Literary

Literature is split into two main camps: literary and commercial (or genre). Or that’s the general conception. Both forms come with their connotations, and as most binaries do, they fit into a hierarchy. Literary fiction is high culture and commercial or genre is low. Annie Neugebauer addresses many of the stigmas associated with genre or commercial fiction like the idea that it’s “trashy” and less intellectual than literary fiction.[1] What’s important here is the “less than,” that genre or commercial fiction isn’t as valuable as literary fiction and therefore that its readers are also seen as less than – less intelligent and less cultured. Nathan Bransford believes there’s a hybrid form that borrows the strongest elements from both literary and commercial forms, which offers an interesting compromise but one the old-school literary critics would balk at.[2] Heaven forbid that the precious literary canon be tainted by fantasy, sci-fi, mystery or romance. In fact, there are many examples of literary fiction that is rooted in genre, past and present. Jane Austen was a romance writer and Kazuo Ishiguro delves into fantasy.[3] [4] By exploring the differences between literary and commercial fiction and their stigmas with some case studies I will argue the validity of genre fiction for the literary whole using the specific example of science fiction.

First, lets break down the difference between literary fiction and commercial fiction. Neugebauer claims that the primary difference between the two is that commercial fiction is for entertainment while literary fiction is art.[5] Anita Mason claims that “a literary novel is governed by nothing – […] not even the requirement to be comprehensible – and the whole of the writer’s skill is directed towards creating the best possible novel. This involves, at some point, a surrender to the unknown.”[6] It’s that whole art for arts sake thing. Neugebauer counters this by saying that it’s a myth that commercial fiction isn’t deep and that it’s always simple.[7] Elizabeth Edmondson argues that literary fiction was just a marketing ploy set up by publishers to set certain contemporary fiction apart and “therefore Important, Art and somehow better than other writing.”[8] Edmondson goes on to say that good fiction, of any kind, is when “the imagination of the writer speaks directly with the imagination of the reader,” and she goes on to say that the purpose of a book is to entertain and captivate, not to have issues shoved down your throat or “be called upon to admire the beauty of the language.”[9] I believe that’s the difference between good and bad writing, period. If a book is obvious and in your face about its intended message, or is in any way pedantic, it immediately becomes less appealing. And to counter the idea of Mason’s that a literary novel doesn’t require comprehensibility is Bransford with his claim that literary fiction should most definitely have a plot.[10] A character “musing about the vagaries and eccentricities of everyday existence” written with ornate prose is extremely boring if nothing is happening.[11] Although Bransford does make the point that plot happens on the surface when it comes to commercial fiction and beneath the surface for literary fiction.[12]

So why is commercial or genre fiction so bad? The literary critics go as far as to scream horror and the downfall of culture and reading when the “It novel” of the year (2014) has the “’tone, language, and story [that] belong in children’s literature.’”[13] This is in reference to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, in an article by Evgenia Peretz in Vanity Fair. The book is apparently not complex enough, it is absurd and has no sense of reality or authenticity – and that’s what makes a book a work of literary fiction.[14] To me this is just simple literary snobbery. If it’s approachable and accessible the high-brow critics aren’t fond of it because it spoils the game of their elite literary club. The requirement of a certain level of education, a certain level of understanding, and a certain connection to a community of people are locked doors that only certain people have access to, and only certain people should have access to – in the elite’s humble opinion. In a blog entry from Kvetch of the Day, Vivian comments on the snobbery of literary elitists, and claims that “literary fiction” in fact often falls into formulaic fiction.[15] They define formulaic fiction as “fiction that adheres too strictly to the rules of its genre,” and in this case she makes the claim that “literary fiction” is its own genre of literature, as much a mystery or romance is.[16] The rules of the literary fiction genre that they lay out include, but are not limited to, a “lyrical” writing style, plenty of symbolism and a recurring image or two, also chocked with symbolism – and if it lacks either then it is a “slice-of-life vignette” that can be described as “stark” and “gritty” by reviewers.[17] And of course, the final rule: that there’s no need for a satisfying ending.[18] The lit crit snob wants a “serious” piece when they’re reading Literature (with a capital “L”), and the entertainment factor is a drawback.[19] Which if you think about it, doesn’t make any sense. Yes, we read to learn and to expand our minds, but we also read to be entertained. Being entertained engages the reader in a different way, it allows them a space to play with ideas and keep their mind open. When authors do it right, this is when they can slip in more complex ideas that challenge the reader.

While The Goldfinch is not clearly dabbling in genre fiction, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is. Ishiguro’s novel is a “full-on excursion into fantasy” and the author worried that readers wouldn’t follow him with this novel because of their prejudices against the surface elements.[20] Here is a case where someone who is classified as a “literary” writer is using “fantasy tropes to explore questions about love and mortality.”[21] Ishiguro claims that the combination of literary fiction and fantasy enables him to achieve things that frank blank realism couldn’t.[22] This was also an opportunity for him to put issues in a setting where people wouldn’t get too literal about it, that they wouldn’t immediately dismiss it as a “a book about the disintegration of Yugoslavia or the Middle East,” that it would force them to look at bigger picture questions of humanity.[23]

It’s particularly science fiction that is used as a vessel for these “literary” questions. Mandy Chew writes how “science fiction has always been a platform to explore social issues in a veiled environment,” and gives the examples of Ender’s Game which deals with child labor and slavery, Elysium that addresses health care and SnowPiercer that explores climate change and social classes.[24] It’s often the case that sci-fi stories have “underlying social discussions at the heart of their content.”[25] Anita Mason gives the example of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, which is rooted in genre but has all the qualities of a literary novel.[26] Mason describes the book as having writing that is spare, a tight structure, “the observation of the human condition is both profound and impish. Character is crucial. The issues are huge and we feel the weight of them,” and this novel was nominated for the Man Booker.[27] Yet, it’s based in science fiction. How can you then brand an entire genre as simple entertainment?

Stephen Marche’s article in Esquire agrees that “the forms of genre—science fiction, fantasy, the hardboiled detective story, the murder mystery, horror, vampire, and werewolf stories—have become the natural homes for the most serious literary questions.”[28] He also points out that Conan Doyle, Jim Thompson and Stanislaw Lem weren’t seen as literary geniuses in their time but now their works are considered great literature.[29] Perhaps the snobbery towards genre fiction of today will wane with time as well. Marche also makes the point that “there are stupid books and there are smart books. There are well-written books and badly written books. There are fun books and boring books,” and that most importantly both literary fiction and genre fiction can possess any of these qualities.[30] What genres like sci-fi or fantasy offer is complete freedom for the writer to explore ideas outside the scope of literary realism, “where grand philosophical questions can be worked out on narrative terms.”[31]  Kvetch of the Day’s article says that “the important part about art is breaking the rules,” and so by entwining genre fiction with literary, or simply giving what we classify as “genre” fiction a better look we are breaking the genre rules of literary fiction – and therefore creating art, which is what literary fiction is all about.[32]

 

[1] Annie Neugebauer. “What Is Commercial Fiction?” Annie Neugebauer. July 16, 2012. Accessed October 20, 2018. https://annieneugebauer.com/2012/07/16/what-is-commercial-fiction/

[2] Nathan Bransford, “What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?” Nathan Bransford, February 26, 2007. Accessed October 20, 2018. http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2007/02/what-makes-literary-fiction-literary

[3] Elizabeth Edmondson, “The genre debate: ‘Literary fiction’ is just clever marketing.” The Guardian. April 21, 2014. Accessed on October 20, 2018. http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/apr/21/literary-fiction-clever-marketing-genre-debate

[4] Alexandra Alter, “For Kazuo Ishiguro, ‘The Buried Giant’ Is a Departure.” The New York Times. February 19, 2015. Accessed on October 20, 2018. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/20/books/for-kazuo-ishiguro-the-buried-giant-is-a-departure.html?_r=1

[5] Annie Neugebauer. “The Differences Between Commercial and Literary Fiction.” Annie Neugebauer. January 27, 2014. Accessed October 20, 2018. https://annieneugebauer.com/2014/01/27/the-differences-between-commercial-and-literary-fiction/

[6] Anita Mason, “Genre fiction radiates from a literary centre.” The Guardian. April 22, 2014. Accessed on October 19, 2018. http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/apr/22/genre-fiction-literary-centre-anita-mason

[7] Annie Neugebauer. “What Is Commercial Fiction?” 2012.

[8] Elizabeth Edmondson, “The genre debate: ‘Literary fiction’ is just clever marketing.” The Guardian. April 21, 2014. Accessed on October 20, 2018. http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/apr/21/literary-fiction-clever-marketing-genre-debate

[9] Ibid.

[10] Nathan Bransford, “What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?” 2007.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Evgenia Peretz, “It’s Tartt—But Is It Art?” Vanity Fair. July 2014. Accessed October 20, 2018. http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2014/07/goldfinch-donna-tartt-literary-criticism

[14] Ibid.

[15] Vivian, “’Genre’ is not a synonym for ‘Formulaic.’” Kvetch of the Day. September 30, 2011. Accessed October 20, 2018. http://vivianskvetch.blogspot.ca/2011/09/genre-is-not-synonym-for-formulaic-rant.html?m=1.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Alexandra Alter, “For Kazuo Ishiguro, ‘The Buried Giant’ Is a Departure.” The New York Times. February 19, 2015. Accessed on October 20, 2018. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/20/books/for-kazuo-ishiguro-the-buried-giant-is-a-departure.html?_r=1

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Mandy Chew, “Why We Need Science Fiction.” The Medium, June 20, 2017. Accessed October 20, 2018. https://medium.com/indian-thoughts/why-we-need-science-fiction-7ee0ac3bfdc3

[25] Ibid.

[26] Anita Mason, “Genre fiction radiates from a literary centre.” 2014.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Stephen Marche, “How Genre Fiction Became More Important Than Literary Fiction.” Esquire, March 11, 2015. Accessed October 20, 2018. https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/books/a33599/genre-fiction-vs-literary-fiction/

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Vivian,“’Genre’ is not a synonym for ‘Formulaic.’” 2011.

Four books walk into a bar.

 

“Tell me something about yourself.” The bartender queries.

 

“I am a detective novel. A murder has been committed, and I must piece together a jigsaw puzzle.” The first book announces matter-of-fact, systematically arranging the toothpicks and lining up the peanuts.

 

“I am a romance novel. There are two protagonists, a central story about emotions and a guaranteed HEA.” The second book whispers. “Also, I am rich. I’ll pay everyone’s bill.”

 

“I am a suspense novel. No, I do not have a twin called Crime or Mystery.” The third book looks around covertly for its doppelganger.

 

“This is a literary book. It is everything the other three are not.” Curiously, a pre-recorded voice of a literary critic announces on behalf of the fourth book.

 

The bartender thinks a while and then promptly places a bottle of tequila in front of his patrons. “You guys have issues. You need a drink.”

 

Hell yes.

 

What is the identity of a book? It’s a loaded question and can be argued on many levels. From the book’s tangibility, to its cerebral presence, a book can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Classification of books is primarily done to establish a standardised supply chain between the author and the reader. It’s simply a means to make sure that a book reaches its actively seeking and passively unaware readers. Anyone wanting to read about World War, or about parenting, or a romance,  or about art history, will be able to identify the most probable place to look for such a book. It’s the first clue a reader has while seeking a certain book. So, for an author, it’s important to be in the right place to be found. Without genres or categories, the sales people at publishing houses wouldn’t know how to sell a book, and book store workers wouldn’t know where to shelve it (Vivian 2011). A category is the address where the author and the reader meet; their first point of contact. Two very distinctive addresses being literary and genre. The former is more revered, while the latter is more popular.

 

Genre fiction, which includes books like crime, suspense, mystery, romance, science-fiction, is generally considered formulaic. What is formulaic fiction? It’s the type of fiction that adheres to the pre-set parameters of a genre. Books in each category follow a certain trope and build a plot that is engaging and entertaining, but doesn’t venture too far out of the prescribed lines.

 

Why do people read what they read? There are abundant of reasons, some of them better or worse than the others and many of them mutually contradictory. Some people read to pass time. Some read to savor the existence of time; sometimes to escape into someone else’s world; or to find themselves in another’s world; at times to flee from need for rational explanations; or to exercise their critical capabilities (Lesser 2014). Every reader that picks a book has some form of motivation for doing so. A book, no matter how well written, will be nothing without its reader.

 

The reader, while making a choice of reading a book, is effectively entering a contract with the author. A book is chosen based on the author’s profile, the genre, cover, description, review, possibly a sample page and sometimes serendipity. Novice readers might sometimes miss the available cues but experienced readers have developed an intuition and broad familiarity with the books and authors (Ross, Before Reading 2014).

 

The genre selected by the reader sets the benchmark for reader’s expectations. What started as a means to facilitate trade logistics – the categories, now defines the content that gets written. The publishing world self-regulates itself over a period.

 

What are these genre specific expectations?

 

Mystery readers know what to expect when they pick up a detective story. A murder has been committed, the reader is involved, along with the detective (and a possible side-kick), in sifting through clues to uncover a hidden, anterior story that happened off the pages, before the detective arrived. The writer needs to provide all evidence concerning the truth in early pages and yet, keep the reader guessing until the last page. In 1920s this genre was consolidated and rules were set. These rules specify the role of the detective and an introduction of criminal as a character. The writer needs to play fair with reader when presenting clues and use logic to solve the mystery. Supernatural agents, love interest, solving crime by accident, by intuition or by Ouija board are excluded (Ross, Detective, Mystery and Crime Fiction 2014).

 

A Gothic fiction is a genre obsessively focused on the house. It can be female or male centric. This category has been the parent to detective, ghost, horror and romantic suspense. The plot is all about uncovering a secret that has happened before the story began; a missing family tome or opening of a taboo chamber in the house? The narrative is nested in layers to create distance between the reader and the reality (Ross, Gothic 2014).

 

The love story has a long history, with happy outcomes such as Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and tragedies like Romeo and Juliet. In today’s publishing scenario, the definition of a romance novel is much narrower. The consensus seems to be that a romance novel is something broad enough to include Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and Gone with the Wind, but narrow enough to exclude The Bridges of Madison County. A romance can have various elements from other genres – a historical, kidnap and espionage plots, sports theme settings, vampires, werewolves, aliens, and so on. But the central theme is always between the hero and heroine, as they move from misunderstanding, oftentimes dislike at the onset of the book, to declared love at the end. Everything else is secondary. A happily-ever-after (HEA) is a part of the contract between the reader and the author. The key is to achieve right balance of fantasy and realism, with a fairy-tale narrative trajectory placed into a recognizable world (Ross, Romance Fiction 2014).

 

Horror readers expect to be scared. This genre sees a lot of overlap from other genres like crime and science fiction as scariness is subjective. What might be horror for some, might not be for others. Horror is a fantasy that touches the reader’s deepest fears, where the universe is fundamentally malevolent and a reflection of the society as it exists today. The horror reader simply wants to confront his/her fears. Horror books give their readers the permission to explore their darker fantasies (Ross, Horror 2014).

 

Considering the expectations that are pre-established by the publishing industry, is it fair to call out the genre books for being formulaic? What is a formula anyway? In this case, a formula is a product of reader’s expectations and publishing standards. Literary fiction is quietly distanced from genre and its restricting parameters by simply being whatever genre fiction is not. The authors that do not follow these rules, do not find their audience and those who follow these rules are relegated to sub-par writing retention room (Mcgrath 2017). It doesn’t seem right.

 

The society that we live in today is a result of rules and regulations. Work and worship, family and love, celebration and death, everything is defined by rules. We know rules. We follow rules. We occasionally break rules. Rules exist to eliminate confusion and establish a way of life.

 

To go beyond the boundaries, one must identify them first. The tabla – a membranophone percussion instrument consisting of a pair of drums, used in traditional, classical and folk music in India is played with Taals – one of them being a combination of sixteen beats called the “Teental”. A tabla player creates music with these sixteen beats, using pressure, placement, momentum and speed. These beats can be played in various permutations and combinations to produce music. It’s amazing, the variations in rendition of a tabla, considering its limited sound repertoire. But then, music isn’t just about the sounds that you hear, but also about the silence between two notes, that adds to the depth of the music itself. This pause, or nothingness, between two notes is called Naad. It’s a Sanskrit word that means “primordial sound” in English. The sound which exists and is not produced by striking two objects. This is the sound of the cosmos and of human consciousness, an ultimate sound that transcends space and time, a sound that has no beginning or end. The entire world of music is defined by the rules. The guitar has six strings, the piano has 88 keys and the flute has eight air holes. The form of the musical instruments is just a point of departure, rather than the defining quality of music it can produce. What music it makes, in the hands of the right musician, is what counts.

 

Similarly, a book is not merely the permutation and combination of words strung together to form a story, but also what the reader reads between the lines; what they experience; what they remember when the book is finished. Genre fiction is all about the Naad. It plays within the genre rules, yet reinvents itself every time, to deliver a different plot and experience to its reader.

 

The art world mimics these boundaries too. Every painter starts with a canvas and a set of colors. But great art is not defined by the size of its canvas or the amount of colors. What defines great art is the use of the canvas, the symphony between the colors applied, the emotion conveyed, the treatment of chiaroscuro and how the overall painting interacts with the observer. The Late M.F. Hussain, a modern cubist painter of Indian decent, who gathered lot of critical acclaim internationally, was well-known for not painting the face and limbs of the subjects in his paintings. His rationale was that his work was at a higher level of abstraction and didn’t require conventional forms.

 

Similarly, genre fiction takes its point of departure from the basic understanding of its readership and the author then paints the canvas with myriad shades, to be enjoyed by the right reader, at the right time. The contract between the author and reader needs to be fulfilled. Yes, these boundaries are supposed to be pushed and it happens every once in a while. It’s a continuous process. Lines get blurred as one genre mixes with another; a romance is mixed with suspense, a sci-fi book pairs with mystery, a horror meets Gothic. In the digital age of today, where feedback is seamless and instant, an author has a fair idea about what the reader wants.

 

To say that literary writers are superior to genre writers would be unfair. Yes, literary writing showcases the beauty of the language more adeptly when compared to genre writing, but then, that’s the part of the contract between the literary writer and reader. The prose must shine. There is no such expectation in genre writing, which isn’t to say that genre readers don’t appreciate well written words. But for them, reading is more about the sound between the words, rather than the words themselves. Ultimately, various styles of writing exist because the readers read at different levels.

 

Ask anyone what their favorite song is? Or who their favorite painter is? Or which is their favorite book? The answer would always be a function of your perception, mood, awareness and consciousness. The answer would always be what resonates the most in that moment.

 

The so called ‘formula’ of genre writing is a part of the equation between the reader and the author. It should be kept away from generalization because it’s between the genre writer and the reader. An outsider will never understand the language of a romance or mystery book. Only a genre fan can do it. Like pattern is necessary to produce a rhythm, like a color story is necessary to produce art, genre fiction needs to follow certain rules to be able to deliver what it promises. Call it formulaic or label it something else, but it is exactly what the readers want.

 

Every sunset is beautiful. Is the sun just a round ball of fire with burnished hues? It comes up and goes down every day. So, what makes it so beautiful? You need the observer’s eyes to appreciate the beauty of a sunset. It’s personal.

 

Like the choices of a reader. They are personal too.

 

Anumeha Gokhale
Mpub

 

Bibliography

Jodie Archer, Matthew L.Jockers. 2016. The Bestseller Code. New York: St. Martin Press.

Lesser, Wendy. 2014. “Why I Read.” 3-10. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Lisa Adams, John Heath. 2007. Why We Read What We Read. Illinois: Sourcebooks.

Mcgrath, Taylor. 2017. “The Head and the Heart: A Call for Literary Standards in Genre Fiction.” https://tkbr.publishing.sfu.ca/pub800/. 10 29. Accessed 11 21, 2017. https://tkbr.publishing.sfu.ca/pub800/2017/10/the-head-and-the-heart-a-call-for-literary-standards-in-genre-fiction/.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Before Reading.” In The Pleasures Of Reading, 16-22. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Detective, Mystery and Crime Fiction.” In The Pleasures Of Reading, 37-49. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Gothic.” In The Pleasure Of Reading, 65-74. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Horror.” In The Pleasures of Reading, 75-81. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Romance Fiction.” In The Pleasures of Reading, 166-80. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. 2011. On Reading. London: The Belknap Press.

Vivian. 2011. Kvetch of the Day. 09 30. Accessed 11 22, 2017. http://vivianskvetch.blogspot.ca/2011/09/genre-is-not-synonym-for-formulaic-rant.html?m=1.

 

Who are romance readers?

 

A romance reader is often adjudged as being a single, cat lady in need of a man, or they’re someone who lacks romance in real life, or they are nice people, reading stupid books. Maya Rodale debunks these myths in her article, ‘Who Is the Romance Novel Reader?’ Contrary to the popular belief, the romance readers are educated, working women, averaging between ages 30-55, earning about $55,000 a year, successfully manage career and households and are usually in a relationship (Rodale 2016).

 

According to survey results from Romance Writers of America, 84 percent of romance readers are women and 16 percent are men — up from 9 percent a few years ago. The romance industry is large — more than half of the mass market paperbacks sold in the U.S. are romance — and its readership is vast as well (RWA 2015). Romance fiction is the most read genre, with the industry drawing $1.44 billion in sales in 2012, and sales are estimated to be $1.35 billion in 2013 (Patel 2014).

 

Romance is often considered a ‘lowbrow’ form of writing & readership. Who coined it first? No one knows. Maybe to understand this disdain attached to romance books and its readership, one must reflect on the last 200 years and the evolution of women’s fiction. I remember reading romances as a teenager, often covered in non-decrepit brown paper, to avoid being labeled as the ludicrous ‘romance reader’ or worse—an escapist. Even though it dawned on me that my reading material supposedly lacked in literary value and was colloquially termed as trash; I had no qualms in pursuing my happily ever after foraging.

 

Critic and literary historians have rationally subscribed to the view that readers are either highbrow or lowbrow. It’s usually believed that trained and untrained minds do not share the same taste when it comes to reading habits. The literary elite question the purpose of reading and the effect of lowbrow literature on ignorant minds.

 

Victor Nell, in his book, Lost In A Book, refutes this belief and labels it ‘The Elitist Fallacy’. According to him, the two groups of readers—highbrow or lowbrow, do not exist. He argues that a sophisticated reader will often enjoy deeply felt and delicately wrought literature; the same person is likely to lose themselves in a Harlequin romance during a long airplane journey (Nell, The Elitist Fallacy 1988).

 

As a child, when one first starts reading, the focus is on language and stringing the words correctly to form coherent meaning. A mature reader attains fluency in language and gains higher level of emotional engagement with the text. This is usually the tipping point where a young reader moves beyond the encouragement of parents and teachers and takes up reading as a voluntary habit (M. Wolf 2007). For me, this tipping point happened while reading Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie. The plot revolved around a regular sized woman, Min Dobbs, and her quest to avoid doughnuts & men pretending to be doughnuts. Min was smart, funny and real. This is when I fell in love with the idea of love. My point being, everyone has a tipping point when venturing into the magical world of books. What they end up reading depends a lot on who’s guiding them or where their natural affinity lies.

 

To better understand the romance reader, we must first understand the concept of ludic reading. Why romance readers read, what they read.

 

‘Ludic’ or ‘absorbed’ reading is often identified as a state in which readers become oblivious to the world around them, usually willingly. Some readers read like this, others can’t. For readers with the ability to become so absorbed in a book, aesthetic quality has little to do with enjoyment. The word Ludic comes from Latin Ludo, meaning ‘I play’. Ludic reading corresponds to the pleasure reading, reminding us that reading is a playful activity, is intrinsically motivated and usually engaged in for its own sake (Nell, The Insatiable Appetite 1988). It would be safe to say that romance readers are ludic readers to highlight the engagement and trance like absorption that can result during reading a great novel. This pleasure derives, in part, from novels’ intense components of emotion and fantasy, such that readers’ imaginative engagement with the story shapes who they understand themselves to be (Roach 2016).

 

In her book, Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf craftily inserts an excerpt from Proust’s book, On Reading and asks the reader to read the text as fast as they can.

 

There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those . . . we spent with a favorite book. Everything that filled them for others, so it seemed, and that we dismissed as a vulgar obstacle to a divine pleasure: the game for which a friend would come to fetch us at the most interesting passage; the troublesome bee or sun ray that forced us to lift our eyes from the page or to change position; the provisions for the afternoon snack that we had been made to take along and that we left beside us on the bench without touching, while above our head the sun was diminishing in force in the blue sky; the dinner we had to return home for, and during which we thought only of going up immediately afterward to finish the interrupted chapter, all those things with which reading should have kept us from feeling anything but annoyance, on the contrary they have engraved in us so sweet a memory (so much more precious to our present judgment than what we read then with such love), that if we still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason than that they are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and the ponds which no longer exist (M. Wolf 2007).

 

After reading the above text, Ms. Wolf asks the reader to analyze what they were thinking while reading the paragraph. She claims that Proust successfully conjures up the reader’s long-stored memories of books; the secret places they hid in, to read. Perhaps took them to the moments they spent reading underneath a tree, eating their favorite snack, completely lost in a trance; reading for the pleasure of reading (M. Wolf 2007).

 

Similarly, a romance reader has the ability of ‘Passing over’, a term used by theologian John Duane, describing a reader’s ability to step into the shoes of the character; be it a knight readying for battle, or how a heroine behaves, how an evildoer can regret a wrongdoing. The moment this happens; the reader is no longer limited by the confines of their own thinking.

 

When you read the above paragraph from Proust’s book, you engaged an array of cognitive processes like attention, memory, visuals, auditory and linguistic processes (M. Wolf 2007). Romance readers go through this process quite seamlessly. Even though, it is argued that romance fiction is repetitive and formulaic, but the reader simply wants the rush of familiar, yet elusive, euphoria that comes with finishing a great love story.

 

The good news for publishers is that romance readers are singularly voracious and loyal. A recent Nielsen study reported that around 15% of the genre’s fans buy new books at least once a week; 6% do so more than once per week. These core romance fans are avid readers who stay very loyal to the genre. Moreover, 25% of buyers read romance more than once a week, and nearly half do so at least once a week; only 20% read romance less than once a month (Nielsen 2015). Where an average American reads 12 books a year, a genre reader reads as many 20 titles in a single month (Ha 2016).

 

Considering the sheer volume of consumption of romance, why don’t more readers admit to reading them?

 

Perhaps the answer to this question can be found in the history of mass culture. Mass culture is a term that plays on the wide self-belief that there is an inverse relationship between the quality and quantity of culture. It has been deemed as being incorrect by G.H. Lewis who argues that there is no empirical evidence whatsoever that mass culture harms its consumers. (Lewis 1978). Since the sixteenth century, Western views of correct use of time and sinfulness of worldly pleasures have been powerfully influenced by religion, especially, Puritanism. The use of time and money, on anything not related to God-ly pursuits, was frowned upon and squandering away money for profane works of fiction was against the religious ethics. This belief has trickled down through centuries (Nell, Plague of Spirit, Death of Mind: Pleasure reading and the Social value System 1978). Women fiction was, and to an extent still is, given a cursory brush off.

 

These issues do affect the social and personal determinants of the romance reader’s choice of reading material and how they feel about this choice. Most romance readers see themselves as book addicts, like cigarette smokers, and feel compelled to justify their choices. Often believing that admitting to reading such books would alter how people perceive them, and run the risk of being tagged as ‘frivolous’. This is quite unfortunate because the idea of what is highbrow and lowbrow is skewed. Romance books are often labeled as trash, on the basis of being unoriginal, predictive, depraved or formulaic. While at the same time the same aesthetic is applauded as art, be it Titian’s Venus of Urbino or Bernini’s Rape of Persephone, where sexuality is celebrated or the repetitive reproduction of ‘Madonna & Child’ that held generations of artists in rapture. The interest or arousal boost one gets from such art is similar to what a romance reader derives from reading a novel. Yet, they are world apart as far as perceived literary value goes.

 

The fact that romance readers read really fast tends to suggest that they merely skim the text and do not sink between the lines, as a non-fiction reader would. To ascertain the credibility of this assumption, we must examine the relationship between reading speed and ludic reading. Reading speed is a function of text and comprehension. In a lab experiment, Nell engaged a group of readers to read three paragraphs of increasing difficulty, while pressing a buzzer at regular intervals. It would be an obvious assumption that readers pressed the buzzer more promptly while reading easier text, considering that it requires lesser attention. It would be a wrong assumption. The experiment threw light on the fact that as the difficulty of the text increased, the reader’s speed decreased and they became more susceptible to outside disturbances. This happened because comprehension failed to take hold of the reader’s attention and left them somewhat akin to a tourist who is listening to a news broadcast in a foreign language (Nell, Reading ability and reading habits 1978). Romance readers usually read fast because they understand the language of romance narrative, and not because the reading material is sub-par or lowbrow.

 

So, if the constraints of religious ethics were removed and a highbrow reader was marooned on a deserted island with bundles of romance novels, their covers stripped off, would the highbrow reader succumb to reading for pleasure, relaxation and reading trance? Your guess is as good as mine.

 

In my opinion, romance readers do themselves disservice by relegating their reading choices to trashy or lowbrow. Reading is a gift and an acquired skill. It should be able to serve us in a spectrum of ways. A reader can oscillate between complex, beautifully written literary works and just as well-written, poignant tales of love, without having to justify their choices. The debate between highbrow and lowbrow literature has been raging for centuries. The lines between the two have been blurring as the middlebrow literature is emerging. The romance reader, meanwhile, is lost in their kindle, away from all judgment and is enjoying a thrilling, imaginary ride.

 

William Faulkner once famously said, “Perhaps they were right putting love into books. Perhaps it could not live anywhere else.”

 

Perhaps he was right.

 

Anumeha Gokhale

MPub 2017

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