Dear Tim Parks,

I read your contribution to the New York Review, “Reading Upward,” and I must say you’ve made a terrible first impression on me. You see, I’d not heard of you or read any of your work before, though you write with such conviction of your own importance. Now, I suspect I will find nothing of lasting value were I to do so in the future.

Your argument was well-written and its logic as clear as it was evident. Until you turned the entire piece on its head and exposed it for what it was: a narrow-minded and outrageous continuation of the outdated values of a culture which glorifies exclusion as the essence of great literature. You turned a discussion about reading habits into a judgment of character.

Here’s where you lost me, as you begin the final paragraph and (did you think it would pass unnoticed?) slip in your real motivation in writing about the idea of reading upward. You wrote, “What no one wants to accept—and no doubt there is an element of class prejudice at work here too—is that there are many ways to live a full, responsible, and even wise life that do not pass through reading literary fiction.” You even put it in the middle of the sentence, without elaborating on it at all, as if that would somehow disguise its message. You’ve been talking about class all along, Mr. Parks. These words change the tone of much that preceded them.

You seem very sure of your assertion that “no one” wants to accept it. Who is actually included in this catch-all? Based on the context, I’m left to assume that you’re talking directly to your audience of the enriched and illuminated blowhards who, like you, still cling to the high art/low art paradigm. It is an inherently bigoted and presumptuous point of view, not shared by everyone with intelligence.

I certainly do not count myself among the “no one” you refer to.

Or how about your confusion as to how, “the right-thinking intellectuals continue to insist on this idea, even encouraging their children to read anything rather than nothing, as if the very act of reading was itself a virtue?”

You’re telling me that we’d be better off encouraging people to skip reading entirely if they’re not inclined to read the kinds of work that you deem worthy? While we’re at it, let’s just burn all the books you wouldn’t consider worth reading and save everyone the trouble of wasting their time. If my tone here seems extreme, it’s only to combat the effusive and airy tone with which you approach the subject. You write as though you’re not spewing the same old argument which has been used time and again to uphold the interests of an entrenched minority in the traditional publishing world. You are intent on propping up archaic stereotypes, which hold education and privilege in high regard, but fail to account for the disparity of wealth, opportunity, and accessibility that remains a barrier to millions of people across the world.

Never mind the fact that having a college education isn’t the only, or even the most, accurate indicator of intelligence. That’s the other ridiculous message embedded in your words, that people who read literary fiction are smarter and wiser for their taste in said literature because they are trained in its high-minded ways.

It’s too bad that you’re so obviously blinded by your assumptions, otherwise I could have told you about my own experiences of reading. As it is, you’ve already revealed to me your disdain for what you, like so many before you, label “genre fiction” and, as a result, as lacking the same value which you perceive in your chosen genre. Don’t tell me literary fiction isn’t a genre–that’s you wanting to create a false sense of distance between one form of art and others, when the true difference between them exists only in their configuration of language. I’m not saying all writing is art, but I’m unwilling to accept your insistence that only a certain type of writing can even be considered for the distinction.

I could go on, but I think my opinion is fairly clear based on what I’ve already said. You are more than welcome to correct me if I have misinterpreted the text or help me understand what it was you were really trying to express.

I admit, I don’t know you as a person, but I believe I’ve learned all that I care to know about you as a writer.

 

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