Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Social stigma in literature

So the Nobel laureate in literature has been revealed. Yet another guy I have never heard of, and probably whose work I'll never read. Yet another French guy. Haven't we had a truck load of those already?

I was excited to learn that Haruki Murakami was among the nominees this year. I thought that maybe some things were beginning to change. But no.
It's my opinion that there's a social stigma in literature. It has to be realistic and fanciful. There's no room for any fantastical sort of book in "proper literature", not even if it's the sort of fantastical realism that Murakami has in some of his books. There's a social stigma towards sci-fi, fantasy, steampunk, horror, and generally any book containing fantastical elements. As soon as the fantastical element is introduced the book is degraded as second-rate literature, not worthy of the literature snobs. I could give many examples of authors who've shaped today's literature, and none of them would have any place in any literature snob's bookcase, and most of the mainstream populace would never have heard of them. On the other hand, the mainstream populace generally doesn't seem to know about the Nobel laureate until he's revealed and then everyone rushes to read his work to appear educated. I say 'he' because it generally is a man.

I can tell you about authors who are important and who a great deal many people have heard of:
• Astrid Lindgren - her children's books shaped Swedish culture. But she wrote children's books (sometimes with a fantastical streak) and is thus not a worthy nominee for the Nobel prize. Not even posthumously.
• H.P. Lovecraft - laid the groundwork for the horror, sci-fi, and fantasy genres back in the 1930s. Without his influences would we have a certain successful writer called Stephen King today? But his stories are fantastical and not worthy of the Nobel prize.
• Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, L. Frank Baum, J.R.R. Tolkien - all part of our culture today. Or do you seriously want to tell me you've never heard of Alice in Wonderland, Narnia, The Wizard of Oz, and Lord of the Rings? They shaped children's books and fantasy for us. But their stories are fantastical and/or children's books and not worthy.
I know most of them wrote their stories in the late 19th century or very early 20th century, but the stigma from those days persist until today. When someone says they study literature you immediately assume they're talking about Shakespeare, Voltaire, Balzac, Proust, Steinbeck etc... Not even once do you consider that there might be other literature besides the snobbish classical literature that's worthy of study. That's wrong. Why would Balzac or Steinbeck be more "worthy" than Jules Verne and Tolkien? Alright, so I know that none of those I mentioned in my list are possible nominees today, but how about my next one. And consider this: I'm telling you from an outside perspective and not because I'm a huge fan.

If there's someone today worthy to be a Nobel laureate it's J.K. Rowling. How many of you sighed and rolled your eyes just now? Most of you, I assume. But hear me out.
• Harry Potter is the most sold children's book series ever. Not just the past 20 years, but since forever. That means it has sold more than The Wizard of Oz books and more than the Narnia books, and those series have had a 60-100 years to sell - Harry Potter has had less than 20 years.
• There aren't many places you can go (if anywhere) where people haven't heard of Harry Potter.
• And if you're looking for a reason those books have benefited humanity (as is the original demand for the prize): in an age where books have lost their importance in the eyes of young people the Harry Potter series has made an entire generation interested in reading. Fans have expressed a wish to learn Latin to better understand the spells. A book series that promotes reading and learning and succeeds - isn't that something special? Something to note?
But although I'm the one writing this, and although I really wish this would happen - I honestly think it never will. Because the social stigma that states that fantastical literature is crappy literature lives on.
I found today that outside of the world of Nobel laureates and mainstream book shops that only host half a bookcase of fantasy - that stigma has also nestled it's way inside me. I recently sent a short story to a competition via a community. Everyone who's a member of the community can read and rate the short stories - even if they don't compete. I read through some of the stories today and all of the ones I read were realistic ones. I'm not a fan of general fiction. I tend to think it's boring and I have problems getting drawn into the story and general fiction hardly ever catches my eye or interest. But the comments and ratings for those stories were generally favourable. And there I am having sent in a fantastical one. And although I feel myself that it's one of my greatest pieces I feel that no one else will really feel that way. Not because I think too highly of myself, because I generally don't, but because of the stigma that says fantastical = crappy.

So just for once I wish a fantastical writer could become a laureate. People always rush to buy and read the work of a newly announced laureate, and if my dream ever comes true that a fantastical writer is awarded the prize then that social stigma might just disappear and my work along with the work of other writers of fantastical genres will maybe finally be seen in a new and better light. The way it is now fantastical genres (especially fantasy, sci-fi, steampunk, and horror) tend to be obscure genres for nerds that the general populace don't read.

It's fine if you've tried and didn't like it, but you can't throw a whole world away because it's, like one of my classmates in university French once said, hittepå (meaning made-up).


  1. While I agree there's some social stigma towards fantasy literature, I don't think Murakami deserve the prize. I like (some of) his books, but there's no inventive in language and overall I find him just average.
    I think it's just a question of perspective. I read and loved HP, but they never struck me like some book from Nobel prize. I think language use is very important when it comes to Nobel, and most fantasy writer don't pay much attention to that.
    (And anyway Doris Lessing, who won in 2007, wrote several fantasy novel :D)

    1. I've only read Kafka on the Shore by Murakami. I'm not sure he deserves it either, but it would mean something.
      HP's language is amazing. How could you not notice that? :o The Nobel prize is based on the will of Alfred Nobel. He wanted his fortune to be given to those who had benefited humanity. Writing a book with only fancy language doesn't do anything. Building a genre does something. Writing about something that no one has read before does something. No one has done horror like Lovecraft since him. No one has managed children's book series like Rowling. No one has founded children's culture in Sweden like Lindgren. Writing fancy shouldn't be a criteria.
      And as far as I know and as far as Wikipedia says, Doris Lessing didn't write any works of fantasy.

  2. Skamligt att de anser att J.K Rowling inte skulle förtjäna nobelpriset... :/
    Jättebra skrivet som vanligt! <3

    1. Ska jag vara helt rättvis så tror jag hon kan vara "för välkänd" också :/ De försöker ju för det mesta välja författare som ingen hört talas om och sen blir de kändisar :P
      Men det hindrar inte stigmat! Det finns gott om fantasyförfattare som är okända, även för de allra flesta nördar, och de borde finnas med i bedömningarna!
      Och tack! <3


What's the first thought in your head after reading this? Let me know!