The Unexpected Side Effects of Trashy Novels

My first exposure to books was my mother’s extensive library. She is a voracious reader, and over the years, she’s collected an impressive array of books, both fiction and non-fiction. I read Perry Mason, Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart at a young age, though I never got into Agatha Christie (for some reason), and when I started making major inroads into her collection, she quietly hid the Harold Robbins and James Hadley Chase books so that I wouldn’t be tempted. She didn’t realize that I had friends whose mothers weren’t as selective about what their children read…

We were undeniably curious. And we did anything we could to satisfy that curiosity. We scoured bookstores, old books fairs and small shops (no internet back then—I know. That really dates me! And, libraries didn’t stock popular fiction, only literary fiction), looking for forbidden fare, and found all kinds of treasures as a result. I found Stephen King and Sidney Sheldon (really, look these guys up; you’ve heard of Stephen King, but you don’t know what you’re missing if you haven’t read Sidney Sheldon), and discovered Mills & Boon and Harlequin in the process.

I got into the habit of reading every night, and couldn’t sleep until I had read something. I was reading trashy novels, and lots of them, under the cover of darkness (and I was also making inroads into my mother’s library at the same time). But I had limited access to books, and very little money to spend on them, particularly as I was in school and not earning. So, either I hoarded all my pocket-money, or I found friends who also read trashy novels. Friends, and cousins; it turned out, there were loads of them. Everyone read, and they read everything—trashy, popular, literary—it didn’t really matter, as long as there was a book in their hands.

We exchanged books and reviews, and that led to other books—non-trashy books—equally entertaining, and worth the amount of time I spent with my nose in a book. I found S. E. Hinton and Paul Zindel because of a cousin who also read Mills & Boon, and we bonded (I grew up outside of Pakistan, and barely spoke Urdu when I returned—books were the first things we bonded over). I read Jean Plaidy because I introduced Georgette Heyer to a school friend. I found Anne Rice, Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut because I traded Nora Roberts with strangers on the first day of school (and there were a lot of schools—eight, in total, not counting college—and the best way to make friends, I found, was books). I introduced a friend to John Wyndham, who got me hooked on to Asimov and C. S. Lewis’ adult fiction. And, when my grandfather passed away, and no one but my mother volunteered to take his books, I found Shaw, Victor Hugo, Shakespeare’s complete works, and a bunch of fiction writers I had never even heard of.

Reading gave me all kinds of joy, which led me to choose literature as an ‘A’ Level subject. Over the course of two years, we read fourteen works, and my friends (who were all taking accounts and economics) hated me because all I needed to do was read.

I realize now that I got into the habit of reading because of trashy novels. I often wonder, if they released all popular fiction novels with a disclaimer…

Warning; excessive reading may lead to more serious and literary works, and may be habit-forming and/or addictive. It may also lead to new friends and possible bonding with complete strangers

…more people may be inclined to turn their secret guilty pleasure into an open one. Because the key is not what kind of books you read, but that you love reading.


Romance: A Dirty Word?

Last week, my colleague, Naheed, wanted to start a discussion on eBooks vs. real books, but it took off in another direction altogether. The discussion evolved (on Facebook) into a conversation about the romance genre, and how many people look down on it.

It was pointed out in the comments that all the classics of today were ‘popular fiction’ in their day. The best writers always write for the masses—if you want to reach the wider audience, then you need to speak their language. High-brow, pretentious works of philosophy and deep social meaning may get you accolades from critics, but how many people will actually buy your book, let alone read it?

Personally, I feel that popular fiction, or ‘easy-read’ fiction, has a crucial role to play in South Asia. This part of the world is poor, with limited access to recreation other than movies and TV. In almost all of these countries, literacy levels are low, and newer generations rarely read (I’m speaking generally here). The two biggest functions that popular fiction will serve for us are to encourage reading habits among the population, and to temporarily carry us away from the drudgeries of our daily lives.

I’d rather see children (and adults, for that matter) with a book in their hands than a computer game, or glued to the TV. Even if they’re reading a romance novel (who doesn’t want to, at any age, flip to the ‘juicy’ bits?), at some point they will pick up something more taxing. But fiction, and easy reading in particular, are essential if we want generations who are willing to use their imaginations, to fantasize, to dream. They are essential if want our people to respect books, and not hate them (have you seen the schoolbag of a child in the first grade? They weigh more than the child itself, and just get heavier through the years!). They are essential if we don’t want young adults who are already tired of life at the age of twenty because they have no respite from the seriousness of their lives.

Romance, fantasy, crime—trash books are popular (NOT a dirty word), and they’re fun. What’s so wrong with having a little fun in our lives?