Many years ago, a kindly old man at a used bookstore welcomed me into his shop.
“We have many books you might like,” he said politely. “Our ‘chick lit’ section is right over there.” He pointed to a shelf teeming with mass market paperbacks with pastel spines emblazoned with cursive writing.
I like to think he noticed the horror in my eyes. I was young. I was insecure. I was full of that snobbery that exists when you’re 20 and on a quest to prove that you’re more intelligent and worldly than you actually are.
I read good books, I thought to myself. I read literary books! I immediately resented being shoved into a category based on my gender.
Marketers especially like to neatly categorize books. In literary circles, you hear a lot of talk about genre fiction vs. literary fiction. These categories create a division line between works of art and everything else, including (but not limited to) books that are commercial, trashy, or popular. This categorization can be a breeding ground for literary snobbery.
Literary is a weighty term. It carries with it a lot of meaning, but it can also be ambiguous. For some who work in the literary arts, it’s a term that can be challenging and limiting, including for festivals that are trying to diversify audiences and expand programming.
“I love to read, but I’d feel out of place at a literary festival,” I’ve been told by friends and family members upon mentioning my work at gritLIT: Hamilton’s Readers and Writers Festival (formerly, you guessed it, Hamilton’s Literary Festival). Many, I’ve found, associate the word literary, and by association the term “literary festivals,” with intellectual and academic stuffiness. To friends and family, the words “literary” and “grit” offered competing messages.
Snobbery doesn’t win you friends in Hamilton. It’s a city where events are held in former cotton mills and hardware stores, restaurants are named after modes of transportation, and phrases like “food trucks” and “pop ups” are synonymous with culture. We’re grassroots. We’re organic. We’re anything but snooty.
Festivals, publishers, and authors are constantly seeking new ways of reaching audiences who don’t already travel in the book tour circuit. They’re attempting to blow away the dust from old notions of the bookish community and to engage a younger and more diverse audience.
In a lot of ways, they’re succeeding, especially as publishers reach out to bloggers with youthful and energetic voices, and festivals find more ways to be interactive. Just look at Woody Point, the maritime festival that blurs “the boundaries between nature and humanity, between words and music, between writers and readers,” bringing together music and books in an idyllic setting. Books on Bloor in Toronto brings together cycling and literature. gritLIT 2014 even welcomed long-time fans of Teenage Head to celebrate the release of a book about the iconic Hamilton band. (The at-capacity event resulted in the first, and only, time an audience needed to be removed for rowdiness).
Many of my days are immersed in books and writing, but very few of these days feel weighted down by stuffiness and snobbery. I’m not saying these things don’t exist, but they’re certainly not the norm, at least in my small corner of the literary world.
What do you think about when you hear the word “literary?” I’m curious to know.