Micro’s Pedestal: Literary Elitism and the Genre Wars

Micro's Pedestal

In my last entry, I wrote about the micro-macro-global conception of written work. I wanted to take the opportunity to talk a bit about the academic bias for micro-level writing and how that plays into elitism and the tension between genres.

Micro’s Pedestal and Literary Elitism

It’s worth noting that, since micro-level writing can be taught using concrete examples, it is the primary area of focus for those who go through the academic process for improving their work. It is thus the value espoused by, and used to justify, literary elitism.

It’s largely because of this connection with elitism that the general definitions of “good writer” typically refer to highly tuned micro work. This is problematic in two senses: First, it fails to recognize that some writers are especially good at the macro and global level despite not having strong micro-level skills, and that these writers can be powerfully affective for their readers. Second, it fails to recognize that some writers who are especially good at the micro level are shoddy macro- and global-level writers, which makes them ineffective for most audiences.

Since those who subscribe to philosophies of literary elitism already pre-suppose the values of that community, works with macro and global strengths are often dismissed out of hand. Appreciation for micro work is sufficient for someone to enjoy a piece despite macro or global shortcomings, so the elitist who reads a work that’s finely tuned at the micro level can authentically enjoy it. That’s not problematic in and of itself, but it does reinforce the assumption that the elitist community is a “superior audience,” more aware of what “good writing” really is.

Genre Wars

The tension between different genres often boils down to similar questions. The different genres have differing priorities—and must have those differing priorities if they’re to function at all. A sci-fi piece has to care a lot more about plot and devote more of its resources to developing their setting at a global level, and if their world and plot are well-tuned, they can hide a weakness that occurs at a micro level. A literary fiction piece is able to spend more of its time on the precise details of a description, and can often hide a weakness that occurs at a global level.

While there’s no rule that says a sci-fi writer can’t be good at word choice or a literary fiction writer can’t be good at plot, the shift in focus means that each writer is likely to spend more time devoted to the most important aspects of their work. Each develops a distinct writing exercise routine; they’re working different muscles, so it’s hardly a surprise if they have different strengths.

I don’t expect to end the genre war by providing this explanation of it. However, my opinion is that strength is strength and weakness is weakness—and it’s fine that some of us care more about some strengths or weaknesses than others. It doesn’t mean one group is right or wrong; it means that they have different taste. Writers of different genres can learn a great deal from one another if they can recognize the strengths that draw an audience for a work we ourselves don’t appreciate.

Write on,