We all have novels that we treat as ‘guilty pleasures’, books that we turn to when we can’t face another heavyweight off this term’s reading list, and admit to reading with a self-deprecating smile. But why are some texts treated like this, while others are elevated and treated as a kind of cultural currency? One of the main factors to consider is the idea of the worth or value of a text.
Who defines what literature is worth? Economics would propose that monetary value dictates the value of a piece of literature. But then, in our era of profitable book-to-movie adaptations of texts, so many books are still socially perceived, by the general public, as innately inferior. The economic worth of a text is also separated from its cinematic afterlife: enjoyment of the movie adaptation of Les Misèrables is incredibly unlikely to turn one into a Hugo aficionado, let alone lead to the purchase of the original text.
So, is it, then, the popularity of a text – and not its cinematic reimagining – which defines its worth? Well, not really. Though the notorious Fifty Shades of Grey is officially Britain’s best-selling book – eclipsing even the gargantuan Harry Potter series – we’d all agree that E. L. James is probably unlikely to be nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature any time soon. Similar incongruities arise when considering issues of content and context – neither the topics or themes discussed, nor the age of the text appear to be relevant in ascertaining value.
The value a text is given seems to be not economically dependent, but socially determined; intellectual worth is ultimately prized when we consider how a text is received. The concept of intellectual value is equally enigmatic – the question of what should be defined as literature is pervasive, and the canon is far from universally accepted. However, if a text achieves the holy grail of higher acknowledgment, it is elevated above all others. With pride, copies of the book can be wafted around with heady superiority; when asked how we have been, we can confidently assert just how much we have been enjoying such an amazing book.
This treatment of books as means of social elevation is inherently problematic for us as readers: it leads to an inevitable conflict between our intellectual aspirations and our desires – because the excluded literature, which is stigmatised (if not by direct mention, then by its omission from academia) is thus seen as the ‘other’. And this taboo is fascinating; it draws us closer, both curious and tentative. Like a child sneaking biscuits from the barrel whilst his parents watch TV, we are unsupervised by the didactic standards of academic acceptability.
It is compelling. This sense of ‘otherness’, this diversion from the normative, pre-trodden path, proves addictive. By reading these other texts, we are flouting the rules which have been embedded within us since The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Not only this, but we are questioning socially accepted standards of educational worth: the texts which are valued in the canon are generally seen as ‘educational’, valuable as allegorical examples of behavior. Rejecting the didacticism of their preachings is rebellious. We are undermining the values defined by mainstream society; choosing a book can be as powerful as picking up a political pamphlet.
No wonder such subversive reading titles are labelled as ‘guilty pleasures’!
Through these books, we can experience the lives of the undermined, the underprivileged, and the unremembered. One reason that texts are not deemed as having a literary worth is that they do not discuss views, or positions, which are dominant in society. For instance, through The Fault in our Stars, John Green vocalises the experience of a previously silent minority – young sufferers of cancer – and in doing so, breaks the stereotypes surrounding their experiences. Maybe it is the destruction of this familiar mould by which disempowered people have been defined which makes society so uncomfortable.
And it doesn’t stop with Green – from children’s literature to so-called ‘chick-lit’ like the Bridget Jones franchise, also deviate from the particular mould we view as literary. In fact, many bestsellers today as viewed as less than literary, and the next point goes some way to explaining this collective attitude.
This idea centers on the position of these ‘guilty’ texts in society. By including a wider variety of people in their works, authors are increasing the accessibility of literature to everyone. This, to academia, is innately dangerous; the more people have access to knowledge, the more risk these powerful individuals have of being knocked unceremoniously off their gilded pedestal. These undervalued, ‘other’ novels appeal to a wider range of people, and thus empower more than just an educated higher echelon.
It’s more than an issue of subjective opinion. The novels unacknowledged by academia are those which pose the most risk to its existence – or at least to its elitism.
So, when you’re next curled up reading a ‘trashy romance’, or a ‘cheap thriller’, take heart: you are resisting the values of mainstream culture. In your reading rebellion, you are expanding your mind beyond the realms of accepted society, and developing a far deeper understanding of the unexplored and unknown.
Remember why the novels are unacknowledged, and pride yourself on your subversion.