Evolving Opinions on Literature

Is a love of books innate or cultivated? Can it be nurtured given the right set of conditions? Can it be groomed, guided and trained? Can it be pruned? Should it be pruned? Can it be destroyed?

I came of age in a reading household. Romance novels everywhere. John Grisham and James Patterson were staples (confession: I found them hopelessly boring). To this day my mother will probably still swoon over a good Ken Follett novel. My aunt, despite health challenges, will still use her limited energy to stay up late reading her latest acquisition (Michelle Obama’s Becoming). Even my father had a stash of Clive Cussler books and Marvel comics, in a society where reading was frowned upon as ‘unmanly’.

Nature or nurture?

My primary school evenings were spent hunting down old newsprint children’s books on dusty classroom shelves. Stories that were ubiquitous to public schools in Jamaica, with morals like ‘shortcut draw blood’ and tales that encouraged us to respect our elders and love our neighbours.

In high school, I was forbidden to read romance novels, so naturally I hid and read them any way. I started speed reading out of necessity so I could finish a borrowed bodice-ripper before the last school bell rang at 2:20. The ones I took home stayed hidden among school things, retrieved on lengthy trips to the bathroom. My parents always wondered what on earth I could be doing for so long. I was encouraged to eat more vegetables.

My high school library was under-served, but came with unexpected classics like a collection of Isaac Asimov stories that I discovered shortly after the release of I-Robot, and which piqued my interest in science fiction.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered, ten years after leaving high school, a worn and faded copy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. A novel which, according to the Well-Read Black Girl anthology, sparked the genius of several literary leading ladies. I can’t remember ever seeing it during my tenure, but I’m sure the tepid cover wouldn’t have caught my attention anyway, focused as I was on colour and excitement. Interpret that how you will.

Aside from romance novels, paranormal romance novels, historical fiction romance novels and comedic romance novels (are you sensing a trend here?) my appetite extended to comedies, autobiographies, science fiction, young adult and contemporary novels. All illegally downloaded because books are expensive and the esoteric ones (in Jamaica, this means anything that isn’t of the Mills & Boon variety) are hard to come by. My collection included books by Jenny Lawson, Neil Gaiman, Christine Feehan, Michael Crichton, Roxanne Gay, Cheryl Strayed and Eoin Colfer.

Why did I gravitate toward these authors? Was it some combination of genetics, escapism, and excellent taste? The answer to that is about as complicated as the answer to why some people love Nutella (spoiler alert: it’s disgusting).

My literary interests grew like weeds, unfettered and sprawling. True, there was the semblance of a pattern, but it only noticeable in the negative spaces, in what was missing. After reading A Child Called It (Dave Pelzer) in third form, I knew I never wanted to read another story of abuse ever again. And after valiantly finishing The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger) I knew for sure first person stream of consciousness and the bildungsroman were not for me. Though I did enjoy A Separate Peace in literature class (I am nothing if not inconsistent).

Still my choice of books could never be described as ‘cultivated’, more like a potpourri of covers, quotes and authors that caught my fancy.

I was perfectly happy to dabble in this hodgepodge of literary entertainment until about my 4th year of medical school, when I decided I wanted to be a writing intern for an online magazine. I showed up for the interview, excited to finally take a step into the real life world of books, and my future editor asked what kinds of books I liked to read. I shared a few samples from the list above (to my credit, neglecting to mention the hundreds of romance novels) but I was wholly unprepared for her next question.

“Do you read any literary fiction?”

I’ll spare you the painfully embarrassing details of me asking what the hell literary fiction was and then struggling to remember the last ‘serious’ book I had read (Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, if you were wondering).

Now I know there are readers who are capable of excelling in medical school full time while maintaining a steady 5-6 books per month batting average, but I am not one of them. After labouring through eight hours of mind-numbing Physiology lectures, deciphering delicate metaphors in a stream of consciousness narrative is not my idea of a fun time.

That encounter in 4th year shifted my reading trajectory entirely. Before, I would devour four or five romantic or otherwise light-hearted novels per month. After, I put myself on a strict literary diet: romance novels were the fast food of the reading world and if I wanted to cultivate a healthy literary appetite I needed to stick to the ‘serious stories’.

I refused to read anything that couldn’t be described as ‘literary’, and ironically I spent a lot of that time re-reading my Jane Austen novels. I love Austen but her books are by no means ‘literary’, just old. I spiraled all the way down to four maybe five books a year, and started to feel guilty every time I saw my blog title.

That editor wasn’t to blame for my literary anorexia, at least not entirely. But there was an unspoken cultural rule that I was slowly becoming aware of, one that dictated which books were worth reading, and segregated readers in caste-like fashion based on the types of books they enjoyed.

This rule revolved around literary awards and the strict boundaries of genre. Much like a social hierarchy, the genre of a book determined the limits of its audience and in turn its perceived quality. Books and the people who loved them were snipped and cookie-cuttered into neat little labels, easy for publishers to target, but overall stifling the sprawling love of literature to which I had grown accustomed.

We readers of fantasy and YA novels can face disparagement for not being ‘serious readers’ and this pushes us to the margins of literary circles. Truth, I felt like an outsider during university when I attended functions in the Dept of Literature, though there was no real discrimination. Teens who spend hours poring over comic books and graphic novels instead of dense volumes of glorified classics get criticized for ‘wasting time’ instead of being encouraged to keep reading.

The delicate sprouts of curious literary leaves are easily crushed by censure. If society claims to value people who read, then why does it matter what they read, as long as they’re expanding their imaginations and honing their critical thinking?

Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man

Damn straight, Sir Francis Bacon

And I’m not drawing any lines in the sand either. All forms of writing are useful in this regard: Shakepeare, Sandra Brown, badly written Supernatural fanfiction. When people are discouraged from reading what they like, they’re just discouraged from reading. Pruning practices that ought to be prohibited is literally a quote from a Harry Potter villain.

On the flip side, if you’re concerned that your ten year old has a morbid fascination with Stephen King you may want to suggest something you’d find a little more age appropriate and save the Master of Horror until the teenage years (or, you know, never). It’s like training pets, instead of punishing the unwanted behaviour, distract and replace it with something more desirable.

At the end of the day, reading should be encouraged full stop. The ridiculous competition of ‘literary’ vs ‘genre’ fiction is best left to snobby book critics and publishers with a cranio-rectal inversion. Everyone else should just be glad your child/loved one/own damn self who reads has a way more useful hobby than policing other people’s bookshelves.

Advertisements