I’ve read a few amusing pieces about how the Kindle and other electronic reading devices will rob us of significant opportunities for snobbery. No more quietly judging people by their books’ covers; no more subtlely communicating one’s wit, taste, and dark complexity with a carefully selected tome. On the flip side, no more feeling guilty perusing the “wrong” section at the bookstore because you just want something lurid and cheaply scintillating to read while you fly to Poughkeepsie and who the hell cares if you give your brain a little break every once in a goddamn while?
While there’s a good chance I’ll eventually own one of these miraculous little gadgets—seriously, 200 books in a 10-oz package?!?!—it will be difficult to adjust to the tactile experience of holding a light plank of plastic, with no pages to turn, no smell of glue and ink. But, then again, I resisted the iPod for a very long time, smug in my low-tech ways, but now I’m deeply in love with the shuffle mode. Things change.
Earlier this year, I updated my renter’s insurance. I first bought the policy when I lived in a 500-square-foot apartment and everything I owned could fit inside a station wagon. I’ve done my part to keep the wheels of capitalism turning in the intervening years, and I’ve added a household member, who came with his own material goods. There was a bit to be added. Taking stock turned out to be a surprising, enlightening exercise. Adding up what it would take to replace all of our possessions should they be suddenly vaporized by martian lasers, reduced to ashes by lightning or arsonists or faulty wiring, or transported to another dimension by a vengeful deity painted an interesting picture of who we are, as communicated by what we’ve chosen to own.
Our number one biggest asset? Books, by far. We have more money tied up in paper and words than we do in anything else. More than electronics, clothing, outdoor gear, or our fast-burgeoning menagerie of bicycles. Far more than we have in cars, even. Moving’s gonna be a bitch.
I bring all this up because I caught myself engaging in a little culture snobbery of my own, just yesterday. It’s mildly embarrassing, but I’ll admit it: I tried to hide the cover of the book I was reading. It was Daniel Abraham’s A Betrayal In Winter, a fantasy novel. Its cover, as fantasy novels go, isn’t bad—no buxom wenches, no shirtless and pectorally gifted warrior-men, no surly dwarves with large and glistening axes. I didn’t go to great lengths, but the urge was there just the same, and I laughed when I realized I was doing it.
I can’t tell you why I still think of genre fiction as a guilty pleasure, and hold it apart from more “serious” literature, but I do. It’s a common, persistent, and probably unfair prejudice. I’m guessing it has something to do with our cultural fascination with realism–the fantastical may have something very valuable to say about life, but cloaked as it is in dragons and spaceships and wizards, we demote it as only fit for children, airport layovers, and beach reading.
An engaging story well-told is worthy of our attention simply for being that. It’s one of the first things we did with our time after we evolved sufficient vocabulary, and our storytellers have always been revered, be they bards or novelists or film directors. Sometimes a story is just a story is just a story—and, stripped of the intent to be probing or philosophical or educational, its characters and setting and action become that much more important (and thus does the writer’s skill became absolutely critical). I’m sure you could write a graduate thesis on the themes of imperialism and religious freedom in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and how they relate to world history, but you’d be better served to just enjoy it for what it is: damn fine storytelling on an epic scale.
Which is not to say that fantasy and science fiction aren’t ideal vehicles for serious examination of important questions; they are. Writers like Ursula Le Guin and Phillip K. Dick give us eloquent what ifs that say a great deal about our world and our experience, with the double cushion of fiction and otherwordly settings to smooth any discomfit. It’s that second cushion, though, that’s the trouble—makes it too easy to entirely discount the bearing of the work on real life. Rock, meet hard place.
These two points, disparate yet overlapping, just bolster my argument—why is genre fiction a lesser breed of literature? Is it because our imaginations are supposed to atrophy with age–or, more precisely, that our make-believe should constrain itself to fit inside reality? Dreams of battling orcs or contacting aliens are for kids; dreams of large houses, corner offices, and celebrity lovers are for grownups. Maybe we should go back to bedtime stories that take us a little further out of ourselves–from the far-off land, a fresh perspective on our everyday worries. Or, at least, a little break from them. All forms of fiction offer escape or exposition; some just do it with more embarrassing cover art.