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June 21, 2009


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When I was thirteen, I ate Harlequin Romances like they were candy. In some ways, they are I guess. My brother was dying. I needed them.


May want to remove the "(sic)"... That's how Meyer spells it...

Timothy Hallinan

My issue with literary fiction isn't with the books, but with the people who claim to read them and only them. There's this attitude that they belong to a tiny race of semitransparent beings who inhabit the top of a high tower and live exclusively on ideas and aesthetics and an occasional glimpse of color while the rest of us elbow around in the sludge hocking sputum and eating Danielle Steel remainders. Well, I like Balzac and Gaddis and Haruki Murakami, too, but that doesn't mean I can't see what's good, or sometimes even brilliant, about so-called genre fiction. And at the other end of the quality spectrum, I'll take bad genre fiction over bad literary fiction any day of the week. Bad genre fiction may be unsatisfying, but it's rarely insufferable.

Erin McHugh

Anyone who is reading a story -- no matter what kind of story, though it may not be MY taste -- is imagining, picturing people and places far away, finding out something new. That's good enough for me.

And who are we to say their tastes won't (I won't say improve) get more sophisticated? Finding out what interests you: that's what reading is about.

Brenda Copeland

Bethanne, I wish there was a way I could tweet you a glass of wine. We would klink glasses and I'd say "Hear Hear!" and maybe even throw in a few four letter words for emphasis.

Reading offers a powerful experience, no matter what the book (or text, if you prefer that nasty four-letter word), and to denigrate any sort of reader in this day and age is not only snobbish, but foolhardy and dangerous. It doesn't matter whether the reader comes to a book for entertainment or enlightenment--and why the two are thought to be exclusive of each other I'll never know. What matters is that each book offers the reader an opportunity to claim for herself an experience that is hers and hers alone. Each reader comes to a book armed with her own experience and expectations. So-called "genre fiction" has its own sort of conventions and expectations, and it is often these very elements (the agreement that the author makes with his reader and his story) that appeal to readers most. Like or don’t like genre fiction, it’s all the same to me, but I don’t think you can apply the same approval matrix to readers of the genre as you can to the genre itself. To do so is to deny the reader in the flesh the very opportunity that you want him to embrace in the text, and where’s the sense in that.

When I was in my early twenties (after being kicked out of college), I sought refuge from the poets in the complete works of Jackie Collins. These books didn't define or confine me, but they gave me something I needed at the time. Who could ask for anything more?



People who are so judgmental that they can't see past their own noses really get on my nerves. They make class and education judgments based on things like book picks and I would guess outside appearances. The whole don't judge a book by it's cover applies here.

Joe Wallace

I'm a living example of the challenge of drawing a line between genre novels and "literature," however you define that term. Last year I had a story published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. (Genre!) The story grew into a novel that will be published next upmarket mainstream fiction. (Lit fic!) So, by reading the story you're cheating yourself out of what literature is capable of, but by reading the novel you may not be? I don't see how that works.

Some of the most thoughtful, compelling, risk-taking books I've read over the past few years are genre novels. S. J. Rozan's ABSENT FRIENDS, the best novel I've read about September 11. Laura Lippman's superb WHAT THE DEAD KNOW. Kate Atkinson's astonishing CASE HISTORIES. Are they literature? Honestly, I don't care, and I hope the people who get swept up in Harry Potter (like my daughter), Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books (like my son) or Nora Roberts' novels remain just as proud and excited by their own reading choices.

The Kool-Aid Mom

Up until about a year and a half ago, I believed the only books worth reading were the classics... lit-tra-chore, as someone said in a comment on my blog, which nailed my snobby attitude to a T. The only NON-classics I read was Stephen King. Then a friend of mine handed me her copy of Harlan Coben's The Woods, and I realized that contemporary fiction could be worth reading, too. Yes, some of it is brain candy, and I enjoyed Twilight more than Emma, but it can be just as life changing.

BTW, "The Mask of the Red Death" was the story that made me love reading :-) I read that and "The Cask of Amantillado" and "The Tell-Tale Heart" in 6th grade, and I've been hooked since!

Jim Duncan

I'll readily admit that reading literary fiction is generally more of a challenge to one's brain. It usually delves into 'deeper' material, looking at the darker complexities of the human soul and the world around us. I can appreciate the craft of the author whose use of language far surpasses most of what I read. I'm curious why a bulk of literary fiction turns it's eye often turns its eye to the dark side of things. Yes, humanity can be pretty damn dark and awful, but honestly I don't need an artist to enlighten me about it. I certainly can appreciate it, just like all wonderful art. And I can tell people that this artist kicks ass (in literary terms of course), but I don't need to be challenged by everything I read. I don't need to plum the depths of the human soul or get pulled through the messy complexities of life with every printed page I read. I don't need to be challenged with everything I read. Sometimes, I like that, but I always hate the presumption that I'm being less of a reader if I don't. Honestly, a lot of literary fiction too fucking depressing to be read all the time. I'm also an intelligent person, and like a challenge. Literary fiction (good literary fiction) challenges a reader. Much like good film, you want to go through it again to 'get' the things you missed. But I don't always need this nor do I always want it. I often read 'genre' fiction to give my brain a break, to be entertained, and there isn't a damn thing wrong with that, nor does it make the writing any less valuable. Because great entertainment is itself an artform.

Kellyann Zuzulo

Thanks, Bethanne, this sooo needed to be said. Let not the words divide us. The craft of writing is a craft: and if genre stories touch people, then there is merit. I had a vaguely similar experience to yours--but a Masters program at Rugters--that I abandoned for the distance between reader and teacher that it engendered. Stories should bind us, not separate us. If a story is well-written, it is valuable-regardless of its genre.

Melissa Klug

I could be brief and just say "what Erin said" (because it's perfect and exactly what I think) but I do want to add some thoughts. (I think I'm really just relishing in the freedom of not having to fit my brain into 140 characters, but I digress.)

It strikes me that, if we're honest, genre fiction readers are the reason that literary fiction may be published. Without the 5 million initial print run of Dan Brown in September, would there be a first print run of OLIVE KITTERIDGE? I personally loathed Twilight, but am I glad Stephenie Meyer is bringing people into bookstores? Hell yes. I believe without these reliable genre fiction novels engaging readers, bringing them and their visa cards to bookstores, those of us who like literary fiction might not have the chance to see as many books published each year.

I am perfectly happy to admit I pick up Deaver and Reichs and Slaughter on their release day with as much heart-beating-faster excitement as when I picked up A RELIABLE WIFE, ATMOSPHERIC DISTURBANCES, and NEVER LET ME GO this year. (I admit I am anti-Patterson, not from a state of snobbery but rather that HE DOESN'T EVEN WRITE HIS OWN BOOKS ANY LONGER.) I feel that there is an invisible line where an author loses their reputation as a writer, and that line is drawn when their commercial appeal reaches critical mass. Get popular, but not TOO popular, or you're not literary caliber.

I think we are all concerned about the loss of readership to other entertainment vehicles, and I believe part of the reason for this could be that Americans view reading as inaccessible and academic. Denouncing someone's love for James Patterson or Nora Roberts and saying the only way to enjoy reading is to pick up WAR AND PEACE? We might be shooting ourselves in the foot.

I think Bethanne said it best--let people find their "way in to literature."

Joe Wallace

You know what's really fun? Getting to hear the opinions of some of my Twitter pals in greater than 140-character fragments. I mean, sometimes it takes a whole paragraph (or more!) to make a perceptive and, yes, even pithy comment.

Great blog post, great discussion developing.


I think what we have to remember is that what is classic literary fiction today, used to be a contemporary fiction and oftentimes a genre fiction just like today. That they survived centuries is what makes them masterpieces not what a literary critic with a doctorate says. Modern literary fiction is, in my opinion, a lot of times full of cr#$ and a poor attempt at writing something in hopes to make it on the classics list. There's is simply good fiction and bad fiction, and that's the distinction I tend to focus on. Who is to say what will survive as a hit well into 22nd century: Koontz, Hamilton or Hamill? I can indentify with your graduate studies experience somewhat. I was lucky enough to write on Chinua Achebe, who writes beautifully and I didn't have to deconstruct anything but I still couldn't wait to be finally done and able to go home and grab my Stephen King's book waiting patiently on the shelf. I am happy that I allow myself the possibility of discovering new genres and feel at the same time very sorry for people who limit their horizons by becoming snobbish about what they read and what we should read.


someone upthread said: "I'll take bad genre fiction over bad literary fiction any day of the week. Bad genre fiction may be unsatisfying, but it's rarely insufferable.". I say "this".

Also- surely a great deal of what we now consider highbrow literature, worthy of our reverent consumption was originally published as entertainment for everyday folks.

Joe Wallace

The books that most changed my life as a child? Gerald Durrell's memoir, MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS, and his books about explorations of the world's wild places. Light, charming, unpretentious works by Lawrence Durrell's little brother.

I once read a piece in the New York Times Book Review (!) that referred to Lawrence as one of the world's greatest novelists and Gerald as a "sub-literary zookeeper." I knew right then which side of the fence I was destined for.

Bella Stander

My "way in to literature" was through genre fiction: the Oz books, Nancy Drew, Louisa May Alcott and LOTS of DC Comics in elementary school; mysteries and romantic thrillers in junior high school: Agatha Christie, Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Daphne DuMaurier. Those gateway books led me to the hard stuff in high school: Vonnegut, Hesse, Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, Hunter Thompson (all guys, hmm...).

I wouldn't be caught dead reading a romance novel or a paranormal thriller. But then I won't read--or rather, try to read--Hardy, Pynchon, Gaddis or Proust either.

Right now I'm most definitely escaping with EF Benson's Lucia series, starting with QUEEN LUCIA. Entertaining? Absolutely. Enlightening? Depends on your definition. I'm just happy to be reading. And escaping.


I agree that it's great to hear from Twitter folks in longer prose chunks. The thoughtfulness here is just wonderful!

So, I'm an academic and an academic with training in literary theory to top it off. I can dissect, theorize, and "jargonize" with the best of them. And I do believe in the merits of what we do...wholeheartedly so.

At the same time, I also am committed to the idea that reading should not be a prescriptive act. Nor should it be elitist. It should be an act of pleasure and of exploration, in whatever word-ly form it is in. I think, for example, of writers like Maupassant who wrote short stories and serial pieces that appealed to the masses. He was thoroughly critiqued for this at the time of his writing. But now, Maupassant is on the required reading list for many Ph.D.s in literary studies.

I'll complicate this by one more turn by mentioning non-fiction. There is an equal amount of snobbery in historical studies toward "trade" history and "serious" history. Trust me, as someone who has written mostly academic stuff and who is now in the thick of a narrative nonfiction/history manuscript, I have never had to research more or restructure more or revise more. It takes A LOT of work to make history come alive in ways that draws readers in. Yet, I have also never felt more invigorated by my work (I get to write for more than 10 people!)

It doesn't matter to me whether I'm reading "Literature" or a book that I picked up for 6 bucks at the grocery store or an airport (which I do often, and proudly!). If a story is so good that I want to spend hours turning pages (or clicking "next page" on my kindle), then that's a pretty darn impressive accomplishment.

But, I'm wondering this: Why pick so much on academe here? I promise you, not all professors are leather-jacketed Derrida spewing snobs. Universities have been changing at a dizzying pace and so have their faculty.

Plus, is academe entirely to blame, after all? There are plenty of snobby arbiters of taste out there without .edu email addresses.

Yours, @history_geek


At the risk of sounding dumb because I haven't been following the conversation you reference, let me say this: I have no problem with genre fiction authors as long as they're GOOD WRITERS. Someone mentioned Stephen King on Twitter when referencing this discussion, and I completely agree. Stephen King is a good writer (whether or not you like his books), and will most likely be studied as literature at some point in the future. But when someone talks about loving Nicolas Sparks, I have to resist the urge to puke because I think his writing is just horrid. Should I not even care what people are reading as long as they *are* reading? Probably. But I can't help a little bit of snobbery over what I consider tripe.

Melissa Klug

Trish...I think we all have our literary judgmental hot buttons (you say Nicholas Sparks, I say Stephenie Meyer, tomato, tomatohhh). I quietly create a personality analysis when a woman older than I am talks about reading all 4 Twilight books in a weekend, and how sad she is that there aren't more books in the series, etc. I become judgmental about the reader in this case because I believe Twilight is one of the worst written books I've ever read (to your point on genre is fine as long as it's good writing.) But I also have realized along the way that there are tons of people who could judge me because I've never read Charles Dickens or Proust. This doesn't upset me, but I'm sure many people wouldn't consider me a true lover of reading/literature. We're all going to have that "one" author that raises our hackles, but everyone's hot buttons are all over the map. I do absolutely fundamentally agree that good writing trumps all.


p.s. It would actually be most interesting to imagine this discussion without the crutch of battle lines ("literature" vs. "genre"; "fiction" vs. "nonfiction"; "narrative" vs. "academic", "trade" vs. "university press").

As someone mentioned, it makes no sense to throw anything under a bus...especially not books (gasp!)

Amy @ My Friend Amy

ugh, I hate the snobbery. Using books as a way to elevate yourself above others is the ultimate low. What I usually like about people that read a lot is that they are more open to others life experiences. I read to know, to learn, and to be entertained. I do not read so that I can go around acting better than everyone else.

I like to read almost every kind of book, though there are a few kinds I might avoid. But that's a matter of personal preference and has nothing to do with what I think about the people who DO read that. Why not spend your energies loving what you love instead of dismissing other reading material?

It should be noted that I work in adult literacy. When a student who had never read a book for pleasure in her life consumed a James Patterson book in a weekend, I got teary eyed. There is no way in hell she would have read past the first few pages of "literary" fiction. There are many things to take into account when thinking about why people read what they do, but I have little patience for such quick dismissal of people (because yes it's dismissing people) who read differently than you.


Bad form to comment twice, I think I am getting used to 140 chars as a limit.

Anyway- I wanted to stand up and be counted against academic-appreciation-of-literature bashing. I have catholic taste and can enjoy nearly anything, for what it is, if it's well done. However it is possible to find more goodness in the good by looking through the lens of academic criticism; with at least a nodding familiarity with the flowing stream of myth and cultural reference underpinning literature; with some acquaintance with the devices poets use and have used to make words hum like a plucked string- and so on.

Knowing the way to deconstruct and 'appreciate' a work of literature doesn't spoil ones enjoyment of a well put together 'fun read', but it can really teach you to enjoy just how good good literature is.

...Also? AS Byatt? I snorfled when someone upthread referred to _Possession_ as genre. I agree, but given the utter abuse Byatt has heaped on poor old JK Rowling for daring to make a living from writing books that are fun to read, I did laugh a little.

Sam D.

1)I grew up in a house with tons of books, weekly trips to the library, and reading was what was done for fun... any type of reading and to this day I'd much rather read genre fiction than anything else... so reading "high" and "low" brow doesn't necess. relate to the amount or types of books in a house when a child is growing up...2) as a bookstore owner I'd never ever ever think that a book someone was buying was better or worse than the next customer's purchase... THEY ARE BUYING BOOKS! 3)there is nothing meaty or anything to learn in genre fection?? WHAT?? NOT! I've learned more European history from historical romances than I did in college (and I was a history major!)or reading Shakespeare.


First of all, let me just say that I found your blog through Edan Lepucki, my terrific writer teacher. And I love it! Keep up the good blogging.

I come down firmly on the "no snobbery" side of this debate. I'm primarily a reader of literary fiction, and "came to literature" through my love of Jane Austen and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But I also love fantasy -- Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, the Mists of Avalon. I like the occasional chick lit novel too. And you know what? Confessions of a Shopaholic was freaking hilarious. And while the Harry Potter books may not have Changed My Life, I think they're delightful and moving pieces of writing.

Chung's post frankly depressed me. I learned to love reading when I was a kid, long before I was old enough or sophisticated enough to be judgmental about books. All I knew was what I liked -- what made me stay up late into the night, clutching a flashlight under the covers, unable to stop reading. My tastes have changed over the years (though I still love Anne of Green Gables), and I've become more reflective about what I read, but I've tried to hang on to at least a tiny bit of that innocence. I think a lot of lit-snobs would find that they would benefit from doing the same.

Beth F

I'm so late to the game that I have little new to add. Although my higher degrees are not in literature (or even from an English department), I can absolutely relate to being bombarded by intellectual lit-snobbery. In fact, it is one reason I decided to leave academic life shortly after receiving my doctorate.

A love of reading is a love of reading. I have never lost sight of that, although my exposure to books and reading was similar to yours.

I am more distressed by the lit-snobs who live in book-free homes, who haven't managed to read a single thing published since the war (as in WWII), and who pretty much stopped reading after graduating college.

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