60’s? Pynchon? Experimental novels? LSD? (Well, I guess Kesey told good yarns under the influence).

  3. Many good points. YEs, much of what you’re discussing in the movie comment is merely taste. People of different backgrounds will like different kinds of movies and books. There are certain standards of professionalism to which we are entitles: no boom mikes in the shot, basic rules of grammar and spelling, stuff like that.

    Relentlessly middle-brow, I see the argument from both sides. I may htink Saw XXIV is meaningless crap, and HOUSE OF SAND AND FOR is pretentious crap, but that’s my opinion. My tastes don’t run in that direction. I won’t read James Patterson on a bet, but a LOT of people do, and I can’t say they’re wrong and I’m right. Not with a straight face, anyway.

  4. I’m so glad you posted about that panel, John! I was dying to know how it went. I wish I’d been there. While reading your post I just dreamed up a new way to measure the relative literary vs commercial “weight” of books. One can measure the page per minute read-through of a book. If a book has a fast page-per-minute “read-through,” it’s commercial. Slow, it’s literary. I’ll bet some English lit kid could even put some people in a room with Stephen King’s The Shining and The Mill on the Floss and come up with some metrics.

  5. I like chocolate, you like vanilla. I like Scotch Whisky and you think tea is too strong.

    Ain’t it wonderful that we live in a world full of choices?

  6. Actually I kind of like the SAW films.

    And mom always told me I’d go blind, but it still hasn’t….AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!1!!!1! I CAN’T SEE!!!!!1!!one!

    (Oh, and my addition to the discussion is that a story is good to someone who appreciates some aspect or other of the story, and it isn’t to someone who sneers at some aspect or other of the same story. It’s subjective. Nothing new there. But then I’m unpublished, like SAW, and have apparently recently gone blind…so what the hell do I know?)

  7. As a novice writer, the one thing that I’ve been told over and over is “write a darn good story.” I think a lot of writers forget that bit of advice…even those who are multi published. Actually, I think most of them tend to not care anymore since they have a “name” and their name sells the book. Okay, maybe not most, but a big part:-)

    But as to movies…I see screenwriting as a different skill. With different rules and such. And no matter what, you just can’t take a 500 page novel and turn it into a 2 hour movie without leaving something out.

    What irks me is when the screenwriter seriously deviates from the novel. For example, Watchers by Dean Koontz. About the only thing the same was the breed of dog in the book and movie. And the title. Sigh.

  8. I like Kimchi and Guinness. Even at the same time. Many people despise both in any form.

    When I talked about my novels and podcast series at a literary convention the old stoner hippy grandmas and lit prof types got a real attitude with me. But my listeners online said “its like a movie in my head” and “never stop.”

    So it must be true that its totally subjective. Some folks don’t get poetry. Some folks can’t do thrillers. Some folks are impotent. Some folk’s potency makes them go blind. I think its a deep core genetic physiological hugging your momma or not kind of think.

    by the way, I only went colourblind…don’t know what that means…but I do have a hot wife and three sons

  9. I’m definitely on the story side of the argument, but what’s great for the people who don’t care about the business angle is that they now have the Web as an outlet for their writing. If all you want is to have your words read and don’t care about making money, there are plenty of ways to accomplish that goal.

    But if you do want to make money, you’d better think about who your audience is and what they want to read. And usually that means putting a lot of thought into story.

  10. Literary snobs enjoy reading for the love of the word stacking, I suppose. I had one “unpublished” author tell me he hoped he never made a lot of money writing, because that was the worst reason to write. I suppose he’s fulfilled his dream by now and has starved to death impressing himself and his fellow Litsnobs.

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