The last few years have been good for some books – particularly the likes of the Twilight series and Hunger Games trilogy, which have been turned into hugely successful films.
There’s also been a rise in what many are calling “chick lit” that, for all intents and purposes, seems to be best defined as “fiction by women, for women”. The kind of books people can assume you don’t have to think about too much as you read.
There’s obviously more to this genre than meets the eye, but regardless of where you stand in the debate (effectively summed up by this Huffington Post article), it does bring up another interesting phenomenon: guilt.
The fact is, unless it’s a classic or part of some established and respectable reading list (ie the Times Bestsellers or Dymocks Booklovers), some people are bound to feel guilty about what they are reading. Especially, it seems, if it is something that is easy to read.
I’ve experienced this bizarre side-effect several times, though never as strongly as with Twilight. I’d refused to read it for a while because I thought it sounded stupid, then a friend at work lent it to me and fascination won over scepticism. It was a pop culture staple by then, after all.
But even though I found it entertaining I felt guilty reading it, and for months after I felt guilty admitting I’d read it (and watched the subsequent movies). I felt the same when I read a sweet book called Walking Back To Happiness by Lucy Dillon (which could easily be considered “chick lit”).
Now I’m seeing a lot of people in their twenties or early thirties who seem embarrassed to admit they’re currently reading Suzanne Collins’ “young adult” series that starts with The Hunger Games. Even I avoided looking for it in book shops because it meant going into a section where high school drama and vampires rule.
But why? Why do we feel guilty about reading these books?
For me it is a judgment thing: I’m a writer and actress and I tend to have high expectations of my reading lists. There’s a part of me that can stand the idea of putting Twilight, New Moon or something like Fifty Shades Of Grey next to Tuesdays With Morrie, The Collected Works of Shakespeare and Saturday.
This critical side of me is what drives the guilt when I read these books because a lot of the chick lit and other “guilty pleasure” books are not what I would call “well written”. I notice these technical and literary flaws, then berate myself for reading something that doesn’t even use language properly. Or worse, I pick a story that has a simple narrative (eg boy meets girl) and feel bad for not choosing something slightly more informative or complex.
None of these things should justify feeling guilty, however. Reading is reading, no matter what book you have in your hands (or, I suppose, on an eReader). It shouldn’t matter what genre it is, what demographic it’s aimed at or where it lies in the bookstore/online catalogue. If it’s engaging then it is doing the job, regardless of whether the literary merits make it a classic or an “easy read”.
So instead of reading what I want with a guilty conscience, I’ve decided to read with an open mind. After all, there must be a reason certain books become popular, and the only way to explore that is through reading and discussion that is unrestrained by guilt or shame.