Shedding Some Light on Light Reading

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“Northanger Revisited-2015” is my short story contribution to Meryton Press’s Sun-Kissed: Effusions of Summer, an anthology released at the beginning of Beach-Reading Season last year. Northanger Revisited is a modernized treatment of Austen’s classic Northanger Abbey that takes place on fictional Northanger Island, off the coast of Georgia.

For those who don’t know the premise of Jane Austen’s first (but not first published) novel, Northanger Abbey is the story of Catherine Morland, a would-be heroine starring in her own gothic novel of life. Catherine has a penchant for those dramatic and romanticized books, and a great part of the book is spent gently mocking her naivete. She interprets her life only through the prism of her books. It’s charming and light-hearted read, compared to, say, Miss Austen’s Mansfield Park.

One of my favorite parts of NA is a conversation about books held between the hero and heroine.

“I never look at it,” said Catherine, as they walked along the side of the river, “without thinking of the south of France.”

“You have been abroad then?” said Henry, a little surprised.

“Oh! No, I only mean what I have read about. It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in The Mysteries of Udolpho. But you never read novels, I dare say?”

“Why not?”

“Because they are not clever enough for you — gentlemen read better books.”

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days — my hair standing on end the whole time.”

“Yes,” added Miss Tilney, “and I remember that you undertook to read it aloud to me, and that when I was called away for only five minutes to answer a note, instead of waiting for me, you took the volume into the Hermitage Walk, and I was obliged to stay till you had finished it.”

“Thank you, Eleanor — a most honourable testimony. You see, Miss Morland, the injustice of your suspicions. Here was I, in my eagerness to get on, refusing to wait only five minutes for my sister, breaking the promise I had made of reading it aloud, and keeping her in suspense at a most interesting part, by running away with the volume, which, you are to observe, was her own, particularly her own. I am proud when I reflect on it, and I think it must establish me in your good opinion.”

“I am very glad to hear it indeed, and now I shall never be ashamed of liking Udolpho myself. But I really thought before, young men despised novels amazingly.”

“It is amazingly; it may well suggest amazement if they do — for they read nearly as many as women. I myself have read hundreds and hundreds. Do not imagine that you can cope with me in a knowledge of Julias and Louisas. If we proceed to particulars, and engage in the never–ceasing inquiry of ‘Have you read this?’ and ‘Have you read that?’ I shall soon leave you as far behind me as — what shall I say? — I want an appropriate simile. — as far as your friend Emily herself left poor Valancourt when she went with her aunt into Italy. Consider how many years I have had the start of you. I had entered on my studies at Oxford, while you were a good little girl working your sampler at home!”

In Regency times, novels were often perceived as ‘lowly’ forms of entertainment, less worthy of real notice.

My novelette addresses this issue, not in terms of novels, as those are now accepted as ‘high brow’ literary works. Or rather, some of them achieve high-brow status, and knowledge of these works is sometimes used to denigrate those who choose to read something less, shall we say, ‘enlightening’. Much the way a person might use a brand-name jacket or handbag to show their fashion savvy, or some people name-drop or let slip an Ivy League alma mater, a reader trying to impress will drop the name of the latest literary fad.

So now, novels are acceptable. Their place at the bottom of the totem pole is now occupied by  the dreaded “genre fiction” – mystery, sci-fi, romance, horror, western, fantasy. An opinion piece in the Huffington Post , written by Steven Petite, states that literary fiction writers aren’t better writers than genre fiction writers. Instead, the distinction is in the purpose of the writing: the purpose of genre fiction is to escape from reality, while literary fiction forces the reader to escape into reality – thus changing the reader’s world view.

But, he then goes on to say –

In essence, the best Genre Fiction contains great writing, with the goal of telling a captivating story to escape from reality. Literary Fiction is comprised of the heart and soul of a writer’s being, and is experienced as an emotional journey through the symphony of words, leading to a stronger grasp of the universe and of ourselves.

I’m sorry, but I just can’t agree. Right off the top of my head, I can come up with genre fiction titles that led me on an “emotional journey” that changed the way I saw the world: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, A Wrinkle in Time, Dune, Naked in Death, The Time-Traveler’s Wife, Lord of Scoundrels. And that’s a quick list without too much thought.

Do I think literary fiction is worthwhile? Yes, I sometimes think so. But do I think the so-called lower fiction genres can’t give me ‘the heart and soul of writer’s being’? No.

Sometimes I wonder if, 200 hundred years from now, a Mr. Tilney-like character will be defending his reading choices, and discussing his penchant for suspense thrillers or science-fiction to a wide-eyed Catherine Morland. Because after all that time, it might be painfully obvious that –

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good (genre) novel, must be intolerably stupid.”


4 Responses

  1. Christina Boyd
    | Reply

    Brilliant analysis! Couldn’t agree more. And Mr Tilney– always full of cheerful, common sense!

    • karen
      | Reply

      Thanks, Christina! Love Mr. Tilney – the most likable and approachable of Austen’s heroes, in my opinion.

  2. Claudine DiMuzio
    | Reply

    Great points Karen. Who really knows what the future holds for our tastes and forms of entertainment. Could anyone have predicted the success of reality TV, which I myself dislike… And yet, I am often alone in my opinion about RT.

    They say life must be lived forwards but is best understand when looking backwards… I feel we experience this as well in our appreciation of most works of art. What is considered high-brow, low-brow, etc., will evolve over time due to so many factors. However, now we have the good fortune to appreciate so many of the artists and writers of our past that hopefully, we will have a better guide within us when forming our future opinions…

    Yet, with all of the vulgar “art” of this younger generation, I also feel a bit pessimistic about what the future holds in this area… So much is meant to simply shock us instead of stimulating thought… I hope conversations about books remain a centerpiece of our society… And not just a nostalgic pastime.

    • karen
      | Reply

      Thanks for your comment Claudine! As for the future, hopefully thought-provoking art will persevere – and the pendulum will swing back the other way.

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