Is any reading better than no reading? Should we have to justify or conceal the books we love or those we just picked up out of curiosity? Is 'literature' the only thing worth spending time on, even if we don't enjoy it? Does it matter what our kids read so long as they pick up a book?
Two of our PHS Columnists chime in with their thoughts on this month's Talking Point...
Hello, I’m Aleksandr Voinov and I’m a pack-rat. Mostly, I hoard books, ranging literally from military pulp magazines to poetry collections, lots of gay romance novels, and specialist encyclopaedias; my favourite is the ten-volume Baechtold-Stäubli, a dictionary of Germanic Superstition, dating from circa early 1900's.
I have a tremendous advantage as a writer. If somebody looks at my shelf of astrology handbooks, or histories of the tarot or “magick” books, I can always use the get-out-of-jail-free card, “I’m a writer, it’s research”, instead of telling them flat out I’m an eclectic pagan and actually read the tarot, and am studying astrology fairly seriously. The only response I get is a sage nod and usually the conversation moves on quickly—maybe to, “have you finished/sold anything?”. Biographies of leading Nazis? Histories of torture? The Demons of the Goetia? It’s all justified.
So, I’m immune from suspicion of reading “trash”. People understand that I read books to write more books. But I didn’t always have that convenient excuse, and I think you’re either a pack-rat or you aren’t, and most passionate readers are. Most of my friends—readers, writers, or other artists—own a lot of very diverse books, and with some of them, I’m not sure whether they haven’t lost kids or favourite pets under the piles somewhere.
My habit of reading everything most certainly started the moment I could read and had unsupervised access to my mother’s bookshelves. Now, my mother wasn’t the most sophisticated reader on the planet, but in a non-reading family, she was the “bookish one”, who’d read historical novels—I discovered Sir Walter Scott’s among them, as well as Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis—The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende, and quite a few books considered more low-brow; essentially German pulp novels, written fast and devoured even faster. The only time my mother intervened was when I discovered “The Joy of Sex”, aged, I think, 11. I had no concept of “age limits”, or “quality”—my hungry brain just wanted input—all input, any input, all the time.
One day I'd read Byron’s poems, another I’d chew my way through an analysis of crusader strategy, or an account of guardian angels. Once I got on the internet, I also gained free and limitless access to every manner of written porn and erotica. I might read “The Best American Short Stories” and anything by William Faulkner one day, and vanish into a Stephen King novel the next, considering all of those merely from a point of view of “interesting”, or “boring”. If “interesting”, I’d seek out more of the same stuff of by the same author, if “boring”, I’d abandon and avoid. And, oh the paths my mind has taken thanks to that approach. I had to go to university to meet people who thought my time was “wasted” on some material or “used wisely” on others. I learned to not tell people I was reading—and at that point writing—epic fantasy. I was going to be a Very Serious Historian, so I wouldn’t talk about table top games or graphic novels (everybody was into Sandman then).
But thankfully, all that didn’t last long—when I abandoned all ambitions to have an academic career, I abandoned any socially acceptable “mask” of the kind of material you’re allowed to read, or expected to talk about; at least if expectations from others are anything to go by. I even think that, occasional sneers towards “mommy porn” notwithstanding, people are generally becoming more open-minded about what is acceptable to read—hard not to when everybody and their grandmother has read Fifty Shades of Gray.
It’s very possibly much easier as a writer—though it took some getting used to explaining to people what exactly I write, and that some of those books are pretty explicit; basically, it took me a while to own that fully. At the same time, reading “everything” has enriched me immeasurably as a writer and as a reader, and I simply can’t imagine limiting myself to one thing or the other. I’ve never accepted those limits when faced with a bookshelf full of unread books, and I’m certainly not going to start now.
Aleksandr Voinov’s latest release is Broken Blades, a re-issued novel in the Market Garden m/m hot romance series. You can find out more about Aleksandr and his work on his website, blog, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
I'm Lara Temple and I love reading and writing romance novels. I started at fifteen when the owner of my favorite second-hand book store handed me a copy of Georgette Heyer’s historical romance Faro’s Daughter. On that day an addict was born. I can’t even begin to count how many romance novels of all types and tropes I’ve read over the years. And for once I’m in a majority. Most people are surprised to hear that romance is the largest fiction genre, equal to thrillers (grossing around $1.1 billion in the US). My only surprise is that they’re surprised: why on earth wouldn’t romance fiction be huge? Humans are obsessed with love, and rightly so. As an animal we’re pretty fixated on love and sex in all its forms, from cradle to crypt. We talk about it, listen to songs about it, watch movies about it, talk about it, and think, think, think about it. We see signs of romance and love everywhere—in our music, our movies, our art, our businesses, our advertising, our fears and our hopes. Why is anyone surprised we want to read about it?
Reading a good love story is a cathartic experience—we can give ourselves over to a safe sampling of all the emotions that give depth and meaning to our life. It’s true that the love in books can sometimes appear grander, more effortless, more dramatic, more ‘sweep-me-away’ than the real thing. So? How does that diminish from either ‘real life’ and ‘fiction’? Reading romantic fiction is not instead of experiencing emotions in real life, it is in addition to the emotions, both good and bad, that we experience. Just like animals play with each other to hone and practice their life skills, I think humans do the same through books, movies, and anything that allows our imagination to take flight. That is why love and relationships are portrayed in books in all kinds of ways—from realistic to fantastic, from gritty to sultry, from hopeless to hopeful, and everything in between. That’s the beauty of books and the gift of the human imagination—we can play in their endless playground and go from the swings to the slides and back again, weaving these emotional experiences into our everyday life. So no, I’m not surprised it’s huge. If anything, I’m surprised it isn’t a much larger portion of the market. And perhaps that has to do with another characteristic of this genre: there is still a stigma and preconceptions attached to the genre—it’s a ‘guilty pleasure’, it isn’t really worthy fiction, it sets unrealistic standards, etc. etc. Well, blech and blah to all that. Life’s too short to not embrace something that gives us so much pleasure on so many levels.
I say that because I used to be as guilty as many others of this genre-shame. On my daily commute to
Wall Street I used to hold my book to hide the cover (I’m dating myself—this was before e-readers). It didn’t go with the image of high powered business woman I was trying to portray, who scanned the Financial Times (note: I did that before breakfast, and it isn’t great for one’s digestion). This is a genre dominated by women readers—somewhere between 80% and 85%—and I know from many friends of mine there are others who, like me, are all too ready to double-guess themselves when it comes to something they blatantly adore. I no longer hide my covers, but I do still get some rather strange looks from fellow commuters, looks that reflect those stigmas and fly in the face of all the reasons we have to be blatantly proud about adoring the romance genre. And we do adore it—romance readers are voracious readers, half of them reading at least a book a week, compared to the average of five books a year in the US. They are also well educated, well earning, and more likely to be in a relationship. Romance authors are also interactive—they not only read increasingly online but are active on social media in reading groups, author groups, blogs, retreats and more. They are a community in a way that is rare in fiction.
In fact, I think it’s safe to say the romance genre is a marvelous phenomenon and I’m proud I’m part of it. The only thing I’m embarrassed about now is that I was once embarrassed about loving romantic fiction. Because, bottom line, it gives me pleasure on so many levels—as a reader, as an author, as part of a community of amazing, fascinating and challenging women, as a mom who hopes that one day my own daughter will be one of those voracious readers with no reason to feel she has to apologize for loving it. Because romance fiction is huge in more ways than one. If you doubt me, try to imagine a world without it. Horrifying, right? Better yet, just pick up a book and reassure yourself this amazing genre is alive and well, and likely to remain so for as long humans can read.
Lara Temple's most recent book is The Earl's Irresistible Challenge. You can find out more about her on her website, Facebook, Twitter, or on Goodreads.
What about you? Do you cover your shelves with eclectic variation? Would you rather go without than read what you don't like? Have you encountered literary snobbery? Do you consider yourself a literary snob? Comment below or tell us on social media using #JustRead