Every couple years, I pick up three or four of the bestsellers I’ve heard a lot about but put off reading for one reason or another. Books like The Kite Runner, The Lovely Bones, The Secret Life of Bees, and, most recently, The Help, and Water for Elephants. By the time I get around to them, the library has twelve copies on the shelf because there’s no longer a waiting list. If I want to splurge, for about a buck I can find a used paperback copy online with the movie poster on the front cover.
I read them out of curiosity mostly, to see what all the fuss was about. Truth be told, I tend to go into these novels with my nose pointed slightly in the air. If the book isn’t trite and saccharine, I’m sure it’ll be overly melodramatic with inorganic plot devices that end tidily. I expect the themes in these novels to be uncontroversial yet presented as bold social commentary so readers can pat themselves on the back, agreeing that, indeed, all people of Middle Eastern descent really aren’t terrorists, child molestation really isn’t cool, white people in the Jim Crow South really didn’t treat black people very nicely, and isn’t it refreshing that the author dared to go there?
OK, maybe my nose is more than “slightly” in the air.
The thing is, I’m usually right.
The other thing is, I usually like these books a lot. I usually get why they’re bestsellers. I usually finish the last chapter and then add the movie to my Netflix queue.
Like all writers, I have my personal list of idols. Marilynne Robinson and Edward P. Jones come to mind, two wildly different storytellers I return to often. Their work has received its due in critical acclaim and enjoyed commercial success, particularly for quote-unquote literary fiction. And while I dream of my work one day being compared to theirs, the fact is The Help has something Housekeeping just doesn’t. It’s the same thing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can claim, while The Known World—for all its achievements—cannot.
Not life-changing. Not awe-inspiring. But fun. At the risk of stating the obvious: Lots of people buy these books because they’re fast-paced, mostly well-written stories populated with vivid characters. This kind of book—how best to categorize it? Litetary-ish? Bestseller-y?—accomplishes more than other (I think lesser) “fun” escapes such as formulaic murder mysteries or anything with word “Shopaholic” in the title. While the insight and invention found in Water for Elephants may pale in comparison to a masterpiece like Beloved, it’s difficult to curl up with a mug of cocoa and the tale of an escaped slave woman who beheads her baby daughter and is summarily—and non-chronologically—haunted by her ghost. I guessed (more or less correctly) how Water for Elephants would end on page 50, but I had a great time getting there. Sara Gruen’s novel is a string of entertaining, forward-moving scenes, while Morrison offers disparate consciousnesses that comment on race, gender, slavery, love and death in difficult, evocative terms.
The point, I guess, is there are lessons to be learned from both. The books I read in my literary seminars aren’t necessarily more beneficial to my own writing than the books I read for pleasure, in the same way broccoli and spinach aren’t necessarily more nutritious than lasagna, though part of me still believes it’s better to eat my vegetables. I’m ready to shake the wrongheaded notion that “important” fiction is always abstruse and erudite. While I don’t plan on writing a thriller or multi-volume epic anytime soon, suspense and adventure are useful tools for any storyteller, and are utilized quite successfully in certain works of popular fiction, even if I’m sometimes irritated by their attempts to “tell it like it is.” In reading these “it” books, I’ve become conscious of empty spaces in my writer’s toolbox, next to the smaller, finer brushes I favor and am still learning to handle.