Wednesday, July 10, 2013

There Are No Bad Hats

When I found out that this month's theme was "Hats We Wear," I thought about going any number of ways with my post. After all, I'm a writer, a mom, a teacher, an editor, a wife...I seriously need a time-turner most days.

But I decided that I wanted to go in a different direction. I want to talk about the hats we wear as readers.

That's right, readers.

In a recent blog, Maggie Stiefvater talked about literature and how it's interpreted. She wrote this:

I think you can talk in endless circles about what constitutes “literary” fiction and whether it’s good or bad or has no value or can be traded for a gallon of milk. And I also think you can talk in endless circles about whether or not there are “good” books and “bad” books and who gets to decide which is which. And if you do ever find an end to these circles, you can finish up with a indefatigable dessert course of the literary writing versus commercial writing debate.

I said basically the same thing in a 300 page dissertation that no one will ever read. That's right, a dissertation. Which means that I am, technically, a doctor. Which means that you should trust me. 

Or something like that.

But seriously, I'm basically a professional reader. I went to school a Really Long Time to read and study books, and in that time I read all the Very Best Things. 

And I'll tell you something, I didn't understand literature...not really...until I started reading Romance.

Yeah, I know, Romance--go ahead and mumble to yourselves about the genre fiction you distain. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Okay-- got that out of your system?  Great.

Now let me tell you about the different hats I wear as a reader and why I think they are so important.

For YEARS (roughly 14 to be exact), I was in love with Literary Fiction--Great Literature. I loved it enough that I decided to forgo a Real income and study it. (probably not one of my best decisions, but it's worked out well enough, I guess). I read everything--Shakespeare, Woolf, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Morrison (I love me some Toni Morrison). I wrote about literature. I even got some of those very dense, very stuffy writings published in Somewhat Important journals. 

But I will tell you something--As WONDERFUL as all those books are. As much as I loved--and still love--them, they are damned depressing. Nobody gets a Happily Ever After. Nobody rides off into the sunset. And when you are facing a pile of student loan debt and no job (told you that much grad school wasn't a good decision), you do not want to read anything that depressing. At least I didn't. So I read TWILIGHT.

I loved it.

Go ahead. Grumble about that, I'll wait.

Seriously. TWILIGHT was a revelation for me. It re-introduced me to YA, but it also introduced me to Romance. And then a friend suggested OUTLANDER. And that was it for me. I was hooked.

I spent the next 10-12 months reading every Romance I could get my hands on. I'm talking, literally hundreds and hundreds  of books--at least 1 a day. I exhausted Karen Marie Moning and made my way to Julia Quinn. From there it was Amanda Quick and Eloisa James and Kathy Maxwell. And when the library started running out of regencies with the pretty, frilly covers, I sucked it up and tried Nora Roberts. I'd resisted Nora Roberts, because she was what my mom read. And, like I said, for 14 or so years, I read Real Literature. Important Literature. (or so I thought)

Now as I'm reading all of these, I'm living in this tiny midwestern town in the middle of a cornfield where EVERYONE was connected to the University in some way. I'd use the self-checkouts on the 2nd floor of the library and smuggle the books out in a bag, because I was ashamed to have any of my pseudo-intellectual grad school friends see what I was reading. I told myself that I was reading to learn a new genre. That it was research. That maybe I'd write a paper about it someday.

You know what? That was all bullsh*t. I was reading those books, because for the first time in a loooong time reading was thrilling again. For the first time in years, I was staying up until 2am to finish a book.

You know what else? I wouldn't be a writer, and I certainly wouldn't be an about-to-be-published author if I hadn't read those hundreds and hundreds of so-called trashy books. If I hadn't put on that other readerly hat.

I knew literature up down and backwards by that point, but I didn't really understand it. I still loved stories, but I'd forgotten why. Romance (re)taught me about plot and character. Romance (re)taught me that it was okay for a story to unfold and be comprehensible. Romance showed me the kind of stories that I wanted to write--stories that end happily instead of satisfactorily. And Romance probably saved me in more ways than one during that hard, depressing time.

This is why I'm always somewhat shocked (though I don't know why I would be anymore) to hear people put down one form of literature or another. I hear writers and readers poo-poo romance for being fluff, I hear romance readers poo-poo literary fiction for being to difficult or dense. And I can never understand why. Books are books. Stories are stories. They are all the stuff of dreams and inspiration and beauty.

If you don't like something, don't read it. But there's no such thing as a bad genre. And that's my professional opinion (doctor, remember?) There are bad books, sure, but there are no bad genres. There are no bad readerly hats.

And what's more, I think that if you don't like something you should read it. You should put on that other hat and see what's out there. You should be willing to struggle a bit. You don't have to be converted, but you should want to understand. To know what other people love and admire. 

Joss Whedon gave some tips recently for being prolific. He says a lot of good things, but my favorite is this:
"...fill the tanks, fill the tanks, fill the tanks. Constantly watch things and things you don’t [normally watch]. Step outside your viewing zone, your reading zone. It’s all fodder but if you only take from one thing then it’ll show."

There is no better advice than this, I think.

So for all the YA-haters and Romance-haters and Literary-fiction-haters and the (list goes on and on, because people tend to be rather opinionated, don't they?)--stop. Just stop.

Put on a different readerly hat. Try something new. Expand your horizons. It will make you a better reader and a better writer.

And when you hear those slights against the genre or the author or the book that you love, just ignore them. Because the haters don't understand, will never understand, how expansive and infinite a reader can be. 

And that. That right there is the beauty of literature (big or little "L"). It makes us expansive. It makes us infinite.

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