Sunday, May 1, 2011

I write trash and mighty proud of it!

“Trashy novels", otherwise described as “light” or “low-brow” fiction, have been condemned publicly, but enjoyed privately even by their most severe judges. Since I have become aware of the trashiness in my own writing, and having faced it and embraced it, I feel that the genre deserves an acquittal. So let´s hear it for the good old trash novels!

I constantly hear literary critics bemoaning the lack of fine English prose on the market. Most writers want to be popular and rich, rather than immortal; therefore they strive to reach a massive market. Yet, you still find some exceptional scribblers in commercial fiction who can write circles around the masters and you find someone like Ian McEwan who writes in circles. I tend to get lost in the perfection of his artistic prose (Sorry, Mr. McEwan, but certainly you don´t need more accolades.)

It is a fact that current bestseller lists in America seldom contain high-brow literature, but many genre authors or thriller writers, such as the omnipresent Dan Brown and Dean Koontz, have acquired the fame that once belonged to dead white poets. And in a genre-era, making up thrillers, epic fantasy or vampire sagas is seen as a respectable career. Even erotica is getting some recognition.

With age, plenty of books have obtained the title of high-brow literature. Most nineteenth-century novels were sold as little more than pulp fiction to be serialized in newspapers and magazines. Neither Balzac, while scribbling in a dingy Paris loft, nor Dickens, peddling his stories to London papers, could have ever imagined they would, some day, be revered as literary saints.

Novelists who in their day wrote just “for the heck of it” like Louis L’Amour, Ian Fleming, Zane Grey, Ira Levin and Stephen King, are now regarded as icons in their fields. Gone with the Wind has grown beyond the label of romantic fiction. It is considered a segment of Civil War narrative, a great piece of historical writing, and a fine example of regional literature.

Maybe in a hundred years or so, Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz and other symbols of the 80s and 90s romantic trash will be revisited and revalued. I have my own list of bestselling twentieth- century writers who need some reappraisal: Leon Uris, Harold Robbins, and my beloved Jacqueline Susann who wrote Hollywood fables with sad endings and strong morals.

Obviously selling well and having a large following cold make a writer famous or infamous, but doesn’t elevate his/her work into “art”, and yet most of us would be contented to be published, make a living out of our craft, and bond with kind readers who enjoy what we have to say. We know that life can be overwhelming; sometimes we need to escape to some fantasy land or to have a good time via light and comforting reading. Is that so wrong?

The problem with the so-called trashy novels boils down to mere stereotyping and prejudice. The heirs of 19th century dime-novels are charged with being poorly written, containing sensationalistic material, being overly light or unrealistic. Far worse, they are accused of handing out immoral messages that force the reader to yearn for the wrong objectives or develop false romantic expectations.

It´s a harsh and trivial judgment since even the most edifying books, even the Holy Bible, could be misinterpreted according to the readers’ degree of neurosis, immaturity or impressionability. Blaming books for the sad state of things is a feeble cop out. To say that the Harry Potter series promotes witchcraft or Twilight endorses necrophilia just means that either the readers or the critics are suffering from a serious problem, they can´t differentiate between fantasy and reality.

Trashy novels are not be literary masterpieces, but they serve a purpose therefore deserve some respect. Don´t you agree? Time to confess guilty pleasures. Share with us your favorite trashy novels and why you love them.


  1. A fascinating topic, Sister Violante, which once again boils down to commercial (pop culture) vs. literary ("serious") fiction.

    But we can't talk about these so-called "trashy" novels (I hate the term!) without mentioning "Peyton Place," the first "blockbuster in the US" which, according to Wikipedia, sold 60,000 copies in the first ten days and was in the NY Times bestselling list for 59 weeks. It also inspired a popular TV series for five years and a film with Lana Turner.

    In spite of this tremendous success, Peyton Place is considered "unimportant" by scholars and the mother of all trashy novels. Some claim that the reason why it acquired this bad reputation was because it exposed the moral hypocrisy of the times and it made people uncomfortable. As someone who read it without prejudice (I didn't know of the controversy surrounding it) I can say in all honesty that I was immediately hooked by this novel and have found many beautifully-written passages and very complex characters. (Isn't that the goal of all writers/publishers?) So what makes it "Trash"? Is it the racy subject/content, the frankness/style or the fact that it was a hugely popular book, therefore looked down by academia?

    To continue with my confession, I'll say that the Valley of the Dolls was the first book of its kind I had ever read (as a teenager) and I was obsessed with it, ha!

  2. You've built a good case here, Violante! I think writing what you like, the best way you know how, is the way to go: *trying* to write edifying literature is probably as bad as trying to write a political diatribe thinly disguised as fiction.

    I just finished Kurt Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions," and he blames the novel for wars, which seems both silly and egocentric: "As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books."

    Talk about inflating the importance of your craft!

    Anymore, I tend to read the highest quality fiction I can get my hands on because I feel that fiction quality is catching: if you read good stuff, it helps you write better. If you read trash, it's going to infect your writing. But I don't really care about genre, I care about language. Words put together beautifully, images that leap off the page, observations that strike a chord or make me think. Stephen King does this (when he's "on," and often he's not) as well as anyone, so he's my commercial-fiction favorite. Diana Gabaldon, too, writes well and sells millions. She's certainly not considered literary. Science fiction is probably the genre that produces the most literary fiction: Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card. CJ Cherryh's "Voyager" series is a fun escape, and (though I haven't read her in years), not painful to read.

    Some trashy fiction is so bad I can't relax and let myself escape, though: virtually all romance novels fall in this category for me. Dan Brown's writing was distractingly terrible as well. I'll add anything about teen vampires to that list, too. Halfway through Twilight I was looking for a hurl bucket: it's no escape if you feel nauseous. :) But they're just badly-written books, they aren't responsible for society's ills.

    Good topic!

  3. Peyton Place is a perfect example of the frivolity of applying the "trashy novel" label. I read it before Valley and it was not only an eye-opener but became an iconic novel in my sixth grade class. We used to read it aloud to each other, because at the time we had no YA lit in Latin America, and here we had the story of a teenager that went though everything we were going through: fear of our fist period, of our first kiss, of our first date. And yet it was also an incisive view of power struggles within a small community. I could say that Peyton Place and Allison McKenzie, its protagonist, taught me I could dream of becoming a writer some day. And like her, I longed to live in New York. And I finally did! And they dare call it trash?

  4. I agee with Sister Stephanie that high-brow literature enjoys a finer prose and style than commercial literature, but when it comes to content and character building, they do compare.
    I could say that Grace Metalious achieved in Peyton Place what Trollope managed in Barchester Chronicles, but in an abbreviated and lighter form. She has wonderful characters and her descriptions of the Vermont landscape are almost lyrical.

    I do agree that there is such a thing as "low-brow" literaure. But how do you define it as such? What are the charcteristics that make it bad? Isn't it a bit subjective? And as I mentioned in my post, several 19th century "trashy novels" have acquired a higher status with age, so what would critics say in a hundred years of Dan Brown and Twilight?

  5. Those were some really good graphics to go with this post, Violante. Many of your expressions made me laugh out loud and I love the idea of scribbling peddlers being venerated posthumously as literary saints. A very enjoyable read!

  6. I honestly don't expect Brown or Meyers to be read in a hundred years, or even fifty. There was an enormous amount of trash from the 19th c that didn't make it into the canon for good reason. Dickens was a fantastic writer who captured a social mood and knew how to use language. Meyer and Brown are hacks. It's somewhat subjective, but there are measures: vocabulary is one. Writers who are still read past their lifetime tend to have a large vocabulary and use it. Writers who were formally trained are also dominant in literature: Dickens was a journalist. So was Hemingway. Their first drafts were probably grammatically correct and with near-perfect spelling: Meyers had never written even a short story before writing Twilight, and I shudder to imagine what her first draft looked like.

    I don't think subject matter is that important: good writers can work with any topic, from something fluffy and scandalous to serious and philosophical. But I think a native intelligence, intellectual curiosity, and formal training are all helpful, and maybe essential.

    Oh, and I thought of another "trashy" novelist I love: Christopher Moore. Some of his work is meh, but Lamb and Fluke have passages in them that definitely show off his writing chops. He's hilarious, but he also has some pretty profound insights. (He was not a journalist.) :)

  7. "But I think a native intelligence, intellectual curiosity, and formal training are all helpful, and maybe essential." I should clarify: essential to making it into the literary canon. But not to getting sold or read. Not all of us aspire to be read in a hundred years: most of us just want to get published (at all) sometime in our own lifetime!

  8. You know how they say "You are what you eat?" Well I'd have to say the same about literature. If all you have is a steady diet of "trashy" novels, then you're writing, in return, is going to reflect the trash. I agree with Stephanie when it comes to injecting good literature into your reading diet. If you want to write well, then read the good stuff! There is a place in all our lives for the less than well written literature (I've read plenty of it in my day!), but as a writer, take the classics seriously. There is a reason they have held on for as long as they have. Case in point -- I just finished Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd and he has such wonderful beauty in the way he crafts descriptions. Grant it, those over-lengthy descriptions can eventually bog the story down, but in all what Hardy describes really sets up the scene during a time when writers weren't visualizing their work in movie form.

    Having said that, if all you want to write is mainstream thrillers, paranormal romances, and fantasies, then by all means have at the junk food!

    And I agree Violante. Ian McEwan is highly overrated. On Chesil Beach was a bore!

  9. Of course, if you read only garbage you´ll end up writing garbage. My problem lies on the definition of a bad book. Certainly, poorly written books don’t qualify as good reading material. But I was going over a list of “trash” from the past and it included almost everything by Dame Daphne Du Maurier , whose technique I admire, and Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet that I thought was one of the finest examples of good English writing I have ever read.

  10. Sister Stephanie and Sister Mary, May, as Victoriana fans you know that in the 19th century literacy was not the norm, so most writers (women included) were well-read and educated.

    Writing was one of the few careers opened to women and many made a living out of it. They were so proper they would write under pseudonyms (George Eliot, George Sand) or use their husband´s names (Mrs. Henry Wood). I´ve read several of them, and when it comes to prose and style they could teach the Dan Browns of today, but not all of them are remembered. Therefore, fine writing skills are not the only requirement to become immortal.

    Why do we still know Emily Bronte who only wrote one bestseller and not the prolific and hugely successful Marie Corelli who was Queen Victoria’s favorite novelist? Was Ouida a trashy writer compared to George Elliot? I confess to like Ouida better.

    I remember once I found on a Regency page, a long list of women writers from early 19th c. Aside from Mary Shelley, Fanny Burney and Jane Austen, all the others were forgotten by posterity. And I read an article that said that if Austen was writing today, she would be banded with “chic lit authors” ergo considered a “low-brow” novelist.

  11. I'm not at all an Austen fan so I might agree. ;-) I've tried her over the decades and just cannot get into her. Some of the other books you've named I don't know; I wish I did. I agree that social norms, most of which don't sort out artistic wheat from trashy chaff, have dictated to some extent what gets published and therefore what lasts. I just started James Joyce's "The Dubliners," which was banned for impropriety. We know so many daring, cutting-edge books have been likewise banned. Women writers were banned wholesale. Writers get squashed for reasons other than being trashy. But do you think it's so difficult to tell when someone is being dissed for daring writing vs. crappy writing?

  12. Well, I think the problem is in the definition of trashy novels. What exactly are they and who gave them such a nasty label?

    Someone mentioned category romance, yet Peyton Place or Valley of the Dolls are mainstream, not genre books (so why are they considered "trash"?) Is it subject/theme? There is incest and sex in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novels and nobody calls his work "trash." Is it language? The beginning of Peyton Place reads like a literary novel with its description of the Indian summer and the town's political and religious atmosphere. The same goes for some of the work I've read from Daphne DuMaurier. Is it popularity? Works of fiction that are considered literary are bestsellers (The Help, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Shadow of the Wind, and a big etc.) Is it all genre fiction? Dangerous territory as this label would include by default authors like Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Parker, Larry McMurtry, Tom Clancy, Tony Hillerman, etc, etc.

    I guess I'm having a hard time with this term. To call something "trashy" is a very subjective assertion. Just because someone doesn't like a novel or the writing is not flowery enough for his/her taste, doesn't mean it's garbage.

  13. Sister Stephanie there is a huge difference between a bad book and a banned book. The latter kind is usually the best-written. Joyce is the perfect example. But you got me thinking. Maybe Victorian women writers faded into oblivion because they were women. Then why Austen, the Brontes and Gorge Elliot reached literary sainthood? Why them and not the others?

    Sister Lorena you have reached my question mark. We all know when a book is bad, even if we find it in the NYT list, but looking back in wander it’s difficult to pinpoint the “trashiness” in those old books now labeled as “bad”. Back in last century I used to say “Harlequin” books were “trash” compared to “respectable” romance writers like Taylor Caldwell, Victoria Holt or Colleen McCullough (who know I hear was “trash”), because the series novels were short, indistinguishable from one another, used basic vocabulary , and suffered from undeveloped characters and plots. But that´s not the case in many of the works now so contemptuosly dismissed as "low-brow"

  14. I was wondering if fame had to do with it. Perhaps being too famous makes you suspicious with critics. Most classic authors were not celebrated in their day. Marie Corelli, on the other hand, was a literary superstar in her lifetime. And critics hated her back then.

    I was thinking that perhaps women writers also carry the stigma of writing romance and other “sentimental” subjects, but let´s take the example of Baroness Orczy. This was a Hungarian noblewoman (who wrote in English) who became famous around the 1880s, for a series of novels dealing with the Scarlet Pimpernel, a sot of French Revolution superhero. These were adventure tales a la Dumas. Then she wrote a short story “Lady Molly fro Scotland Yard" which I believe was the first mystery novel featuring a woman sleuth. So she can’t be branded as a “romantic” writer. She was hugely successful. Her novels ended up on the stage, film and television, but nobody accuses her of being a great writer.

    I noticed that there is certain contempt against adventure genre. Sir Walter Scott, Dumas and Jules Verne are stall considered “children’s literature” or seen as the Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton of their age, whereas R.L. Stevenson has acquired some respect and stature. Perhaps because he wrote poetry as well as adventure tales.

  15. Almost any definition of art is likely to be vague and a bit subjective. It's like that old philosophical question of how many things you need to make "a pile." We know what a "pile" is but we certainly can't define it with any precision.

    Regarding "trashy," I'm hearing two things: that the term is completely without meaning, and that the term has meaning but should not be pejorative; rather it should be embraced.

    Violante, you referred to low-brow novels as "short, indistinguishable from one another, used basic vocabulary , and suffered from undeveloped characters and plots." That's more specific and works for me to define "trashy," but then it's clearly not something to be embraced and respected. I also doubt that any of us think of our own novels-in-progress in this way. :)

  16. Sister Stephanie, although I have never read your work, I am sure, positive, put my hnds on fire, it´s not trash.

    I do hope my writing is above “Harlequin” series, but since those were published and I am not, I cannot be so sure.

    On the subject of embracing and respecting “trash”, Harlequin novelettes, rancid and mediocre as they are, serve a purpose. As a librarian, I saw girls that never touched a book, devour them. Of course, I wanted them to read Hemingway and Virginia Woolf, but getting them into the library, having something to lure them to grab a book, was such a challenging task that we were grateful for the existence of Harlequin Series. It was then that I learned to respect and appreciate pop culture.

    Now, that answers one question. The other refers to my intro paragraph. Apparently, there are only two kinds of literature: “High” and “low”. I agree that there is such a thing as “The classics” which is at a much higher lever and of higher quality than mass reading material. I also believe in a third level, an “in between land” where many impressive, well-loved, and famous novels belong. However, I am told that if it is not high-literature, then it´s low. Since I am certainly not writing” “high-lit” logic dictates I must be writing “trash”. I am just following the classification. But, because I love my writing, I am also proud of my "trashy" craft

  17. 'Since I am certainly not writing” “high-lit” logic dictates I must be writing “trash”. I am just following the classification. But, because I love my writing, I am also proud of my "trashy" craft.' Well, that makes two of us! I don't think I'm writing high-lit either, certainly not of the Jonathan Franzen variety. When I first started my current WIP (a campus novel) it was pretty much on the Chelsea Handler level: sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. Pretty trashy, and it was fun to write but very unfocused. As it's become more focused it's also become darker, which maybe makes it more literary. Darkness = literary much of the time, which is kind of silly when you think about it. Why can't humor be high art?

    Anyway. People are funnily dualistic. Everything must be forced into black or white, when just about everything on this planet exists in shades of grey. I completely agree that high art and lowbrow are merely two ends of a long spectrum, and only someone with a small mind would really cram the entire spectrum of fiction into one of those two tiny categories. I also agree that sometimes what begins as "lowbrow" can, with time, be seen as high art. That's true across the arts.

    Because I am an incorrigible contrarian, I'm going to maybe disagree on one point. I say maybe because I'm not sure how I feel about it yet. It's the idea that getting kids to read at all, even something junky, is good. I'm not sure reading is inherently edifying. The analogy I want to make, which is probably flawed, is to junk food. If junk fiction (in this case, to be clear, I am talking about Sweet Valley High and Gossip Girl and the like) is analogous to junk food, then it's not really serving any good purpose and the world could completely do without it. I wouldn't ban it, of course, and I myself might enjoy creating it or consuming it from time to time, but it's not nutritious. It doesn't feed. It's just ephemeral fun. It could even be problematic if it distracts from real sustenance.

    So is junk fiction a gateway, a thing that will lead kids to reading the nutritious stuff, or is it vacuous fluff, cotton candy? I might even argue that something like Gossip Girls (which I have read and those books are appallingly written) is actively unhealthy. Glamorizing monkey-soaked rampant careless teen sex and reveling in bitchy backstabbing. Worse, giving kids a model of terrible writing! ;-) I'd rather see girls read nothing at all than read that.

  18. This must sound like the angry cry of a resentful mind, but is J. Franzen high lit? He just plays with words. I am horrid, I know.

    Could humor be high-lit? Indeed it can. Think Tom Jones, or The Pickwick Papers or even Don Quixote.

    On your contrary point. I have heard it before, I can see the wisdom behind it, but part of The Librarian’s Credo is faith in reading as an edifying occupation. This is how it works. You get kids off the street; find them a haven, the Library, and an occupation: reading. The first step (after ascertaining they are literate) is to get them to read something, to get them to come regularly to the library, to take part in its programs, and from then on to steer them toward higher reading material. That is a process than in librarianship is called “follow-up”.
    You don´t leave a client with just a book on his/her hands. You get involved, you make sure they comment the book, you get them to think. In order to achieve that, librarians have to read those trashy books (I remember hating Valley Girl and The Babysitters Club and all those series) and find something to start a discussion and once you have established your client’s tastes, then you can think of more serious books that deal with similar subject.
    I recall, (his happened almost 20 yeas ago), a book discussion group we had around some horrid series based in Beverly Hills 9010. We managed to bring up pretty serious subjects such as birth control, dating older men, parental intromission, the importance of looks and popularity in high-school... Now you got me all nostalgic. They tell me American libraries are not what they used to be.

  19. When I was a teen, I read every Sweet Valley High book and VC Andrews book I could find, and I'm proud of it! Actually, I'd love to read Flowers in the Attic as an adult; I might just do that.

  20. MP you just have pointed out another gift of trashy books: memory. We tend to associate light (and not so light, but still not considered high lit) reading, mass fiction, pop cult classics and pulp fiction, with certain moments of our life. It’s what makes them unforgettable. They become part of our personal memorabilia and re-reading them is a time trip.

    I was thinking about the value of old trashy books as collectibles. It’s a merit no critic grants, but it´s a fact that with age all that was once considered bad or mediocre achieves antique status.

  21. Wow, lots of back and forth commenting! Just putting up my hand to confess a not at all secret admiration for the romance novels (mostly Regency) of Georgette Heyer. I've reread them many times and still think she was incomparably good at evoking her era.

  22. Geat example, Adina! Geogette Heyer invented the Regency romance by taking the Austen model and combining it with historical fiction. She was a prolific writer, turning two novels per year in pre PC days. She scorned publicity and managed to do well without it. She has had hundred imitators. And they are still reading her in the XXI centuy. So who are we to call her work "trash"?


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