Literature has been my job for years but you learn something every day. Yesterday I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and stumbled upon a Times Higher Education article which advocated the benefits of “serious novels”. I read about 150 novels a year: funny novels, scary novels, great novels, terrible novels… but what on earth is a serious novel? Turns out a serious novel is written by someone like Ian McEwan, Toni Morrison, James Joyce, or Margaret Atwood: a hefty tome discussing Big Themes in Complex Language. According to the author, academic and author Peter Taylor-Gooby, they should be required reading for students, and not just for those taking humanities courses.
While I can’t advocate reading novels enough, love every word writers like McEwan ever put to paper, and can see the benefit of making students read something other than textbooks and Facebook posts, the word “serious” is bugging me. I count many scientists amongst my relatives and friends, and while some of them read fiction for pleasure, most would balk at the idea of being forced to read fiction when they could be reading about biology, chemistry, or some other subject I don’t understand. Secondly, while authors like Morrison cover serious subjects in serious ways, and do a great job at it, I wonder whether good novels always have to be serious. Sure, I just finished Margaret Atwood’s After the Flood, and it’s damn serious, and it really made me think. But still…
Sometimes I just need a bit of variety. No matter how much I loved the Atwood novel, it’s also quite dystopian, and it left me in a misanthropic state which made confronting the crazy world we currently live in considerably more difficult. I needed some good old-fashioned escapism. Fun. The world out there is serious enough, I reasoned, so let’s turn to fiction for some much-needed distraction.
At that point I discovered that my bookshelves are over-populated by violent, scary, aggressive and misanthropic books. There are moments in life when Bret Easton Ellis just doesn’t provide the comfort one needs. No need to despair, there’s always the library.
I stumbled upon Florence King’s Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady and borrowed it mostly because of the Rita Mae Brown quote on the cover, which told me that “the only way you’ll fail to enjoy this book is if you’ve contracted bubonic plague”. I’m a huge fan of Brown and her proud non-seriousness (she was one of the authors who taught me that books about lesbians don’t need to have lesbianism as their main plot line – turns out lesbians can have actual lives too!) so I borrowed King’s book and started turning the pages on the way home.
Confessions is a semi-autobiographical text about King’s Southern childhood and adolescence which vividly describes her crazy family, brief academic career, and colourful sex life. It’s a decidedly non-serious text: an easy read packed with jokes and dialogue. The only reason it took me three days to finish it is my own decision to read the book slowly, bit by bit, so I’d be able to enjoy it for longer. A throw-away book, one might think. A brief escape from Donald Trump, terrorism, and climate change. Why bother writing a blog post about it?
Well, because even though this book is technically not “serious”, it covers some pretty serious subjects, including racism, segregation, homophobia, sexism and feminism. It does so without lecturing the reader, in a style everyone can understand, while being hugely entertaining. I don’t think one literary style or genre is better than the other, and variety is the spice of life, so I always recommend aspiring readers who approach me for advice to read as much as they can without worrying about what they “like”. But I believe reading for pleasure is nothing to be ashamed of. Fun is important. Laughter is healthy. It’s even, for those who have studied Mikhail Bakhtin, a potential source of political radicalism.
With Confessions sadly finished, and returned to the library with a heavy heart, I’m contemplating my next book-date. Perhaps it’s time to revisit Brown? Snack on some of Roald Dahl’s stories for grown-ups? Or keep it simple, and undertake an extended trip down memory lane…?