Literary tomes can make you weary of the sound and the fury

Literary tomes can make you weary of the sound and the fury

Who died and made it a rule that books must be difficult to read in order to be meaningful?

Yesterday, HuffPo Australia published a piece by Fleur Morrison on why Trashy Novels Can Be Fifty Shades Of Fabulous. @VaVeros retweeted it:

and because I was bored, I thought I’d spare us all the usual outrage and took the liberty of seeing what a similar essay would look like from the other side.

So I offer this piece for your amusement.* With apologies to Fleur Morrison, whose heart was in the right place, but who seems to have read only one Mills and Boon in her life. Discovering Jennifer Crusie in your twenties is an opportunity not afforded to everyone. (If this is you, please read this primer on romance and prepare for happiness; if you just want the CliffsNotes, read Jodi McAlister’s essay.)

* Not all of the events described in this essay are true. Because I’m not going to read a classic at this stage of my life just to write a rebuttal parody. And yes, I know Dickens wrote serial fiction considered to be trashy during his time. Let’s just say using Dickens as an example in this essay is like using Fifty Shades as an example of romance fiction.

Most of the assigned reading at school and university consists of literary fiction. These books are not just well-respected, they are considered classics. But I had never understood the appeal of a literary novel, particularly ones by old white men, that weigh more than a bag of flour.

And then I read one. As part of my local book club, we were required to select a Charles Dickens book. I opened mine with no small amount of skepticism.

I read it over three weeks. As expected, it was wordy, it was old-fashioned and it was depressing. But I couldn’t put it down. Suddenly I understood the reason behind the extraordinary and enduring success of these books. They make you feel smart.

Although I haven’t read another Charles Dickens since, whenever I’m verging on literary escapism, dismissing the classics, the Miles Franklin winner, or great Australian novel, I check myself. Because sometimes, the very ‘best’ books can make people fear you at the next dinner party.

I remember the time I was voluntouring around Southeast Asia and was again surprised by the intellectual cachet to be gained from an unlikely book. Usually preferring Mills and Boon and Fabio covers, I was disappointed to find just a selection of Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Proust and tragic classics on the communal book exchange shelf. In desperation, I opted for Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

All I can recall of my time on the beach in the Visayas was the brilliant blue of the ocean, and that book. It grabbed me instantly and proved impossible to put down. I hated every minute of it. It didn’t make me happy. It didn’t endear me to humanity. But it sure did make me angry. I was engrossed in the horrifying lives of the child predators it was filled with. I hated the manipulation, the abduction and the abuse.

In contrast, some of history’s least celebrated books are enthralling to read. Wading through their witty and unselfconscious lines can bring more euphoria than actually doing a line. It can be particularly addictive to read a free Kindle read by a self-published author, in language that often feels like you’re listening to your best friend. The lists of euphemisms alone can be overwhelming, let alone their intricate and complex multi-book series arcs.

A particular example, Nora Roberts, continues to suck me in, as much as I hear about the crass commercialism of her work. Perhaps I will give up her writing when I have the time and mental energy to extract meaning from a Tim Winton book.

In tackling these ‘trashy’ novels, it can sometimes feel as if you are only reading these books for escapism. However, reading mass market genre fiction can reap rewards in ways other than escapism and more long-lasting ways than by purely offering social cachet; it is often in the cheapest and most optimistic books where the deepest joy can be found.

One book that took me multiple chapters to begin to appreciate was The Captive Prince, but by the end, I was smitten. In addition to providing entertainment, it had exposed the human spirit, immersed me in a different world and time and given me an understanding of breaking gender stereotypes that would be impossible to glean from a Russian classic.

Similarly, the character list alone in Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series was intimidating, let alone the backstory explaining the many species featured in the books that are now well and truly bestsellers. However, once I had practically inhaled the first few chapters, I became overcome with feelings and the effort paid back handsomely. I moved into a new world, with fascinating characters and profound insights into human nature and the social mores of the time. The world of the dystopian future became my world, if just for the length of the book.

Other books can be difficult because of the degree to which they move us. In reading the Captive Prince series by C. S. Pacat, there were many times when I had to put the book down. I was so overwhelmed by the plight of two enemies who were bound by the machinations of politics. It was so exciting it was almost unreadable, yet when I finished the series, I felt enlightened as well as drained and happy.

Similarly, the experiences of many of the characters in Laura Kinsale’s books are heartbreaking before they become happy, but that happy ending is itself enough to make reading the books so worthwhile.

Writer Franz Kafka believed that it was useless to read a book that didn’t touch you, or change you.

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? … But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.

While in ways I agree with Kafka, I prefer less violent metaphors… I’m not sure that my nerves — or my Twitter stream — are up to that level of hyperbole.

I agree more closely with writer C. S. Lewis, who said: ‘It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.’

While Lewis was talking about the value of old books, he does not dismiss ‘modern’ ones, although his notion of modern presumably did not encompass male ennui and guaranteed death at the end.

And so, I will continue to almost exclusively read the popular in lieu of the literary, reaping benefits from not feeling like all of humanity is doomed. I don’t want to battle through E. L. James or Anna Todd while relaxing in a bubble bath, but neither can I read two consecutive 400-page hardcovers, for fear I will fall asleep and drown.

Perhaps, one day I will even bring myself to read Anna Karenina. I haven’t yet picked it up, not out of fear that I will like it, but because I fear I really, really will not.

Some books I found impossible to put down:

Shorter reads that I love:


  1. Bona says:

    I like your words because it’s great someone defends the ‘genre books’. Some of the books that you found impossible to put down are also books that I loved. So I’m going to read the rest you mention, because I will probably enjoy them as well. Thank you for that list.
    Nevertheless, I have to recognise that I’m one of those who does also read ‘difficult’ books, classic European literature from Homer to Kafka, yes. With some forays for books from other places, from Murasaki Shikibu to Chinua Achebe. I feel that they are great food for my soul. It’s a different kind of reading, though, deep and slow, and I’m not always in the mood for them.
    The great thing is that there’s always a time and place for each kind of book.

    • Kat says:

      I totally agree, Bona. This piece was really just questioning the assumption that books have to be difficult to meaningful, or that romance books which are preoccupied with the happy ending can’t be complex. Difficult books can be shallow and romance books can have depth — that it’s ultimately about the writing, not the genre. The older Kinsales, and the Jo Goodman historicals have that slow-read feeling. Some of Meljean Brook’s books also have this quality. Let me know what you think if you end up reading them. :)

  2. Fleur says:

    Hi Kat,
    Your article was clever and gave me a laugh (even though it was parodying my own article). But I would like to clarify something that I don’t feel I communicated well in my article, that I love all genres of books, and I have huge respect for the skill that it takes write them. I don’t believe for a second I could do it myself – I wish I could! I’m looking forward to checking out your recommendations.
    My own blog was not meant to be condescending at all, although it might have come across as such. I’m just pottering around and reading anything I can get my hands on, and writing about the experience.
    I hope this helps to diffuse any outrage you might have felt as a result of my article – it certainly wasn’t my intention. I hate to think I offended anyone.

    • Kat says:

      Thanks for your reply, Fleur. I took your article in good faith, and it’s always great to to hear when readers discover romance and like it. It’s just that the assumption that romance is pure escapism or fluff is something that’s been bothering many romance readers for years. A lot of the stigma around romance fiction comes from the literary establishment, so while romance readers might find it irritating, we also understand where it comes from when new readers like yourself echo those assumptions. (A lot of us started exactly where you are, after all!) So rather than getting worked up about it on Twitter (which was starting to happen) I thought it would be more fun to write a parody. Thanks for taking it in the spirit it was intended.

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