During my time studying English Literature, I read the most incredible stories. Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey gave me goosebumps, Shelley's Frankenstein left me in awe, Dostoevsky's Crime & Punishment was a marvel, and Fitzgerald was absolutely enchanting. Although at times I struggled to keep up with all of my assigned readings, it was never lost on me how privileged I was to read all of the greats, and how lucky we are as a society to have such a rich literary history. I do wish this literary history included more marginalized voices--the stories of women and POC--but I digress.
One of the big debates within literary circles is the difference between high-brow and low-brow literature. Novels such as Pride & Prejudice (Austen), To Kill A Mockingbird (Lee), Mrs. Dalloway (Woolfe) and more are all considered high-brow. These are literary masterpieces that represent the pinnacle of craft and storytelling; a crucial novel for all to read at some point in their lifetime if they wish to reach true literary enlightenment. Other novels, such as The Notebook (Sparks), Twilight (Meyer), The Fault In Our Stars (Green) and more are all considered low-brow. These are fun reads, perhaps, but not exactly canon-material. They are popular fiction at most; the kind of book your high school english teacher may allow you to read in class, but won't be fully delighted in.
I remember so distinctly the moment I realized my literary preferences were not as high-brow as what people expected, and at times demanded, of a student of English Literature. We were having a class discussion my freshman year on how difficult it is to transpose great literature into a great film. There is a general sentiment that 'the book is always better than the movie.' My professor asked us if this was always the case, to which I raised my hand and said, "I thought The Hunger Games did a really fantastic job of bringing the book to life in the film. Most people who loved the book also seemed to love the movie." A senior scoffed and replied, "I don't think we can classify The Hunger Games as literature."
My heart broke. The Hunger Games was a fantastic novel. I had never read the first-person, present-tense POV so well written before. Katniss' fight for justice was inspiring, and as much as I could relate to a character from a dystopian world where children are sent off to battle to the death, I related to many of the themes and learned from the messages of the book. I firmly believed reading that book made me a better writer, and to this day it holds a hallowed place on my book shelf. And yet there I was, being told that my favourite book at the time was distinctly low-brow--mindless, unimportant, and undeserving of literary respect.
To the credit of the student who was so disdainful of my opinion, he later came up to me in the cafeteria and apologized for being a jerk. I accepted his apology, but reiterated that yes, he was a jerk.
Although this interaction did not leave me permanently traumatized, it did change the way I looked at every book I picked up. Was this going to be a high-brow book that would challenge me and be worthy of instagramming, or would this book make me look silly, a low-brow novel that didn't deserve the esteemed title of novel regardless of it's page count. I stopped reading popular fiction altogether, instead spending my summers reading Hemingway, Plath, Shakespeare and more. I was determined to fill my shelves with as much high-brow literature as my bank account could handle. After all, how could I call myself an English Literature Major if I was caught indulging in Harry Potter?
It wasn't just that reading this low-brow literature made me feel like a fraud; it was that I was also currently writing a distinctly low-brow novel myself: Tangled In Tennessee. I was under no illusions that the story of a young girl falling in love with cute boys in Nashville was going to be the next great Canadian Novel. I was not waiting for my Pulitzer. Still, I loved writing Tangled In Tennessee. Not only was it a way for me to re-live the magic of my time in Nashville, a sort of time capsule of that time in my life, but it was just plain fun! Still; I kept it a secret. I only told my close friends. I did not run around telling people about my cheesy young adult novel set to come out. After all, it would make me a pathetic excuse for an English Lit major, right?
One day it hit me: my novel wasn't going to bump The Canterbury Tales off of the canon, but it was still a really good book. It was a fun, easy read. It was the kind of book you take to the beach; after all, who doesn't love reading about a love triangle between a very relatable girl and two hot British pop stars? There is nothing wrong with loving cheesy YA lit. The point of a novel is to tell a story and, in most cases, to entertain. How it does that is irrelevant so long as you are thankful you read it. My book was still a piece of literature, 70,000 words of literature, in fact. It was deserving of respect, just like any other low-brow book on someone's bedside table.
The reality is that a lot of people, including myself, love cheesy YA novels. There is no shame in that. Reading all of the Nicholas Sparks, Cassandra Claire and, yes, Suzanne Collins that I did made me a better writer. It made many long bus rides much more enjoyable. It gave me respite from Woolfe's long-winded pages in Mrs. Dalloway, which some call 'stream of consciousness' writing, but I call boring. These were books that I looked forward to reading after a long day at school, books that made me cry, books that inspired me, and books that my friends and I excitedly read together.
They were fun, plain and simple. What brings you joy in a novel is different for everyone, but at the end of the day, reading should be enjoyable.
Because if not, then what's the point?