Literature matters. And it doesn’t matter what type of literature you’re reading. It just matters. I dare anyone to argue with me. I will take you down. *insert obnoxious mean mug here*
So, now that we’ve agreed that literature matters, let’s get down to business. My friend, who I have mentioned many a time (you know the one who is all granola-in-theory with nail polish and high heels?) and I were having a discussion about what children should be reading in the classroom.
My favorite part of the conversation was when she said literary fiction is the vegetables and genre fiction is the fruit. They’re both good for you. But are they created equal? No, they’re not. According to this amazing chart at Whole Foods, greens have a much higher nutritional value than fruit does. So then, by contrast, literary fiction has a higher educational value than genre fiction?
I will concede that a good book makes you think. But does that mean that the only books that make us think are literary fiction books? Absolutely not! Genre fiction often raises as many, if not more, questions about the text as literary fiction does. And this is the part of the post where my friend is shaking her head and arguing her point. And this is the part where I tell her that the only reason people read literary fiction with the intent to discuss and debate the text is because it’s assigned to them. So, anyway.
The point is that literature matters, but it matters not what genre you’re reading. There are good books, boring books, awful books, and amazing books, in all genres that span time and it’s always been this way. And it always will be.
So then, if all literature matters, then let’s ask ourselves this: what is literature’s primary purpose? Some would argue its primary purpose is for education. Some would argue it is for entertainment and escape. Some would say that literature serves as a function of the political climate of the time and place it was written. But none of that is what I see as literature’s primary purpose.
Literature, for me, is like a looking glass for humanity. The stories we read about don’t tell us about the characters on the page. Sure, we learn that Peeta can bake a mean pastry (I sure do love a man who can cook!), and that Katniss is always brave (even when she’s not.) What’s important is that we learn that we like the fact that Peeta can bake. We learn that we like how brave Katniss is, and how she frustrates us when she won’t let anyone in. We learn our triggers and hopes and dreams. We even learn our fears in the pages of a really good book.
Even the silliest book can make me think about the way I see the world. One book that I didn’t enjoy (which shall remain nameless as per my personal policy) focused a lot on fashion and dropped brand names like I drop, well, everything. Sue me, I’m clumbsy. What turned me off in this book was that I couldn’t relate to the characters or their world…
Actually, that’s wrong. What I didn’t like about the book was that I had no interest in relating to the characters or their world. There are plenty of books I’ve read where I couldn’t relate, but was able to fall deeply in love with the story anyway. I don’t have to have experienced what others have in order to be able to feel for them. But this book… it was all about the elite and expensive things in life I’ll likely never own. Sure, it sounds like jealousy. But it’s not. If the characters owned a Jeep Wrangler CJ-7, or maybe a ’53 ‘Vette with red leather interior, I might be cursing my lack of mad money to own one myself. But I digress. I never got into the designer jeans or the thousand-dollar tops. It’s just never been my thing. But that books matters.
That book told me that I snub their snobbery. It told me something about myself that I didn’t really want to see, but needed to nonetheless. I looked down at those characters for their fixation on clothing, meanwhile, I have a serious thing for nail polish and would live happily forever in brightly-colored, fuzzy sweatsuits if the universe would let me. Learning this about myself couldn’t have happened elsewhere. Things happen for a reason and the time and place they happen in is important because the message has to be received.
And there’s other books that I fall in love with immediately. It’s like the boy in high school who I looked at once and couldn’t stop thinking about for months. But then some other books grow on you slowly. You like them at first but you’re not totally sure about the main character’s motivation. Slowly, after you’ve spent time with them, you realize that they’re too good to be true. The plot is great, the characters are amazing, the grammar and sentence structure is flawless. But then you stumble onto something– a tiny twist of events, a pattern of speech that grates on your nerves– but you continue on happily. The hiccup, or flaw, isn’t bad enough to make us stop reading. We still love the story, and despite that one part, it’s solid. And at some point, knowing the book’s flaws, you’ve fallen in love anyway.
In the pages of a really good book, you learn what makes your heart jump and what leaves you cold. You learn what matters to you. Literature is all about exploring human nature. Whether we see it or not at first, all stories are about the human condition– even when it’s a book about vampires or wolves. It’s always about love and the forces that try to destroy that which one loves. It is the original story– the only story– and it is more than worth being retold in a million different ways over thousands of years; because no matter what you believe in and who you are, we can all stand to learn more about ourselves and our world.
And that is the purpose, the beauty, the gift that literature gives us: the ability to see ourselves in a light we had never imagined before: as a supernatural creature, as a billionaire, as a Victorian-era political leader. And asking ourselves what it is we would do were we in that character’s shoes is a fascinating exploration of the human mind and heart. And it doesn’t matter what genre that story takes place in. It only matters that it touches the reader in a way that they walk away just a little bit better for the experience.