Sunday, October 27, 2013

What we're reading: popular vs. literary fiction

People have really different tastes when it comes to reading. Some stick exclusively to one genre or two or three (romance, sci fi, mystery) and won't venture into other areas, while others pride themselves on only reading what people call "literary fiction"--and then there are those of us who will read almost anything if it sounds good or someone recommends it. I never have seen quite where you draw the line between popular and literary fiction, because I find any well written, compelling story that keeps my attention to have merit. So I looked up a definition of "literary fiction" and here are some of its characteristics, gleaned from various sources:
  • Serious tone
  • Primarily realistic (although magical realism or symbolism could be included here)
  • Introspective, in-depth studies of interesting, complex and developed characters
  • More emphasis on characters than on plot
  • Elegantly written, lyrical and layered
  • Slow pacing

I have been having an interesting ongoing conversation to do with this idea with Rachel, a teen Goodreads buddy, about reading for school vs. reading for pleasure. Her English teacher is having her class read The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton (a young adult classic some might say), and it has become a painful experience for her. For one thing, the class is going chapter by chapter, reading it only in class, and analyzing the text minutely as they go (on the level of asking such questions as, What is the significance of the fact that the boy's favorite color is green?), and the other thing (which I personally think is heinous!) is that the teacher dropped a spoiler on them that completely discouraged them from finishing the book. (He insisted it shouldn't matter to them--is he kidding?!)

I remember so many similar experiences to this, and I don't understand why teachers don't teach these books the other way around: Give them to the kids to read, ask them what THEY think of the book, and only then delve into any deeper meaning, symbolism, or whatever you want them to see there. That way, they have the fun of reading the book without having to judge it as they read it, and afterwards can learn to appreciate it more for the additional insight you provide.

Also, I wonder very much whether S. E. Hinton (or all the other writers of so-called classics) would approve of having the book she wrote for entertainment and enjoyment dissected in this clinical way. Surely she would prefer that her teen readers discover whatever they will for themselves?

I thought of this dichotomy between popular and literary, between reading for pleasure and reading for meaning, when considering my reading choices this past week: For 6+7 Book Club, I read The Last Dragonslayer, by Jasper Fforde, and then, just to keep up with my young adult reading, I also picked up After Her, by Joyce Maynard, an adult book recommended for teens, since our 10-12 club is maturing in its reading taste and Anarda and I keep branching out in search of new suggestions.

I liked them both. I enjoyed them both. That said, they were completely different reading experiences.

The Last Dragonslayer definitely falls into the category of genre fiction--it's a fantasy, and a particular kind of fantasy. The protagonist, Jennifer Strange, is an orphan with a destiny (ring any bells? J. K. Rowling, Diana Wynne Jones?). She is quite young but, due to being a foundling, quite mature, and entirely capable of her role of (non-magical) temporary manager of an employment agency for magicians. Then she is slung into a new role, that of the Last Dragonslayer, which she doesn't want to inhabit--for one, because she really doesn't want to kill that last dragon!

Fforde's world-building is fantastic (he's a master at alternate worlds that are recognizable as a particular place but with some extra angle or twist), his characters are quirky and hilarious, and the story carried me through from start to finish and made me buy the sequel (The Song of the Quarkbeast) on my Kindle because I didn't want to wait a couple of weeks for the library copy.

So: Not literary fiction, but well written, with lively language, identifiable characters, good story, tight plot--a very satisfying read. (The 6th- and 7th-graders rated it 9.25 out of 10.)

After Her, by Joyce Maynard is definitely literary fiction. The pace is slow. The characters are minutely described, examined, inhabited, and known. The book is about Rachel and Patty, two sisters who grow up in Marin County (outside San Francisco, near Mount Tamalpais) in the 1970s. Their father is a homicide detective, a ladies' man who left their mother a few years back. Their mother has never recovered from this, and spends her days locked in her room, reading. The family, without the father, is poor--they have no television, no new clothes, no advantages. The girls are mostly on their own. But because of where they live, they have created a wonderful life for themselves, playing together on the mountain, making up stories about their neighbors as viewed through lighted windows seen from outside in the dark, helping each other with their challenges at school. Then a serial killer starts murdering girls on the mountain trails, and their father is assigned as the lead detective on the case. The girls, Rachel in particular, adore their father and wish for more of his attention, and Rachel conceives of a scheme to help him catch the killer, with disastrous results for everyone involved.

This book reads like a lovingly written memoir--Rachel is telling the story looking back from her 40s. The pace is slow, and although it's based on a true crime story, the main object of the book is the coming of age aspect, not the murder mystery. Maynard almost seems to use the murders and the murderer as a focus or lens through which to show the girls and their relationships and how they respond to what life throws at them. I loved the words and phrases she chose--yes, the writing is lyrical! But this kind of book takes a certain kind of patience to read. There is not the satisfaction of a tight plot here, with a defined, clear beginning, middle, and ending. It's more rambling, and you get lost in the words and pictures instead of looking forward to what happens next.

I once read a review of the mysteries of Tana French, who is definitely in the "literary" class of writer, in which the reviewer said he would "rather learn Dutch than read another of her books, which take 400 pages to tell you everything you could have learned from a short story." I love Tana French's books, but I also understand what he means--when you want a fast-paced murder mystery and instead you get a complex study of psychology and a minute examination of character, it's frustrating!

On the other hand, even though it's both a quick and a light read, you can also learn something from that fantasy novel by Fforde, if you are paying attention. For instance, he writes as an idealist: In his creation of the Ununited Kingdom, he offers up commentary on bureaucracy, the distribution of power, and big business.

Of course, there is a lot of genre fiction out there that is simply about the story (which is fine), and some of it is also poorly conceived, poorly written, and all about the thrill of the plot, the insta-love, the cliffhangers that make you buy the series. Similarly, there is literary fiction that, rather than beguiling you with its brilliance, can bore you to sleep in three pages or fewer!

My conclusion here is that anyone can enjoy any kind of book, but you have to be in the mood and in the mindset of the kind of book you choose, when you choose to read it. And you definitely can't go into it wondering about the significance or symbolism of every little thing, because you may miss the forest for the trees. I know that isn't how reading is taught in school, but my belief as a librarian (and as a lifelong reader, since I have only been a librarian for a short time but have been reading since age three) is that first you get people to love reading (anything), and then you teach them something about it afterwards.

Honestly, though, my real belief is that no one needs to help people learn from reading, once they know how: The vocabulary is there, the spelling is there, the references, the nuances, the word pictures are all there, and the reader absorbs them like a plant pulls water and moisture into itself. Soon, all of it belongs to the reader and can be known, used and shared. Why try to teach something that happens so naturally with simple exposure?

And one final word about popular vs. literary: I learned a lot of really advanced vocabulary in my early teens by reading Georgette Heyer Regency Romance novels. While I was doing so, I was judged by one of my English teachers for reading "nonserious" books. What that teacher didn't notice was, I was reading three or four books a week on top of my regular homework. Georgette Heyer later led me to Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Pride and Prejudice.

I learned from this personal process, and when I and my library school friends were bringing books to teens incarcerated at juvenile hall, and we had one boy who would only read James Patterson novels, we didn't argue with him or tell him he should read something more educational, or more "worthy." We kept bringing them, and then one day we didn't have any, so he tried a Michael Connelly. And then he asked us to bring him books he would have to read if he were ever able to go to college. He said he was "tired of feeling dumb." We gave him The Count of Monte Cristo, and he read it cover to cover. (The Penguin Classics edition has 1,276 pages.)

So, manga and graphic novels? Okay by me. Popular fiction? Bring it on. Literary fiction? Sure, try some and see what you think. Just keep reading!

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