In defense of mass-market paperbacks

    I’m hesitant to tell you the title of the last book I read. It’s embarrassing. Possibly you don’t care what I’m reading, but I’ll admit to stealing furtive glances when I see you with a book and judging you by its cover. Granted, most of the time it’s something for class and you end up looking like an intellectual titan, but leisure-reading season is approaching and with it, the allure of trashy beach fiction.

    Unfortunately, if four years of university learning have taught me nothing, at least they’ve honed my sense of intellectual pretension. If a writer hasn’t at least been in the running for one of the three major literature prizes (or been robbed à la Joyce, Proust or Woolf) then I’m not reading him or her, and I’d have counseled you not to either. But I’ve had a bit of a conversion. Of course you can bring your Dostoevsky and Updike to the beach or pool, and that’s fine. But if you’ve ever longingly admired the shelves of books that end up on best-seller but not best-of lists, it’s time to embrace middlebrow without the attendant guilt.

    In reading material choice, I’m snobby and pretentious — yes, there’s a difference. My friends know that any joke can be improved by the mention of postmodernism. But I wasn’t always like this. In middle school John Grisham, a prolific writer of mass-market fiction, was my favorite. But back then, it was a point of pride — reading big-people books, the stuff filed under “Fiction” in the library, not “Teens.” One week I’d do a book report on Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October and the next, on Crime and Punishment with no ensuing existential crisis — they were all books to me. But sometime between high school English class and getting to Northwestern, I picked up an affectation of literary pretension, possibly because I’ve always been jealous of people who have something, whether it’s horseback riding or fashion, that they care and know a lot about.

    With that, you can understand why Grisham’s The Appeal, released in mass-market paperback (you can buy it at CVS) became an issue. Until this one, I’d read every book by Grisham. But now, when my pleasure reading has to be squeezed between econometrics and Derrida and Lacan, Grisham seemed like a two-bit poser. And by reading him, I’d be exposing myself as a two-bit student. The Washington Post recently made fun of the Twilight phenomenon, mourning the days when students were radicals and their readings reflected their attitudes. Grisham is safe and light, but more importantly, fails my readability test: Would Christopher Hitchens read it? Would Noam Chomsky?

    But a week ago, I found myself with an hour recess between coffee and dinner and in sight of the Barnes & Noble. I was parting from some friends and after explaining my Grisham predicament — I really wanted to read The Appeal, but had my reputation for pretension to think about! — they laughingly encouraged me to go ahead and do it. I circled the Literature and Fiction section twice (see, even the suits at corporate know that fiction and literature are different things), passed the G’s, then lingered a little down the row, idly picking up a book with “Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature” on the cover, and glanced around for witnesses.

    I bought the book, read the book, liked the book. It’s no Ulysses, but James Joyce is a demanding, stubborn and, dare I say it, pretentious jerk. He doesn’t do well in those empty minutes in lecture halls before class starts, or once lecture begins to drag. But in the dining hall, on the El, in Unicorn before everyone else arrives, Grisham performs admirably. I’m sorry, Professor Habermalz, but I even indulged in a few pages of Grisham’s fiction to hasten the end of econometrics last week.

    Finishing Grisham, and surprised by how much I enjoyed it, I was intrigued. Was my dismissal of all mass-market fiction hasty? Were there good books I was stupidly ignoring in favor of cultivating an annoying, haughty reading list? Yes, it was, and yes, there were. After seeing a thread on a friend’s Facebook status that extolled the various virtues of Chuck Palahniuk, I read Snuff and added Fight Club to my to-read list. I polished off a collection of Nora Ephron’s hilarious essays in the time it would’ve taken to slog through a chapter or two of something more intellectual and more boring.

    When I decided to write an essay defending mass-market paperback, I began to mentally tally their merits — engaging plots that often feature the type of people that exist in the real world (I’ve never met a Stephen Dedalus or Jay Gatsby, though I’ve loved reading about both), themes that don’t require Wikipedia to be fully appreciated, a kind of mild analgesic for the over-intellectualized brain. A friend offered, “At least you’re reading,” but that sentiment is more condescending toward such fiction than I believe it deserves.

    Mass-market may be a simple candy that doesn’t require the sophisticated palette for the Nobel winners or wine tasting (nor, thankfully, the spitting and the sniffing). But candy is delicious and actually the only reason to go see a movie. In the same way, mass-market fiction is, in moderation, a chance to fall into the flow spun by a skilled storyteller. My sentences don’t share the mellifluous stylings of Fitzgerald, yet here I am humbly hoping someone will read them anyway. It seems entirely silly to expect all other writers to be Fitzgerald or Faulkner.

    Somewhere in between starting and finishing The Appeal, I consulted Stephen King’s memoir On Writing to get an idea of what a writer of mass-market fiction thought of his life’s work. Where King gave writers who needed that push permission to write, consider this written permission, from one wannabe intellectual snob to another, that it’s okay to read and enjoy popular fiction.


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