No more guilty pleasures (in defense of non-literary genres)

Hello. My name is Kathryn Houghton, and I enjoy non-literary genres. In the past few years, I have read the following books:

  • Harry Potter (YA fantasy, 7 books plus three others mentioned in the series)
  • The Wheel of Time (adult fantasy, 14 books, plus an encyclopedia, with one more book forthcoming)
  • Mistborn (adult fantasy, 3 books)
  • The Hunger Games (YA fantasy, 3 books)
  • The DaVinci Code; Angels and Demons (adult fiction, probably closest to mystery)
  • The Abhorsen Trilogy (YA fantasy, 3 books)
  • The Sword of Truth (adult fantasy, 11 books)
  • The Other Boleyn Girl (adult historical fiction, probably leaning toward women’s fiction)
  • The Inheritance Cycle (YA fantasy, 3 books, with one more forthcoming)
  • What-the-Dickens (YA fiction/fantasy, one of those story-within-a-story things, sort of folktale-esque)
  • The Wicked books (adult fiction/fantasy, though I still contend that the first book, at the very least, is literary)
  • His Dark Materials (YA fantasy, 3 books)

Okay, I’ll stop there because a comprehensive list would be too long, even if I limit myself to books read in the last five years. And here’s the thing. This isn’t a confession because I’m trying to reform (though I do try to balance my reading habits among a number of features). Nor do I need, or want, a support group. Instead I’m here to make a case for these poor books that so often get left behind in literary circles. They’re called trash, junk. And when we do read them, we call them guilty pleasures, as if they’re bad habits, in need of some type of justification. This has got to stop.

Now let me be clear. I’m not defending all books ever written, nor all writing. I’ve read and rejected slush, and I don’t cry at night over the pieces that get left behind. Not all writing is, to use a word that has probably been at the root of a lot of arguments, good. But that doesn’t mean that the potential for good writing and the potential for enjoyment (another subjective element) can’t come from any section of the bookstore. If we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, surely we shouldn’t judge it based on where it’s shelved, either.

Here’s an example for you. When I was an undergrad, I went to my local bookstore one afternoon only to be filled with dismay at a huge display of chick lit that had replaced one of my favorite display tables to browse. (As an aside, the term “chick lit” is losing serious ground, as it should be, to “women’s fiction” because it’s seen as degrading. I use it here to show what I was thinking at the time.) The books on the table featured the color pink predominately, and the prevalence of the motives of sex and shopping seemed to imply that women did (and enjoyed reading about) little else. One title in particular, Good in Bed, caught my ire. I went home and blogged bitched about it. Here’s an excerpt:

Maybe it’s me, but books are dark, calm colors. Dark beauties. These were shiny and new. Pinks and blues, greens and oranges. Titles like Good in Bed. Sex. Color. Noise. Chicks. Words like hot. Slang. Nothing flattering to our culture, I can tell you that. Literally, I looked at the back of one that didn’t look too bad (it was a bit duller toned) and it began with SoAndSo was a hip chick… I didn’t read any further.

And then one of my friends mentioned having actually read it and said that she thought I’d actually enjoy it. And there I was, looking awfully stupid not actually knowing a thing about it beyond its title.

Busted. So, as a sort of penance for being just as shallow as I’d accused others of being, I went out and bought it. And read it. And I did enjoy it. I ended up buying more of the books by the author (Jennifer Weiner) and reading (and enjoying) those, too.

Because in the end, what’s wrong with enjoying a book? What’s wrong with being able to sit down and enjoy something without ranking it one some scale for literary quality, which, by the way, is just as elusive of a definable quality as is good. If we’re judging by whether there’s something to be learned from it, then even the slush I read and reject is literary, because I often find that I learn more from what I don’t like than from what I do. And there is something to be learned from every single book I’ve listed above (and not always in terms of what not to do). For instance, I’ve reread those Wheel of Time books multiple times, and when you’re talking over a dozen books, you’re talking a serious amount of pages. And my first time reading them after starting to really study writing I realized that I had subconsciously mimicked some of my sentence structure on what I saw in that series. But if you pick up the book I’m working on, you wouldn’t peg high fantasy as having inspired it.

In the end, I believe, we can only limit ourselves when we create some sort of superficial boundary in literature that labels certain works as worthy of our time and study and others as beach reads. (Heck, when I went to Hawaii in high school I did calculus on the beach, drawing integrals in the sand.) But it doesn’t just hurt us as readers. As writers we all want to be successful, but sometimes I see this idea that if we’re too successful, we must have sold out, have crossed some invisible line into the realm inhabited by those non-literary genres. I refuse to be held back by such labels, either as a reader or as a writer. I’m working on a book that, when I try to sell it, I will label as literary fiction, but I’d also like to try writing YA fantasy. And when I read in public, I no longer worry about what people will think about the book I’ve chosen to bring with me. Because I’ve given up the notion of having a guilty pleasure.

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