This week featured–as seems inevitable lately–someone telling people they should be ashamed about what they read. You probably surrendered, as I did, to the lure of Slate’s clickbait and discovered that if you’re an adult, you should be embarrassed to read YA books, because they are simplistic dreck for children. There have been lots of good rebuttals and I’m not going to repeat them here. But I’m interested in the idea that reading YA (and presumably a lot of other popular things) is bad for adults because it means they aren’t challenging themselves. I’d like to challenge some of the common ideas about what “challenging” reading means, or what makes a challenging book.
This week, Eimear McBride won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction for her novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, the style of which is widely described as “difficult,” and which was inspired in part by McBride’s reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses. I requested the book from my library. And then I read this comment from McBride:
Her experience suggests publishers have been underestimating readers, says McBride. “I think the publishing industry is perpetuating this myth that readers like a very passive experience, that all they want is a beach novel. I don’t think that’s true, and I think this book doing as well as it has is absolute proof of that. There are serious readers who want to be challenged, who want to be offered something else, who don’t mind being asked to work a little bit to get there.”
She hopes her success might lead to the publication of other seriously ambitious novels. “There is a readership there, they deserve to be catered to, and literature needs new blood pumped through it all the time, or it becomes stale and purposeless. It’s not a museum piece. It needs to be pushed forward.”
(Am I the only one who sees some irony in a brand known for a sweet “girly” liqueur sponsoring the prize this woman won?). These comments, though less dismissive, are reminiscent of the furor provoked by Jennifer Egan’s comments about chick lit when she won the Pulitzer a few years back.
I agree with most of what McBride and Egan say: I think women should aspire to write ambitious, avant garde literary fiction (if they want to), and I think publishers should be putting books like that in the hands of readers. Not only those books, certainly, but also those books. Publishing is a business, but it’s a culture business, and in general culture thrives when there’s a high/elite/experimental/challenging end as well as a popular end, for all the reasons McBride mentions, even if the market for the “high” end is niche. Do I think readers should challenge themselves by reading these books? I’m not in the business of prescribing anything for readers unless they are enrolled in my classes; but I like to challenge myself this way sometimes–hence my library request for McBride’s book.
I do wish, though, that these writers could make the case for ambitious literary fiction without putting down other books as inherently unchallenging. I realize that doesn’t sound very logical; let me try it another way: I wish that McBride and Egan would recognize that they are arguing for a particular kind of challenging reading and not the only kind of challenging reading. Books can challenge us intellectually or emotionally in many, many different ways: the kind of fiction Egan and McBride write–ambitious, “difficult,” somewhat experimental literary fiction–is not the only kind that offers readers a challenge.
And what about the fact that in any act of reading, there are two parties? (I’m not counting the author here). The book, and the reader. There are many readers whose response to “beach books” is far from passive, whose comments on those books show that they have approached them in a “challenging” way and found some intense emotional and intellectual experiences in those readings.
And no matter how daunting the challenge a book offers us, there are readers who refuse to pick up the gauntlet, who lie back on their beach towels and pass their eyes over the pages of Ulysses and do not engage with it at all. A book cannot force a reader to have a challenging experience. If we are determined to be passive consumers, we can be.
But I think what bugs me the most is the notion that the reader of beach books and the reader of Joyce (or McBride) are necessarily different people. Of course they aren’t! Many of us seek more or less challenging books, or reading challenges of various kinds, at different times: it depends on our mood, on what else is going on in our lives, on what we read last. And that’s how it should be.