Thursday, February 23, 2012

Reading Junk Food

Fellow readers, I will begin with a confession: I sure have been reading a lot of vampire-romance novels lately. Over the past couple months I have blazed through all of Kim Harrison's Hollows series and all of Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire series. And yet, I haven't posted any "what I'm reading" posts about these books. Why? Because there's a part of me that has designated these books as "trashy."

Ah, trashy books! Our guilty pleasures, our so-bad-but-so-good stories, our junk food of reading. "Delicious and utterly without merit," said one friend of mine. She, like I do, describes her books in food terms, and right now we're talking about the Marshmallow Peeps of literature.

It used to be a rare thing for me to read something trashy - not because I was embarrassed, but because I assumed that I didn't really LIKE trashy stuff. I never read Sweet Valley High, I thought those Jean Auel books were too boring for words, and I'd never felt the slightest inclination to read a bodice-ripping romance. But have you ever noticed that music connoisseurs start to lose their musical prejudices and appreciate everything for what it is? Well, the same thing happens when you work in a library - you read new and different stuff. I read Janet Evanovich and I didn't care who knew about it. But I really think that my turning point, the moment when I changed from a person who doesn't read trash to a person who does, is when I LIKED TWILIGHT. I don't mean, I read it and thought, "I kindof liked that." I mean that I stayed up late reading it, I mean that when I was waiting for the next book to come in I went to the library and dug through the "hold" bins to see if my book was in there. I could tell that the books were not very good, but I just didn't CARE.
So it seems that my critical faculties are still intact. I can still make a fairly objective judgement: this book is well-written, that book has major plot holes, this series is formulaic, that character has no observable motivation. The difference is in recognizing that there are some flaws that I am cheerfully ready to ignore - I can like the books anyway.

So is it the presence of those flaws that what makes a book "trashy?" I don't think so. Bad or mediocre writing is not sufficient - I can imagine badly-written fiction that wouldn't qualify as trashy, and in fact there seems to be a great deal of poor-quality, pretentious, time-wasting literature that doesn't count as trashy at all. So what makes us use the "trashy" label?

In my opinion, trashy books are a cheap thrill, meant to appeal to a broad spectrum, designed to hit our primitive emotional triggers: humor, violence, fear, sex, love, revenge, fame.

Or, for a lot of people, just sex. For a significant minority of the people I talked to, "trashy" was closely related to "sexy." Either they considered the presence of sex in a book enough to make the book trashy, or they considered sex to be the main qualifier. "It's not trashy unless there's sex in it" seemed to be a prevailing opinion, although I don't share it. While erotica may be most people's epitome of trash, I think there are equally as many romance novels with no sex scenes, but an overabundance of emotional abandon, and they are still trashy. Then there are horror novels - equally designed to appeal to our baser emotions, but instead of playing on sex, they're playing on fear.

While I was getting ideas for this post, I asked a bunch of friends and co-workers if they liked to read anything that they considered trash. A few people said yes, of course, I love my trashy books! A few others said no way, I don't want to waste my time. The largest group BY FAR said Yes, but only in certain situations: on airplanes, in the dentist's office, when I want relax, when I'm sick, etc. I guess our trashy reading material is embarrassing by definition, such that we feel the need to make excuses for enjoying it?

Well, no more! I'm saying it loud and proud: I LIKE TO READ TRASH!

(Stay tuned for a list of my favorite trashy books.)

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