I had a conversation with a friend a week ago about what I was reading now that the semester is over which brought us to a confounding realization: the lofty works of literature we had been dying to pick up for months now were too depressing.
Were they well-written? Yes. Were they interesting and thought-provoking? Absolutely. But reading about the constant fight over reproductive freedom in America did put a damper on reveling in the first Canadian spring days. After months and months of grey skies and poring over essays of contemporary rhetoric, I wanted to smile and enjoy entertainment that matched the blue sky and warm sun. I wanted beach reads, those supposed light, fluffy books which make good fare for the beach. Cotton candy paperbacks I could digest in a day.
Many make the argument that the beach read is dependent upon the beach read-ee whether it’s romance, fantasy, or true-life mysteries. The one rule seems to be that it is a type of genre fiction, those works which succeed commercially but don’t quite qualify for the high-brow title of literature.
Looking through authoritative list upon authoritative list by lifestyle magazines and newspapers about what books are the hottest beach reads, I couldn’t help but notice another trend. The domination of female writers. Is it a correlation that women typically make up beach reads? Or is it rather that women make up most of that even more elusive term of “genre fiction”?
Roxane Gay takes “women’s fiction” to task in her essay “Beyond the Measure of Men” in which she brings up another central trait of beach reads: their airy-fairy covers.
If readers discount certain topics as unworthy of their attention, if readers are going to judge a book by its cover of feel excluded from a certain kind of book because the cover is, say, pink, the failure is with the reader, not the writer. To read narrowly and shallowly is to read from a place of ignorance, and women writers can’t fix that ignorance no matter what kind of books we write of how those books are marketed.
I am the reader Gay is referring to. I judge books by their covers, never touching anything pink. Any photos of women in stilettos, shopping bags, and water colours are on the receiving end of my derision. As an academic I find myself proclaiming aloud: “I don’t read that.” But every now and again, the part of me that is logical and critical–the true academic–has a moment of clarity. Sometimes it is when browsing through Goodreads, sometimes it’s reading Bad Feminist on a sunny bench. The pretension of education should not be made solely valuable by discarding entertainment.
Steven Petite in a piece for HuffPost Books does a solid job of pinpointing the arbitrary difference between genre fiction and literary fiction (albeit not mentioning a single female writer). In it, he attributes genre fiction as being for the purpose of escaping reality while literary works elevate us, make us think. But why does being an intelligent reader mean that pink books are not good enough?
Fatally Frosted by Jessica Beck certainly qualifies into both the genre and chick lit categories, doubling down with bright, pink bubble letters and spunky protagonist Suzanne, a donut shop owner by day, private detective by night. Beck’s writing is far from difficult, the plot is straightforward if not that strong, and the flat supporting characters leave much to be desired. But like the deep fried delights on the cover Fatally Frosted was a delicious treat for me. This whodunnit was like catnip for my burnt out post-grad brain. With a solid 3.85 stars from over 1,500 reviewers, I know I’m not alone.
It’s true that many present works do not often fit in a nice box of provoking moral inquiry but does not thinking of it fall on the fault of the writer or the reader? As Gay points out, there is only so much writers can control and maintain their artistic freedom. Contemporary fiction whether genre or literary has the benefit of allowing us to get to know ourselves, but only if we choose to read into it. Suzanne’s struggles of balancing her donut business, her desire for a romantic relationship, and personal pet projects (read: solving local murders) is something I can certainly understand. It’s something I think many of my entrepreneurial peers from university could understand. Who’s to say Fatally Frosted belongs more on the beach than in the library? Why should I feel slightly guilty about enjoying Beck’s novel over Gay’s essays on a sunny day?
The beauty of leisure is being able to read what you want to read without posturing. After all, Suzanne certainly never apologized for choosing a cozy mystery over a Governor General’s Award winner in between making donuts and finding culprits. It is time for readers to take as much responsibility for the reading experience as the writer.