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In Defense of Trashy Novels

Some people get flamed by standard-grade Internet marauders, like Republicans. It is my lot in life, however, to get flamed by incensed Georgette Heyer fans. Yesterday, I posted a list of 40 “trashy” books that included, among the likes of D.H. Lawrence and Shirley Conran, an example from Heyer, and promptly the comments were filled with protest. The complaints vary. Some people feel I was too quick to classify their favorite book — the Outlander series, or else Heyer’s Black Moth itself — as “trash,” which they understand as an insult. Others are upset that I would dare put Nin and Lawrence on a list of trash, I guess because Nin and Lawrence are branded as “literary” and “serious” even when they are writing what at least Nin openly admitted was work-for-hire that she considered inferior to her Diaries. (More on Lawrence in a bit.)

I feel the need to clarify just this one point: coming from me, the term “trashy” isn’t necessarily pejorative. I do not condemn people for reading “trash.” I don’t even venture mild criticism of it. If it weren’t for “trash” I might not be much of a reader myself; V.C. Andrews and The Plains of Passage and Danielle Steel turned me into a person-who-reads-books-while-she-walks-around-New-York today.

Perhaps the misunderstanding is really about definition. When I think of the word “trash” I think of work written to titillate and entertain. Insofar as that’s its main goal, to paraphrase the film critic Pauline Kael, it bears some relation to art, of course. I’m not going to settle the question here of whether all entertainment rises to the level of art, though. People have argued over that one since the dawn of mass culture, and I’ve only a short amount of time to write this post.

What I can say is this: if you take the notion that your favorite book is art seriously, I’m at least willing to listen. If you believe Outlander is truly elevating stuff, I don’t even necessarily disagree with you. I have some similar feelings about things that others consider junk food, and mostly all I want is to be heard out on the point. One of the great pleasures of living a life where you get to write about culture is that you grow up changing your mind, refining your position, hearing what others have to say to try to understand why a response to something is as strong as it is.

But let’s remain abstract for a second rather than argue over particular bits of culture. Personally, I think Kael was largely right when, in a famous late-1960s essay in Harper‘s called “Trash, Art and the Movies,” she offered, 

It’s preposterously egocentric to call anything we enjoy art — as if we could not be entertained by it if it were not; it’s just as preposterous to let prestigious, expensive advertising snow us into thinking we’re getting art for our money when we haven’t even had a good time.

Kael’s talking about film, and the state of the medium in 1960s America specifically. But it extends to books too, both the enjoyable-but-not-art ones and the “art”-but-not-enjoyable ones. There are an awful lot of novels I read in an average year that are packaged as the newest, greatest literary thing. Use the word “literary” and you mean the opposite of trash — these are books which are less interestingly plotted and inventive than the average Anne Rice book. If I read one more bit of Alice-Munro-lite fiction about an unhappy housewife in some suburban setting I will lose it; ditto your recently-left-the-nest anxious Brooklyn men fascinated by their own declining virility and sense of self-control. What makes these serious books, all too often — though not every time — is really as much about position and marketing as it is about content.

My affection for trash, as a result, is born of a frustration with what is commonly called “literary fiction” nowadays. A lot of it is unwilling to take serious risks, and the risks many literary novelists do take — see a piece I put out on Marisha Pessl’s new bookNight Film, earlier today — are ill-advised. And without the risk-taking or the consideration of whether the reader will be desperately bored by your non-plot and limp prose, a certain amount of that essential magic of reading — the page-turning part — is effectively lost. At the risk of over-quoting Kael, here she is again on this subject:

If we go back and think over the movies we’ve enjoyed — even the ones we knew were terrible movies while we enjoyed them — what we enjoyed in them, the little part that was good, had, in some rudimentary way, some freshness, some hint of style, some trace of beauty, some audacity, some craziness… Without this kind of playfulness and the pleasure we take from it, art isn’t art at all, it’s something punishing, as it so often is in school where even artists’ little jokes become leaden with explanation.

I don’t agree with Kael on her every assessment either, for the record. But on the nature of whether pleasure ought to be worth something, aesthetically, making “trash” worth talking about, I’m in absolute lockstep.

Which brings me to the reason I included one item of what pretty much everyone would agree is a piece of “high art” on the list, Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. For half a century Lawrence’s novel has been a notorious “dirty book,” passed around as trash because it was at the center of a famous attempt to ban a book. And yet there was in it some spark of human experience. Lawrence wrote that he was trying to give voice to “phallic consciousness” in the novel, which is pretty fairly described as thinking with one’s penis. And yet even within that framework, there’s something worthwhile to be found. I would, of course, agree that the likes of Shirley Conran possess at best much lesser virtues than Lawrence. But the point is not so much to compare one to the other as to point out that even if the treasure’s buried deep, it can still be worth digging for. 

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