I came across this article in which an interviewed writer says that hearing people refer to “fun” books (ie, popular, mainstream fiction) as a “guilty pleasure” made her sad, and I thought: yes. In fairness, I used to refer to my SciFi and Fantasy reading that way as well. But I’m not sure I need the self-deprecation anymore. The world is so strange even major mainstream literary writers like Atwood, Ishiguro, Mitchell, and many others are dipping their toes into the speculative to explain it. Hell, Atwood’s Oryx and Crake features an extended chase scene between a man and a hyper-intelligent feral pig that would put a Vin Diesel movie to shame (well, I think probably there are other reasons for shame in some of those… butI digress). But somewhere along the line, I feel like I was self-pressured to “smarten up” my reading with literary titles and stay away from the more “pleasurable” books of pop culture. I’ve found things to enjoy in all of them, of course, but I don’t discriminate anymore, lest I end up like a jaded PhD student who doesn’t know how to read for pleasure anymore. Too much critical thinking, too few critical hits. It’s sort of similar when you are a writer. You get to know the insides storytelling so well, you lose your ability to do anything but dissect what you’re reading. I was that way with theatre after many years of acting. I only see the blocking and directorial choices. Hillary Mantel laments it, as does John Banville. So why do we do it? Yes, it’s difficult, but I think some of this is just myth-building; trying to make others believe that we are working in the arcane and breaking a sweat. I’ve dug ditches, dudes. We’re not breaking a sweat. Not really. Anxiety? Doubt? Self-revulsion? Sure. However, in the end, it’s just telling a story. Some do it better/quicker/more often than others, but anyone can do it. I often say this to my first year poetry students: the only difference between you and me is that I am about 30 years of daily practice and reading up on you. So, if you’re not reading because you find it a chore, go get something that speaks to you off the front table at Indigo (ed note: don’t actually shop at Indigo) in the way a blockbuster movie or sultry novel might. See yourself in it, and get back the habit of reading for fun. Then you can move around from there. Like that time I read a Wally Lamb book and immediately switched to Coatzee. It was like skydiving. Exhilarating.
Popular fiction makes us escape, feel and think. With every turned page, we are thrown into the lives of characters, who become our friends or mortal enemies. We fall in love, we laugh, we cry and we are chilled to our bone. These books have the power to make us think about our own lives, often changing how we see ourselves and the people around us. Yes, it often tackles complex and emotional themes, but it does so in a relatable, well constructed, entertaining way.
Popular fiction is written for readers, with one aim, to reach as many people as possible. That doesn’t mean it isn’t well written. In fact, it takes a great deal of time, to ensure a manuscript is an “easy read”, with an engaging plot.
The good news is that people have always read popular fiction: Dickens, Shakespeare, Christie, all writing for the mass market. Unfortunately, there is some literary snobbery at play, with a perceived hierarchy between literary and popular fiction.
When I hear a reader say that popular fiction is their guilty pleasure, it makes me sad. No reading experience should be perceived as any less valuable than another. Read books that give joy and entertain you. Here’s my cautionary tale – while we need genre labels to help readers decide what to read next, if you choose to stay in one book lane, you may miss out on a fantastic read.