Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Page Turner -- Compliment or Insult?

Before I started writing, I was a bit of a literary snob. Well, in truth, I think I was a wanna-be literary snob. (Maybe that's worse: a literary snob poser.)

While I was still in school (high school and university) I read mostly popular fiction for recreation--as opposed to the books I was required to read for class--many of which I enjoyed, too.

I read voraciously in high school but don't remember too many titles/authors, but I do remember Sidney Sheldon and Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins and Jaqueline Susanne... I think I read an article in which someone dubbed that genre/style of book from the 70s/80s as "glitz or glamor fiction". Precursors to romance, perhaps? Maybe. I think if there had been such a thing as single title romance when I was in high school, that's what I would have been reading, or would have been reading, too. I also remember reading multiple books by James Michener and Andrew Greeley...

So, while I was in school, my recreational reading tastes definitely skewed "popular" or "commercial" versus "literary". Then after I graduated, I read mostly what I considered to be more high-brow fiction than I'd read in my teens. This started when, on a beach vacation right after graduating, I was bored. Used to reading all day while I was studying I didn't know what to do with myself on a beach--one can only consume so many pina coladas, even at age 23--and I found Robertson Davies' Fifth Business in a used bookstore at the resort. I recognized the title, having seen it on shelves in my high school, and thought I'd give it a try. I was hooked and read through everything he ever wrote. Then I set out to read "more books like that" -- whatever "that" meant. I read a bunch of classics that I hadn't read (or barely read) at school... And also bought and read a lot of new at the time fiction...

But although I considered my reading tastes at the time to skew in the literary direction, looking back to the decade or so after school, I mostly bought and read books that got table placement in big chain bookstores -- so probably defacto the more commercial books in the literary genre.

As a Canadian living in the US at the time, I also made a point to read a lot of Canlit, and I suppose I also read books that other people were talking about -- award winners, great reviews in big magazines etc. And I have to say that the vast majority of those books were exceedingly readable. Some favorite authors from that period of my life include Anne Tyler, Robertson Davies, John Irving, Jane Urquart, Carol Shields, Tom Robbins, Margaret Atwood, Anne Rice... I sure I'm missing a lot; I'm doing this off the top of my head.

But because all these authors' books were incredibly readable and "page turners" for me, I get annoyed at some genre fiction writers/readers when they talk about literary fiction as if it's all boring, impenetrable and lacking in story. That was not my experience. I do agree that some literary writers could benefit from learning to plot... but not all literary books lack story. And some that lack story more than make up for it with voice and with tension/conflict. (Like Michael Chabon's first novel, Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Molly and I were talking about it on Sunday night...)

And so it never occurred to me that "page turner" might be ever levied as an insult. Even most of these so-called literary novels (at least the ones I finished--grin) kept me turning pages. I mean, isn't turning the pages what ANY author wants readers to do? Yes, some books are faster reads than others, but all great books, IMHO, are page turners by default. Even if each page takes slightly longer to read in some books... each page should still make you want to turn immediately to the next one.

Call me a slow learner, but only recently have I started to realize that some people consider the term page turner to be an insult (in the same ilk as "trash" or "bodice ripper" or "pulp".) It implies that if a book reads quickly it must also be bad or poorly written or not worthy of any kind of merit.

I do *not* like it when someone refers to my work as trash or fluff or pulp or formulaic... To me, words like that diminish all the hard work I put into writing a novel. But call it a beach read or a page turner or an airplane read and I'll kiss you. :) To me those terms reflect the hard work I put in, rather than negate it.

So why would anyone consider them insults? Color me confused.


Molly O'Keefe said...

That really narrow space where literary meets genre - either genre being elevated by amazing writing, (RR MARTIN, Sherry Thomas, Chabon (later works)) or liteary being elevated by a substantial forward moving plot with pace and excitement - that place is such a sweet spot. Looking back at the books that made you a voracious reader is fun, such affection I have for those books L.M. Montgomery , I'm looking at you.

I think I've wasted too many hours on bad books, though.

Last night I actually took a bath with the new Martin book - that GIANT book - good times.

Eileen said...

I'm not sure which I hate more. Is it when people dismiss romance and genre fiction as beneath them? Or is it when people trash literary fiction as boring and depressing?

I've read literary fiction that was excellent and fascinating and life-changing. I've read some genre fiction that was the same.

Why can't we all just get along? ;-)

Maureen McGowan said...

Ha! As I was reading your comment, Eileen, I was planning to write a "Why can't we all just get along?" as a response. Great minds. :)

Narrow minded people are the worst.

Eileen said...

OH, wait! I forgot your actual point! Sorry, Maureen.

I've actually never heard "page turner" as an insult and Andy claims that taking offense at things is my super power.

Maureen McGowan said...

Ha! I read it in a review recently. Clearly meant as an insult. I think taking offense is my super-power too. Or... what's the negative of super power?

Eileen said...

Tragic flaw? Achilles' heel?

Anonymous said...

Great post, Maureen. Page turner is what I look for in any novel, literary or genre fiction. It would take a real literary snob to use it as an insult.
I love the sweet spot between literary and genre as well. The poisonwood bible, Fall on your knees, my favourite books fall into that category.

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