L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

23 April 2008 Blog Home : April 2008 : Permalink

Read Genre Trash With Pride

Mike Barker, one of folk I read the livejournal of wites about how people are frequently ashamed of reading in public. What he illustrates this with is two anecdotes, one where the person is reading a Nora Roberts romance and one where the book is a Mike Resnick SF one. He suggests at the end of it thta perhaps he should make up badges, stickers etc that say something like "Read with Pride"

Actually he's wrong. No one is ashamed to read Hemmingway or Sarte in public. Or Umberto Eco. Or V.S. Naipul. Or other high-brow literary fiction. Even if these works are actually pretentious twaddle. However give them a best seller (say Harry Potter or The Davinci Code) and the squirm factor goes up slightly. Not much because they know they are far from alone in their reading taste but slightly because these works are preceived to be of little literary merit and thus unserious. In public it seems to me many people feel they should not appear frivolous.

It gets even worse when we come to Romance Novels, Speculative Fiction, Westerns, Whodunnits etc. It is a truth universally acknowledged that all these works are of no merit whatsoever and that therefore reading them is akin to drooling in public. It has been reported that one of the growth areas of electronic publishing is erotica and this isn't exactly a surprise. Because if being seen reading trashy romance is merely slightly embarrassing then being seen to read books describing sexual acts in detail is a sign of complete loserdom, almost as bad are reading a porno mag. Indeed one driver of ebook sales could well be a more general cringe factor. I wonder whether an ebook reader with a "boss screen" would sell well?

Then there are the threads like this where we find many people (including yours truly) admitting to the guilty pleasure of John Ringo's Palladin of Shadows books. Books which we all (even John) admit are pure escapist trash where all the girls are beautiful, many are strong and smart and beautiful, all the guys are handsome and the hero is rich, has an amazing sex life etc. Oh and he can kill people he doesn't like with impunity and the villains are all evil etc. etc.

But even those books (and even for that matter the infamous ferret romances of Cassie Edwards) are in fact books we should be proud of reading. Recall that large chunks of the population are either unable to read or uninterested in reading and prefer to watch TV, an activity that is even less intellectually stimulating. Reading genre fiction frequently involves learning stuff that you would probably not pick up any other way - e.g. the mating habits of ferrets thanks to Cassie Edwards, although of course many writers also make up or adapt or otherwise mangle the truth as well. Furthermore in SF particularly you get to look at the world from a sideways slant. What would happen if ...? That has to be better than merely watching a bunch of vacuous actors and actresses mouth scripts which have been dumbed down so that even the semi-moronic can understand what is going on.

I'll go further and suggest that many genre books actually have layers of meaning which would get literary critics excited if they would deign to examine them. Some are obvious - much of Heinlein for example would be just as good to read critically as Orwell's 1984 or Huxley's Brave New World or other well known literary F/SF such as CS LEwis and Tolkein - however many are not so well known. Lois McMaster Bujold is just one author whose world building, characterization and overall craftsmanship makes her works the sort that actively stimulates the brain. She (or rather her works) ought to be the subject of scholarly analysis but the casual observer of someone reading "Miles in Love" isn't going to realize that and hence probably the reader will prefer not to read it in public. And it isn't just the cover that causes that reaction although, despite the proverb of "not judging a book by its cover", even dedicated genre readers (and authors) tend to get touchy about potentially embarrassing covers, as you see from this Stross comment thread.

It seems to me that genre fiction publishers ought to try a bit of joint marketing to get their customers and books a bit more respect from society as a whole. A "I read trashy genre books with pride" campaign in other words.