Thursday, 16 March 2017

In Defence of "Trashy" Literature

"Pulp fiction." "Trashy literature." "Genre fiction." I've heard it called many, many things, all with the same derogatory curl of the lips, by people who believe that there's no depth to popular fiction. All they're proving by turning their noses up is that they read to impress others rather than for their own enjoyment.

The way we write today is very different from the way that Austen, Dickens and the Brontë sisters wrote - no writer today, for example, would get away with having their heroine just happen to collapse on the doorstep of her long lost cousins - but different is not synonymous with better or worse. Novel writing was in its infancy in the 18th and 19th centuries. Spelling had barely begun to be standardised in 1755, thanks (or not, depending on how you look at it) to Samuel Johnson's dictionary. Dickens could open A Tale of Two Cities with a seemingly endless sentence, because it was the done thing at the time. Many writers from the past wrote paragraghs in a single sentence. Language, spelling, and grammar are always evolving. If you came across a novel that was written in 2017, but read like it was written in 1817, it would be criticised for everything, not least an abundance of adverbs and the use of speech tags like 'enunciated' and 'ejaculated'. Comparisons between classic and modern literature are rendered almost meaningless by the chasm between writing styles then and writing styles now.

Literary fiction is itself a relatively new concept. Today's classics were not considered high-brow back in their day. In fact, novel writing was thought of as a low-brow art which paled in comparison to poetry. In Austen's Northanger Abbey, she talks about how the novel as a form is abused, describing how reviewers 'talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans'. The majority of our classics were popular novels, plain and simple. They sold because people enjoyed them, not because they thought they sounded intelligent when they could drop a reference into casual conversation. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre was not the Beloved of its day, but The Hunger Games.

At the end of the day, stories are first and foremost a form of entertainment. Reading should be about enjoyment. Some people genuinely enjoy classics, and that's fine, but it's just as fine to like your YA contemporaries, and your urban fantasies, and your comics. They're not shallow just because critics don't write about them, just because decades haven't been spent unpicking every possible meaning in every sentence. Every story means something to someone somewhere. A story isn't 'trash' just because somebody held up as a paragon of good taste dislikes it. That's their opinion. It doesn't have to be yours. Maybe you relate to the shy nerd, or the dying boy, or the schoolgirl witch. Maybe the story reflects your own experiences with love, or loss, or trying to fit in. Everyone who picks up a book brings a different eye to it. A different interpretation. Yours is as valid as anyone else's. 

Which of today's popular books do you think will become tomorrow's classics?