As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a literature major and if I’ve learned anything in my study of belles-letters, it’s that fiction hasn’t fared very well in this postmodern world. I don’t mean quality-wise; there’s plenty of fiction out there that holds its own with Hemingway, Hurston, or Fitzgerald. For example, Margaret Atwood tackles Christian theonomy in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses gave us an unflinching look at Islam. Not to be outdone, Neil Gaiman showed us what we really worship in his novel, American Gods. No, beloved, when it comes to fiction, the quality is as good as it ever was. It’s fiction’s reputation that’s taken a hit.
It seems to me that most people view nonfiction as “serious” reading, while fiction is strictly for fun. I have more than one friend who share the nonfiction works they’re reading as deep and important, while fiction is reserved for “beach reads”. I’ve long thought this was a discomfiting trend and GQ magazine recently provided more evidence of that when they published an article titled “21 Books You Don’t Have to Read”.
Now, if you’re thinking that GQ isn’t exactly a bastion of literary criticism, you’re right. It’s basically the male version of Cosmopolitan and deals mostly with fashion, style, and culture for men. As a rule, I pay more attention to Oprah’s Book Club than I do GQ when it comes to literature. But, this article caught my attention because, well, it’s a list of books that we’re told don’t have to read and anytime I see someone discouraging reading in any form, I get a little miffed.
Lately, I’ve been trying to avoid things that get my blood pressure up, like political discussions, internet arguments, and, well, stupid lists about not reading certain books. But, against my better judgement, I looked it up. It was worse than I thought. Not only did these yahoos include the Bible (it is the most influential book in history. That’s true whether you like it or not), they also included books like, Catcher in the Rye, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Lord of the Rings. Really? In a world where crap like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray exists, why would you steer people away from good writing?
I noticed two things while perusing this list: First, it was very heavy on old, white guys. As in, the books deemed unworthy of reading were written by white men. And, when I “heavy”, I mean “every book”. And, lest you think I’m one of those “Don’t-like-minority” types, I firmly believe we don’t hear from those minority voices nearly as much as we should. But, reading those authors shouldn’t mean tossing out the classics.
Second, one of the chief complaints about the works on the “Don’t bother” list was that they weren’t entertaining enough. I get that being entertaining is important because people tend not to read books that aren’t entertaining. I mean, when’s the last time you anything by Henry James? But, being entertaining isn’t the only thing. Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series is very entertaining, but it doesn’t break new ground, transform literature or do any of the other things the books on this list have done.
Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about the list is that it was compiled by authors. And, all too often, those authors didn’t seem to grasp the finer points of these works. This is evidence of another disturbing trend I’ve noticed: most Americans read fiction the way an evangelical fundamentalist reads the Bible: literally and without searching for any deeper meaning. That is not a good thing.
Why is that a bad thing, you ask? Well, my friends, we live in a world that is chock full of things that are extremely hard to talk about. That is partly because, as much as we claim to prize plain-spokenness, differing ideas uttered in a plain-spoken way tends to make us angry. Especially when it’s applied to something we’re sensitive about. And, that’s where fiction comes in. Because fiction is an excellent way to talk about the things that we can’t tackle head on. Really, fiction is the new mythology, allowing us to explore and express who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we’re going. If we avail ourselves of this amazing device, we might even get there without destroying ourselves in the process. I’m not holding my breath, though.