An ambitious sophomore in high school three years ago, I checked out Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Striving to seem mature and sophisticated, I lugged the book around for over a month. It was the hardest read of my entire life. The worst part is I had no clue as to its significance. Grasping the bare bones of the plot, I knew there was more the novel wanted to communicate.
Sure, one reason I didn’t catch the significance was because I was a sophomore in high school. In my first year of college though, I’ve discovered I’m not the only person confused. There are whole courses devoted to Dostoyevsky and The Brothers Karamazov; the underlying significances, symbols, motifs and so on.
Maybe I should’ve stuck to Harry Potter like the rest of my classmates.
In my short time, it seems the literary world places most value on novels with human messages, even more so on novels taking long intricate routes to get to those messages. However, it seems the literary world also tends to cast novels not adhering to such standards as a “literature of diversion” as Jonathan Franzen puts it.
At school, literary high brows’ nostrils flare at the sight of a Twilight or Harry Potter novel. “That’s not real literature,” they say. I’m not a fan of genre novels myself, but I think my fellow undergrads and the literary community are wrong for totally writing off such novels.
Sure, Harry Potter might not bring the same intellectual satisfaction as say Catcher in the Rye might, however, the novel still functions as entertainment, and from my experience, serves a vital function for lackadaisical readers.
At college––an ivy league one to boot––I expected to find a number of students sharing my love for literature. I was disappointed. Instead I met too many students who hadn’t picked up a book in years. The disheartening fact is that the majority of people my age simply don’t enjoy reading.
I know it’s horrible.
Interestingly, I’ve noticed the ones who do read commonly leaf through the very genre novels we tend to cast down. This is where problems with these genre novels begin; the common argument being that they’re replacing the “good” literature that should be read.
I’d argue the opposite.
I say these “soft” novels if you will, provide two crucial functions.
One, they attract young readers like myself into the habit of reading at all by providing entertainment. They’re like the summer movies we look forward to every year that are forgotten by October. And even though they might not have significant messages, at the very least they get pages turning. I think as a literary community we can agree that some reading––even arguably “useless” reading––is better than no reading at all.
Two, these novels serve as building blocks to more intellectual novels. We all know how great of an experience reading can be, and for those who don’t read often, if they can get that same experience out of something that may not make them a more learned person––so be it. It might inspire them to continue reading for pleasure, maybe even picking up some Dostoyevsky in the future.
These books don’t hurt the literary world either way. They don’t have life-changing messages, but they also don’t have harmful ones. They serve momentary purposes.
So next time you’re set to bash Twilight or Harry Potter, think about what Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass said, “even bad books are books, and therefore sacred.”