During a heated discussion over drinks with friends last week at Ballard's wonderful Noble Fir, we stumbled into inevitable discussions about the reading tastes of men and women (and how true the relevant stereotypes are), and the overwhelming popularity of lighter fiction (at best "book club books"; at worst racy genre reads from material that will quickly date and be pulped) and the difficulty of sharing the impressive lesser-known books we're passionate about with our customers.
It's less about personal pleasures, delightful periods of escape with perennial favorites, than it is about the difficulty of weaning anybody from the place where their heels are planted. Seeing a pile of books with turquoise and light pink covers featuring Manolo Blahniks or embossed Prada bags make me feel queasy. As does the steady stream of paranormal romances with Dead/Death/Dying in the title and scantily clad young women in the arms of some Eternal Fabio. There is no doubt about the power of the female consumer. The problem is the vast and stead quantity of what they consistently consume. Everyone may enjoy a Bridget Jones read now and again (I know I did; reading it out loud with Kristin made me nearly wet my pants). The problem is making this the sole substance of one's reading life.
Specifically, as a woman, identifying with a group of people who have enjoyed educational, personal, and civic liberties for only a very short period of time on the historical scale, I'm sensitive to the issue of "women's fiction". I have no misconceptions about men reading light books with little substance. I'm aware that there are plenty of men who do, and that cheap thrillers and other works of genre fiction is as popular as they've ever been. But I worry when people start to talk about lighter fiction as a "woman's book", with more serious works of fiction as being beyond that consumer base. (As in "I'm not sure you'd like this. It's not really something women would like.") Because largely – it seems that they're right. It's statistically proven that women buy more fiction than men. What does it tell us about the reading public when the books on the bestseller list are Charlaine Harris' paranormal romances and the biography of Angelina Jolie?
Let me attempt to move beyond generalizations: men and women read literary fiction. Men and women also read genre fiction; it's a spectrum. But, we asked at the Noble Fir, how could we take people from what they're comfortable reading, and expose them to a variety of good writers? How can we lead them into the depths? Is it possible, in effect, to change the reading habits of others? It’s a presumptive question because it is not my job to change the reading habits of others. Or is it?
I wondered if it would be possible to draw a physical map, a kind of Way-From-Here-To-There which would connect writers from the low brow to the very high. Could there be seven degrees of separation between Jodi Picoult and Sylvia Plath? Or between John Grisham and John Steinbeck?
This raises other questions: Why do people read what they do? Is reading for pleasure inferior to reading for other purposes? Is reading for pleasure different from reading to escape? Is doing anything to "escape" a good thing? Is escaping different than transcending? Is there some sort of reading hierarchy? And most of all - are some books intrinsically "better" than others? This is a very unpopular idea nowadays when getting anyone to sit down and read (print) seems nothing less than a prize-winning miracle. Evaluating art in terms of better and worse, presuming a value judgment, has been even less popular.
So sat around the table at the Noble Fir with our umpteenth beer and my deliciously musky wine and asked ourselves - is there such a thing as a bad book? (Is there such a thing as bad art?) And we said yes. There is such a thing as a cheaply done book, and very often bad books (like bad movies or bad music) seeks to gratify the consumer without too much effort on the consumer's part. The good book seeks to engage the reader, yes, but might not let it go without a promise of effort, or at the very least, patient attention.
Does this make me a conservative snob? I'm afraid snobbery is too easily the default setting for someone exasperated with the idea that people want to read because they don't want to "think." Because someone I overheard a few days ago said: "My thought is that if it's a good enough book, it'll be turned into a movie."
But snobbery is not the answer any more than habitually mindless reading.
So what does this mean for us as readers and what does this mean for us as people who try to recommend and sell books to other people? Do we bemoan the dwindling readership of serious fiction? Do we give up and resign ourselves to publicly promoting this week's it-books and privately drawing back to our cave with our own precious stash of obscurities?
Matthew Arnold, the Victorian essayist, poet ("Dover Beach"), and educational reformer wrote that culture is the “fresh and free play of the best thoughts upon his notions and habits.” I like this definition. The inclusion of the word “play” gives it lightness and spirit. It’s a dynamic idea that culture causes one to evaluate one’s habits, and if necessary, to change them. If reading only newspapers (in Arnold’s day) or blogs (in ours) or a steady diet of guilty pleasure books enables the fresh and free play of the best thoughts upon our notions and habits, then a hierarchy of books, a magic list, is unnecessary.