by Elizabeth DiEmanuele
With the emergence of e-books, e-readers, and e-living, it’s safe to say that the reading experience has become a full-blown, popular culture machine. Like changing the channel on a television show or clicking a new video on Youtube, we, as individuals, are bombarded with an overabundance of choice. We are given lists of best sellers, free e-books on popular sites like Amazon or Kobo. We no longer need to go to the bookstore to discover our next read.
Sure, there are benefits to our exposure. The library is only one of many affordable resources. Websites like Project Gutenberg give us access to literary classics. Thanks to e-living, we have a fully active, Jane Austen Society of North America. I’m rooting for it to go global.
But, let’s be honest with ourselves. You’re more likely to bump into someone reading the latest Dan Brown novel or, worse, our decade’s ‘modern classic’, 50 Shades of Grey. Yes, I went there. It’s okay. We’re all guilty of indulging ourselves. These popular novels don’t necessarily encourage a healthy, critical mind. Just like porn, they temporarily satiate our restless minds until we develop a need for a new fix. When we read these popular novels, such as 50 Shades of Grey, we put our minds at risk. Here are a few reasons why:
- Goodbye Grammar, Goodbye Education
These writers and their editors know our secret—sometimes we just need a quick read. To satisfy this desire, they respond with quick, fast-paced writing. Sadly, it isn’t worthy of a Pulitzer. Not even a Heather’s Pick. Some of my favourites:
“His eyes, intent enough on her face to make her want to squirm, were a clear bottle green” – Night Tales, Nora Roberts.
“Only those with a keen eye would notice his 14-karat gold bishop’s ring with purple amethyst, large diamonds, and hand-tooled mitre-crozier applique” – The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown
“My mom is oozing contrition” – 50 Shades of Grey, E.L. James
- Can we skip that part?
These popular novels follow a formula. If you’ve read enough of them, you can predict what happens next, who says what, and usually, you know the ending before you’ve even started reading. Formula-writing is great when you need to take a break, but in large quantities, often leads to skipping pages, lines, and sometimes, even the ending. We become comfortable speed-skippers, highly skilled at being lazy and passive. Imagine that in the real world. We’d be asking people to fast forward to the funny part of a conversation or at least skip to their point.
Popular Formula Fiction Examples:
Twilight & 50 Shades of Grey – Innocent girl falls in love with the ‘perfect’ man, who has a dark secret. She is persistent with the relationship, and, despite her ordinary look and personality, he cannot control his desire.
James Patterson – A persistent detective/cop takes on the job to solve a crime, gets personally threatened, dangerous things happen until they almost lose their job or the case. There is often an ‘insider’ involved in the corruption. The crime gets solved in a dangerous, last minute operation. Stability is restored.
- Let’s Talk Character
Similar to formula, popular novels often indulge in stereotypes; the bad boy, the professor, the girl next door, the nerd, even just the average Joe. They’re familiar and comfortable. But it’s this familiarity that prevents critical thinking. No one questions a character they’ve read about hundreds of times and it’s unfortunate. We should be questioning the characters we read, even our own narrator. We do this with the classics. We’re taught to distrust Holden Caulfield in high school. Fielding and Dryden even warn us of their writing in their prologues. By choosing to accept these stereotypes as ‘normal’, we put ourselves at risk to reading our world the same way.
Unlike popular fiction, the world is made up of a multitudinous amount of characters, good and bad. Good literature acknowledges these different personalities and challenges the reader to make the judgement. Popular fiction often recreates these unrealistic stereotypes. Judge for yourself:
“Between him and Darcy there was a very steady friendship, in spite of great opposition of character. Bingley was endeared to Darcy by the easiness, openness, and ductility of his temper, though no disposition could offer a greater contrast to his own, and though with his own he never appeared dissatisfied. On the strength of Darcy’s regard, Bingley had the firmest reliance, and of his judgement the highest opinion. In understanding, Darcy was the superior. Bingley was by no means deficient, but Darcy was clever. – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice:
Around his temples, the gray highlights were advancing, making their way deeper into his thicket of coarse black hair. Although his female colleagues insisted the gray only accentuated his bookish appeal, Langdon knew better.” – Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code:
- What’s Your Opinion on That?
On top of following a formula and reusing stereotypes, popular fiction also exposes us to every single one of the protagonist’s thoughts. The protagonist is vulnerable to our reader’s eye. They are not like Conrad’s Marlow, who frequently contradicts his own narrative. There is an absence of mystery and thus, the absence of a working opinion or debate among readers. How can we debate the moral dilemma of a novel when the character’s inner monologue does it for us? How can we debate anything when they novel gives us all the answers?
“There’s a joy in my helplessness, joy in my surrender to him, and to know that he can lose himself in me the way he wants to. I can do this. He takes me to these dark places, places I didn’t know existed, and together we fill them with blinding light. Oh yes…blazing, blinding light.” – E.L. James, 50 Shades of Grey
“You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appals me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies – which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world – what I want to forget.” ― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
- A Life-Changing Experience
While there are many benefits to popular literature, it fails to feed our mind’s need for insight. Dan Brown, James Patterson, E.L. James, and so forth are quick-fixes, quick-reads and quick-fun. Still, they are temporary. Just like indulging in too much junk food or video games or movies or television, indulging in popular fiction can lead to unhealthy, pathological behaviour. When we diligently read these novels, we risk becoming impatient, lazy and ignorant because easy reading does not exercise our minds. It prepares us for a fictional world of black and white logic and simple thought-processes.
Difficult reading is important. It prepares us for the real-world, which, in all its difficulties, requires attention, diligence and an openness to learning. Difficult narratives build our skills, they teach us how to read people, and they attempt to change or at least, open our minds to something different from what we know. They take us into the world of ‘the Other’, and, in some cases, can teach empathy to the most ignorant of people.
Next time you pick up a popular book, consider another approach. As yourself questions, like, “Does this thought-process make sense?” “How does the author use the formula to his advantage?” “Is this an accurate portrayal of a woman?” “Why does the author continuously describe this feature on each character?” By actively reading, it’s quite possible to enrich your mind.