One thing I’ve found that is universally true is this – people lie about the books they read. Ask anyone what they’re reading right now and they won’t tell you the truth. They’ll tell you the thing that makes them sound smart or makes them look good.
Back before Kindle, I was taking an art class. Because it was art, we had a lot of time on our hands, so some of the students would bring in books to read. The girl who sat next to me was reading “Angela’s Ashes” – or so I thought. Because one day, I picked up the book, flipped it open and said, “you know, I heard great things about this book.” Before she snatched it out of my grasp, I saw the title page.
“The Greek’s Pregnant Mistress.”
Yeah, she actually took the cover of “Angela’s Ashes” and pasted it on the front of a Harlequin Romance to disguise it. Not that I can blame her. I eventually read the real version of “Angela’s Ashes” and it really could win an award for “Most Depressing Book Ever.” Can’t blame her for choosing a bodice ripper over that.
Also, what the fuck is a floury potato?
Anywho, this is just one of my weird random shower thoughts, but I think it’s true. “Good for you” books are like “good for you” food. Sure, you can tolerate them in a pinch, but you’de rather be reading something enjoyable. Most of us regular readers have our guilty pleasures and we have our ‘go to’ respectable books that we tell people we’re reading whenever someone asks.
That’s why when someone asks me what I’m reading, I claim I’m reading “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison, when really, I just got finished “Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland.” You know, that book from the Cleveland kidnapping victims. I must admit, it did give me hope. For once, the creepy dude keeping girls in his basement wasn’t a white guy. He was Hispanic.
Diversity, people. We’re moving forward.
The funny thing is I have read “The Bluest Eye” and really, it’s not too far off from Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus’ story. Both stories deal with girls trapped in horrible circumstances, ignored by the world and both end with escape. Of course, in “The Bluest Eye”, the escape came from the main character going batshit crazy, but it was still an escape.
But I ask myself, what makes one book literary and the other, not? What makes one book respectable and the other, not? Is it the prose? Because to be entirely honest, I found many a quotable moment in both stories. Was it the theme? Because both have the same theme if you’re willing to read between the lines.
What is literary fiction, exactly? What makes one book respectable and another not? Does the ending have to be sad? Does the story have to be fake? “Angela’s Ashes” won a Pulitzer and it was Frank McCourt’s biography.
Who decides the difference between literary and commercial? Sure, in some cases it’s obvious. Harlequin spews out like 500 “Greek Billionaire” titles a year. I get that. Those people are writing from an outline.
But why isn’t Harry Potter held up as a literary work? Why isn’t Tim Dorsey recognized as a literary figure for his Serge Storm series? Why is Lev Grossman considered a commercial writer while J. R. R. Tolkien is a master storyteller that we learn about in school? What’s the difference?
Mainly, I want to know why we feel the need to lie about what we’re reading. I want to know what literary is and why it gets to be that in the first place.