By Catherine Zou (17A01B)
At the start of the year, I resolved, somewhat fruitlessly, to “expand my understanding and knowledge of the world”. With this vague banner of self-improvement came the nebulous idea of reading more, and reading, finally, “good” books. No more post-apocalyptic dystopias, or sweet Parisian dalliances. My bookshelves would henceforth be all meaningful, literary oeuvres. An unflinching examination of man in a state of disorder. A naked look at the soul. A triumph of the human spirit.
These are, of course, the praise reserved for an exclusive category of Fiction books, which belong to the canonical order of True Literature. If in doubt, Penguin Classics and Vintage Book covers are usually a good barometer for the literary value of a book, as are Man Booker, Pulitzer, or Nobel prize shortlists. Good books seem to ground their merits in introspection and characterisation, or through a commentary on society or human nature. The glow of classic relevance and national accolades rocket these books to the very top of the ladder of literary worth, while their unworthy cousins (popular fiction, whether Sci-Fi or mystery, though writers like Philip K Dick and Conan Doyle have broken free of that label) languish several rungs below.
It is fairly widespread, this categorising of “literary” and non-literary fiction. A friend, reading a light romance novel titled Love in lowercase, said, somewhat defensively: “What? Yeah, it’s not intellectual, I know that it’s trashy.” Or another, in explaining the use of her Kindle: “The really good thing about this is that no one can judge you when you’re reading some young adult novel with a cover of a couple kissing or something.” Consumer-friendly, plot-driven genres, chick-lit and general fiction in particular, have been panned as superficial and simplistic. They often focus on the unraveling of an event, as opposed to delving into complex, multi-faceted characters: boy meets girl or rags to riches. At best, these books can hope to be entertaining: critics concede that they are “thrilling” or “swoony” or “witty”. But compared with the transcendent lyricism of literary works, they are, well, trash.
When we speak of fiction, it is tempting to dismiss popular literature as brainless fluff — too populist, too shallow to have merit. There is frequently a self-conscious embarrassment in admitting a love for science fiction, or Young Adult novels — and even then, this is tempered with the disclaimer that “It’s not like literature/it’s not great”. Classics and acclaimed novels, on the other hand, are always on a to-read list: friends who are mildly apologetic about their Cecelia Ahern collection repent by limping through Murakami books despite finding the eroticism off-putting and the magic realism dry.
But let’s not forget that the classics of today were written for mass consumption – Shakespeare’s plays were the stuff of peasant entertainment, whilst Alexandre Dumas’ works were serialised in newspapers or magazines. It’s perhaps a stretch to argue that Fifty Shades of Grey will emerge as The Literary Masterpiece of our age — then again, who knows? — but the carefully-curated, panel-evaluated selection of novels may not determine the few works that are remembered by history.
And even if it is painfully obvious that a book is no masterpiece, why should we be bothered by the technicalities of a book’s literary merit? Lauren Oliver’s or John Green’s books may never be considered literary masterworks, but they don’t have to be. It is for the story, and for the easy entertainment that they are read. When I think about the first books I’ve loved, they are invariably filled with titles such as Stardust, The Night of the Unicorn — ponies, magic, unicorns, and all their glittery, girly compatriots.
Call me uncultured, but I believe that much of these titles capture the magic of reading. Reading fiction, in general, is not approached with the express desire to enact a seismic turnaround in our perspectives, to marvel at a writer’s craft, or to better our character. We have the Thought Catalog for that. It doesn’t always matter if it is beautifully expressed, or if it leads to an intellectual opening. And “trashlit” does this perfectly well: you know a well-constructed story by its characters who, though simplistic and predictable, nonetheless tug at your heartstrings.
Chick-lit is appealing perhaps because we can delve into a fantasy world where relationship hiccups are resolved in fifty pages. Superficial and unrealistic excitement can be an easy retreat from the mundanity of daily life. For others, this appeal could lie elsewhere, perhaps in its plot, which races through the universe and back, scaling old post-apocalyptic landscapes with a strange vigor. You can find this in classics, for sure, but it is ever-present in its less-intellectual counterparts, and there ought not be an ounce of shame in that.
Whatever the case, the ability to connect is critical for reading any work of fiction. The social commentary or the exquisite metaphors of classics can only strike us if we are connected to the story — the little realisations and epiphanies in a classic are often tucked into a riveting story. Our connection with works of fiction is tied to the sense of enjoyment, and the ability to, as they say, “live” in the book world. In this, “trashlit” is often more than satisfactory. Sure, the plot can be ridiculous, the characters vacuous — yet it is sometimes more attention-grabbing than a supposed tour-de-force.
This is, of course, not to say that Murakami is overhyped, or that we should give up on classics. They are brilliant and incisive — and far be it for me to say that they are not deservedly acclaimed. There is simply just no need to condemn popular fiction for what they don’t pretend to be. And there is even less point in forcing yourself through a classic just because they are supposed to be Good.
I’ve found, in my abortive attempts to read Great Classics, that the flash of comprehension simply strikes you at different times. I’ve tried to read Jane Eyre a good two or three times, but had never gotten beyond the halfway mark before this year, when something clicked, and I sped through the book — though perhaps owed more to the fact that we were studying it for class. Nonetheless, there ought to be no rush to stick through a list of 100 Books You Have Got To Read In Your Lifetime.
Reading, when it comes down to it, is about personal connection and individual tastes. There are 9 year-old children who have read Jane Austen and Bronte, and though I was not that savant child, I’d wager that it’s a vastly different (and perhaps more illuminating) reading at an older age. Ultimately, the books that we enjoy now build up to changing tastes and understandings — there is no point in trying to force a response to classics. Doris Lessing perhaps utters this best:
“There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag — and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty-and vise versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you. ”
Which is really good reason to check out that new Sophie Kinsella book, don’t you think?
Featured image retrieved from https://dribbble.com/shots/2938852-Children-s-Book-Opener