Back up: There’s a reason everybody’s reading these books, right? Should I be so quick to write them off as “junk books”? Are they any better for you than a Crunch bar?
The New York Times reviewed airplane lit at the beginning of this summer. Arther Krystal discussed “guilty reading” at The New Yorker. And although James Patterson and John Grisham are on the bestseller list, they’re jockeying with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins. But really, why are people still reading dime-store books?
Because those authors are just as smart as the analysts at Frito-Lay.
I don’t think The Hunger Games is as brilliant or as likely to endure as The Giver or 1984, but I knew from the first sentence (“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold”) that it was well-crafted and carefully designed to keep its readers hooked. Otherwise I wouldn’t have read all three books, in 24 hours, and felt exhausted at the end. But, just two months after reading that trilogy, I can barely remember what the Quarter Quell is. In contrast, my roommate just finished reading Dr. Zhivago and huge chunks of the book came back to me unexpectedly, even though I hadn’t thought about it in four years.
So why did I remember Yuri Zhivago better than Katniss Everdeen? Think of it this way: we barely register the experience or feeling of breathing unless we’re struggling to stay abovewater. There’s something to unpack in both commercial fiction and literary fiction, but the latter category is intentionally designed to be more complex, more mentally taxing, and consequently more memorable. It's not that literary fiction (which, let’s face it, is another genre of fiction) is inherently better or cleverer than thrillers or sci-fi—only designed to be better savored, remembered, and appreciated by critics, teachers, and analytical readers.
Which is why, even if I’m just reading for fun, I can’t shake off a feeling of, well, sloppiness or formulaic writing in popular or genre fiction. If the dime novels from a hundred years ago feel cliché, it’s because they were: the readers just mistook the cliché for the fashionable. In the same way, Lee Childs and Robert Ludlum won’t survive fifty years without becoming archaic, even if they're great pageturners now. But I read PD James and Stephen King, because they make a conscious attempt to push the boundaries of their genres; they’ve moved past the clichés to the larger concerns of our own time. The Children of Men has something important to say about how people will live on an overpopulated Earth, while The Standgoes into the marrow of living in a post-apocalyptic world.
Books, like food, don’t always fit into neat categories. “Junk food” isn’t always junk. It still provides something for your body, just not necessarily the most beneficial or long-lasting things. The critic Michael Dirda was a little more diplomatic when he said on Reddit that “Sometimes you want to climb Mt. Everest; sometimes you just want to take a stroll in the park.” If McDonald’s regulars can also like apples and even salads, then maybe the weary travelers at the airport reading A Game of Thrones can read The Once and Future King next, and then really go medieval with Beowulf.
And hey, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.
image credit: infoglobi.com