Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"Fluff" Literature

Ok, I confess... I don't always choose the high quality literature for my free time reading.  For the most part, I certainly focus on books that are well known for their caliber and are widely recognized for their brilliance.  But after reading Les Miserables, for example, I was craving something light, entertaining, and easy.  So I picked up Eat, Pray, Love.

I am glad I read this book. I enjoyed it, and it's nice to be reading something current and popular.  However, I would not argue that this is an example of great literature.  It's good writing, but "good" in the sense that it's engaging and witty, not "good" like Steinbeck and Tolstoy with their grand themes and intimate characterizations.  What I most enjoyed about Gilbert's book were the descriptions of her locations.  I read the book shortly after I had come home from living in England and traveling in Europe for eight months.  I caught a "travel bug" during my time and am now always looking for my next destination.  I loved traveling along with Gilbert, taking in the beautiful sights and the exquisite tastes.  It inspired me to write about my travels as well, sharing in the ups and downs, the disasters and the phenomena, the crazy coincidences and the unexpected turns.  And because I had been in Europe, her section about Italy was the most fun for me to read.

Now since reading her book, I have talked with several friends about it.  They tend to nit-pick her writing and complain about a lack of depth, but I don't have these objections because I had a different expectation.  I didn't decide to read Eat, Pray, Love because I thought it would be full of breathtaking writing and valuable insights.  No, I read this book because I wanted to enjoy some fluff.  I love reading.  I actually think it's fun.  This may be crazy to some people, but maybe others feel the same way.  You see, sometimes working my way through a massive book like Les Miserables takes the fun out of reading.  Sure, it's immeasurably valuable, but it requires considerable effort.  Sometimes I like to escape in an easy, fun book just to escape.  It's a way for me to relax, like taking a bubble bath or camping out in front of the TV.  I try to focus on the classics, (and sometimes they are light and quick and enjoyable as well), but I give into the popular books too.

My number one guilty pleasure reading is John Grisham.  I like to read his law-related novels, even though I recognize that he will probably not be making a "Classic American Literature" syllabus anytime soon. It can be so satisfying to fly through a book.  I like to feel as though I'm making progress in my reading, and when I read his books, my mind is set to hyper-speed.  I whip through the pages without even noticing, cruising past the chapter markings without realizing it has passed.  I can get wrapped up in the story, intrigued by whichever lawyer is disillusioned and in trouble.  I see nothing wrong with this.  :)

So now, while wincing slightly from potential attacks, I will repeat one more time that I liked the book Eat, Pray, Love.  Yes, she left her husband and gave into a year of self-indulgence.  Yes, parts of it can be a little hippie-ish.  Yes, her writing is somewhat cheapened by colloquial language and crude comments.  Yes, she practically made out with a tree.  HOWEVER, I still had fun while I read it.  I chuckled at her jokes, drooled over her descriptions, and smiled at her romance.  It doesn't make my Top Ten List, but it was good for me at the time; I needed a break.  I don't ever want to get to the point that I'm so wrapped up in serious, analytical reading that I forget to have fun with it.  We need to hang on to that.  In small doses, fluff is good too.


Brian Bither said...

I enjoyed this post, and liked your distinctions between "good as in engaging and witty" versus "good as in grand themes and intimate characters." I am curious as to what novels, if any, you would place in both categories.

But I'd like to through another criterion in here that complicates the problem. It seems that "Classic" Literature is identified by age as much as anything else. I mean take novels like "the Three Musketeers" and "Ivanhoe." (Here, I must confess that I read each of these many years ago and so I may have missed the fine-tuned literary value of the novel.) From what I remember, those books - filled with action, comedy, and romance - were fun to read, but lacked the depth of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, or Dickens. Still, I find them thrown into the "Classics" category perhaps because they have just lasted as long as they have.

On the opposite end, it's hard to elevate any recent novel to the status of "Classic" no matter how good it is. In addition to being a good writer, I think Khaled Hosseini's recent novels are profound, but no one would dare to put him up with the great writers (yet at least). All of this to say, do you think time can turn "fluff literature" into classic literature? Is it valid that literature that has passed the test of time, regardless of its quality, should be elevated? Is it possible that for recent literature, engaging writing might actually prevent it from being seen as "classic" because it embeds it in the realm of "popular"? Just some thoughts...

aebither said...

I am glad that you have brought up this issue of age in classifying something as "Classic Literature" because it is a subject I plan to discuss soon. There are actually some contemporary novels that I think should or will be added to the list of classics that I think are important to be noticed. Also, there may be some classics that lack the depth, but I'm not sure if I will tear those apart any time soon. So stay tuned, because I will mention this issue soon!

Brian Bither said...

That sounds interesting. I'm eager to hear about the contemporary "classics". I'd also be interested in knowing where you think the cut-off point is. (Are there 1970s classics? 80s? 90s? etc.)