Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Romance of the Blogfest: A Defense of Trashy Novels

I learned in my Gothic Novel class all about trashy novels and how they can be excellently written, but they're known as trashy because they play on the zeitgeist of the times. In normal English, that means they take cultural prejudices and just general cultural tastes and play on them. They are also known as genre novels because they usually fall into a specific genre (sci-fi, romance, adventure, etc.). What really makes them different from literary novels is:

1. They don't try to influence society in any way. They don't take sides on any issue, but just play on the opinions of whomever the novel is targeted to. This is what allows them to be bestsellers.

2. They are not written to last. They only really work on the specific culture they're written for and, after that, become lost in unimportance or become period fiction.

The term "trashy novel," then, is really an inappropriate term for these books. It isn't that they're trashy, they're just written in a way that the masses can understand and enjoy them.

This does not mean they are written badly.
Let me reiterate: yes, there are some very poorly written books out there, but there are also some excellently written ones.

And, here's the other thing - it's okay to read for pleasure once in a while. In fact, it's okay to read for pleasure often! What are we reading for, anyway? Do we read to be enlightened? Do we read for philosophical insights in the world? Do we read to learn? Do we read to be influenced or convinced of a certain opinion? Perhaps. But another great reason to read is because it's enjoyable.

I used to be of the belief that, well, I'm an English major and English majors don't read anything that isn't highfalutin' literature. They certainly don't read that trashy stuff you see sold in airports and that people read on the subways. Heavens, no!


We do read that stuff! In fact, as a writer, if you want to make money writing, that's the sort of stuff you've got to write!

Reading for pleasure is not a crime. In fact, in my opinion, it's the number one reason why people should read, in the first place. Then, unbeknownst to them, they'll also learn (if they're reading a trashy novel of good quality) vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, syntax, and all those other lovely Englishy things! It just happens when you read enough. It all becomes so natural because your brain drinks in the styles of what you've read and becomes accustomed to the correct way of doing things. And, just because these novels aren't literary doesn't mean they don't still comment on society. There are great things to be learned from trashy novels. It's like looking at the world in a mirror, sometimes, and noticing everything about it - the good and the bad.

If the only appropriate novels to read were literary ones, almost no one would be reading.

And that, folks, would be one of the greater tragedies of the world.


Moshe said...

I love this post. Thanks.

SJ said...

I don't really agree. Yes, reading should be enjoyable, but it should also be enlightening. Is it better to watch a stupid TV show or read a trashy novel? I think the novel. But if you have a choice to read something of some quality, something that will teach you about life or the human experience, something with some depth to it...and this can be pretty broadly defined...but instead you choose to read the hottest new release "Sylvia's Sizzlin' Summer: On Shoes, Sex, and Shopping," you've just made a big mistake, in my opinion.

Erachet said...

Moshe - you're welcome!

SJ - Ah, but that's just the point! We use the term "trashy" to include both "Sylvia's Sizzlin' Summer: On Shoes, Sex, and Shopping" and ALSO tons of great fiction out there that is extremely well written and that DOES teach you about life or the human experience and it might even have depth to it! But it is not trying to be innovative. That's the difference. It is playing on what already exists in society. It is not taking sides and it is not making arguments, but that doesn't mean that people cannot find arguments in there and it does not mean there is no depth or that people cannot learn from those books. It just means it isn't high literature.

That's why I think the term "trashy" is wrong. Because it's really genre fiction. Any novel you read that falls into a specific genre and that is not considered "literature" is, by default, trashy! But it SHOULDN'T be trashy. There are some novels that really are trash and then there are some that are quite excellent but are not considered high up there literature that will last for generations.

For instance, anything on the best-seller list is considered a "trashy novel." Real literature does not make the best seller list because it does not appeal to most people. But just because it is stamped "trashy" does not mean it is of low-quality. Reading The Da Vinci Code, for instance, or John Grisham or any of those really popular authors is completely different than reading Sylvia's Sizzlin' Summer, you know?

I mean, I'd still choose literature over that stuff, but all I'm saying is, I think there are misconceptions about trashy novels that shouldn't be there at all and that there is no shame in reading them, as long as they're of high quality.

the apple said...

Hmm. I would agree that it's definitely better if people are reading something at least, but certain categories of genre fiction are really a very loose definition of reading - at least, people are looking at printed words on a page, but aren't actually gaining anything besides for a look into someone's bedroom or the conclusion of an unrealistic mystery. I'm hard-pressed to consider reading such books as a true exercise of the mind. A lot of those types of books tend to not be written all that well either, from my experience - they have a very juvenile tone to them. Books that are "trashy" but that at least involve exercising the mind (say, Angels and Demons or some such novel, that stimulates you to try and figure out the ending before the character does) are a smidgen better, although I don't think they really help you gain anything. Then again, reading books like that is sometimes necessary to just give yourself a break from super-heavy stuff. What's really important is to read good writing - sometimes we get lucky and good writing shows up in the form of a NYT bestseller! (But I would disagree with you that all books on a bestseller list are trashy. Often some are but usually there are quality books there.)

Of course, who am I to talk - I've read all the Shopaholic books numerous times ;).

M.R. said...

Sci-fi ain't necessarily trash, dude. Asimov. Most of Heinlein. Clark. NOT trash.
Grrrrrr... :scares you away with Rabid Squirrel Imitation:

Also, I saw an ad the other day for a digital book thingy dooey that said, "Holds 160 Romance Novels. And Nobody can tell."

Personally, when I'm in the mood for Literature Lite TM, I turn to books on which my library puts a big YA. Farsala trilogy, Artemis Fowl, Harry Potter, that sort of stuff.

Erachet said...

Grrrr, you are all missing my point! This is exactly the problem! When you think "trashy," immediately you think "low quality." But the whole POINT is that this is a misconception! "Trashy" books just mean "genre fiction." So yes, Asimov was a name that came up when we gave examples of so-called "trashy" novels. So was Ray Bradbury.

As for best-sellers - WHY are they best-sellers??? Because they appeal to the general public. Otherwise, they would not sell. Those books are all playing on our culture and using it to create stories we would want to read because we relate to them or are already pre-prejudiced to them. HOWEVER, they could still be high-quality books!

Literature, on the other hand, usually does not get recognized in the author's lifetime and does not bring any money in to the author. There is a different purpose to that sort of literature. It is not meant to be read by the masses but rather to either effect change or try to convince people of something...things like that.