Monday, April 7, 2014

Mondays on the Margins: In Which I Attempt to Get Over Myself

I've never claimed to only read "worthwhile" literature. I hold hard to my trashy mysteries - okay, I hold hard to my love of mysteries, and when I was younger I read trashy ones, but at this point I try to only read well-written ones. I love science fiction and fantasy and I will go toe-to-toe with anyone who says genre fiction isn't valuable or worthy of respect.

But I'm not really an indiscriminate reader, either, although I use it as a label. I don't read much historical fiction or war novels. I don't like hard science fiction. And I don't read "women's fiction", where the main thrust of the plot is women's relationships with other women, or work-life balance, or romance. I always say that it's not that I think less of it, I just have a limited number of books I can read and they're all filled with other types of fiction. The same way I don't shun reality television because I'm above it, I just prefer my ridiculous television to be more scripted.

Naturally I'm sort of lying when I say all that. I DO think reality television is mostly nasty and horrible. I watched ten minutes of a Real Housewives of Something-or-Other once, and I was appalled, not at the fact that they were all so odious to each other, but at the low calibre of the insults they were flinging. Dorothy Parker famously said of the prom at Harvard University, "If all the ladies there were laid end to end, I wouldn't be surprised." On That 70s show, someone once told Kelso that if he was any dumber he would have to wear a helmet. Even Kevin Kline calling John Cleese a "pompous, stuck-up, snot-nosed, English, giant, twerp, scumbag, fuck-face, dickhead, asshole" shows a bit of imagination (and stamina). One of the Real Housewives took a breath, and I waited for what would emerge, and she said something like "you're stupid!" I switched over to The Blacklist and surrendered happily to James Spader's urbane, oily, polysyllabic charm.

Of course I think "chick lit" is sort of beneath me too. Years ago when we went to Saskatchewan every summer, I spent days lying on the cottage porch reading Harlequin Romances with my older cousin, and they were all uniformly formulaic, highly unrealistic and sometimes borderline offensive to women. I tend to lump all of this genre in with those.

So a couple of weeks ago I was browsing the library ebooks and somehow I came across a book called The Burning Air. I read the sample, and it sucked me in to the point where I put the book on hold, and read it quickly when it came available a couple of days later. I also read The Husband's Secret because the plot synopsis sounded intriguing and a few of my friends had reviewed it favourably.

In neither case did I immediately realize that the book would probably be classified as women's fiction. By the time I did realize it, I was interested enough that I kept reading.

I realized something. I read mysteries because I think that the best mysteries can get at the heart of our fears of mortality and of losing the people we love better than some purely literary works. Because they embody the idea of the quest, of sacrificing something in order to find an essential knowledge or wisdom or answer. Because I'm drawn to the idea of everyone having secrets, but it makes me uneasy. Because if they're really well done, they reveal something or cast something in a light that makes it new to me.

Turns out that if a novel classified as "women's literature" - wait, I should stop using the quotation marks if I want to come across less bitchy, right? - is well done, it's capable of doing the SAME THING.

Mind. Blown.

6 comments:

Sasha said...

Selective does not equal snooty, IMHO, there really are only so many books you can read in a lifetime. I do like historical fiction, but I've (attempted to) read so many bad ones recently that I'm getting a bit fed up with the genre. I *suspect* (and have absolutely zero data to back this up) that it's easier to publish bad genre fiction, because there's a reader-base who are already interested in the book the moment you put the "mystery" or "romance" label on it, so the bar is lower. And that, in turn, gives genre a bad name. Maybe? Or maybe it's the literary fiction writers trying to create their own default reader base, the "literary snobs". Or something.

Does that sound like a conspiracy theory? Am I rambling?

What was the question again?

Steph Lovelady said...

I loved Agatha Christie as a teen and still read her when I want something escapist, but recently I've been gravitating toward P.D. James when I want a mystery that also has character development. That said, I've been thinking of getting Noah into Christie, as a starter adult mystery author.

Steph Lovelady said...

Meant to add, I have a cardboard box of about 30 old paperback Christie mysteries in the basement, so it would be convenient for him if he liked them.

Lynn said...

Ooh, Steph, I loved Agatha Christie too! I think I have read every single one of her books. I was thinking about her just the other day, because I think I was about my son's age when I started in on them, so I should put a few on hold at the library.

Allison - that Dorthy Parker quote is AWESOME. Don't you wish she was still alive, and had a blog? She would KILL IT. As for the books - I take it you would recommend both?

Nicole said...

Cool realization!

I've never got through a Harlequin romance OR an Agatha Christie, so I don't know what that makes me. I did read the Bridget Jones' "Mad About The Boy" while on vacation though, and that would definitely be a "woman's literature" kind of thing. I cannot abide reality television in the least, unless it's one of those cooking shows or Diners, Drive Ins and Dives. Although I guess that isn't technically reality TV.

Maggie said...

Thinking about it, I agree with Sasha. I love fantasy and sci fi and have read them for decades. That said, I've come across a LOT of really crappy fantasy and sci fi. Like so derivative or poorly written than I wonder how on earth it was ever published. Sasha's theory would explain a lot.