The legend of my unlikely love for “Twilight” is canon for those who know me: I found out about the series from two of my students, a punk-rock Latina from the Bronx and a pink-wearing Upper East Side girl, respectively, who both told me about a mysterious love triangle between a human, a vampire, and a werewolf. “You have to try it, Ms. S,” they said. I was writing a lot about sexuality and pop culture, so with that as my excuse, I tried it.
Curled up an armchair in the basement of a local bookstore, speeding through the black-covered books until they made me nauseous, I had an emotional flashback to being a girl, and reading at night with the cracked-open bathroom door shining a spotlight on the pages as I snuck a few extra chapters in. That velvety-voiced, cheesy, totally sexist vampire book became a time portal, giving me the sucker rush I once received from reading of all things, without the awkwardness that went with it.
A week, and four “Twilight” books later, I called my sister-in-law, also a voracious reader. “So there’s this teen book,” I said. “About a vampire. You need to read it now.”
When I was an early adolescent, I read classics like “Little Women,” topical YA about the Underground Railroad and the Holocaust, and then approximately 200 Nancy Drew mysteries and Baby-Sitters Club books per year. As I graduated to Austen and the Brontes in middle school, my friends and I continued plowing through “junk” books. We didn’t have paranormal romance then, but we did have “Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys Super Mysteries,” which were sexier mash-ups for older teens. Nancy and Frank Hardy always kissed in a moment of danger, and Nancy often got bopped in the head or chloroformed and tied up somewhere, and later had to drop-kick a jerk.
These books were straight up ridiculous but oh-so delicious. Trading them back and forth with my friend Mollie made me feel like a secret agent of pleasure, particularly since we were also walking around Central Park talking rapturously about our first forays into “Jane Eyre,” “Rebecca” and even “Anna Karenina.” My English teacher mocked me in front of the whole class for my precocious reading habits. Little did he know about Nancy Drew’s abiding presence in my life.
At some point, thanks to people like my teacher and the nature of high school, my nerdiness became my identity, the main thing I had to cling onto. I was a smart girl, not a fun one. So I tried to become something of a book snob. I remember babysitting a neighbor and snorting with superior glee at their movie tie-in copy of Maeve Binchy’s novel of Irish adolescence “Circle of Friends” on the coffee table. Please, I thought. I would never deign to read mass-market paperbacks with photos of Hollywood actresses on the cover.
I similarly shrugged off a pal who swore “Bridget Jones’s Diary” was a good read. I was too busy exploring “Middlemarch,” “The Color Purple,” “Portrait of a Lady” and “Beloved.” I went so far as to print out a list of the top books of the 20th century and attempted to check off must-reads like “Lolita” and “A Clockwork Orange,” masterpieces by Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Wharton. I truly relished these books, and I appreciated that they made me focus on phrases and images, examine society, and long to be a writer myself. But here’s the truth: my double reading life never really ended. I discovered the “Harry Potter” books and I sat, late at night at my kitchen table, reading them with my jaw wide open.
My thin walls of snobbery were destined to tumble. Inevitably, before college, I found myself preparing for a long plane ride, and I picked up “Bridget Jones’ Diary” at the airport. I embarrassed my seatmates by laughing out loud at Bridget’s antics, her unforgettably silly voice. I had toted “As I Lay Dying” on my trip (still checking books off that list) but here, as I sat reading, I found Bridget, a book and character I could wrap my arms around and love, really hard, with no effort needed.
A few summers later on the beach, the same process happened with another book I’d scorned. “Circle of Friends” read like a symphony that made my heart swell with emotion. I fell in love with Binchy’s maternal storyteller voice, her unbelievable powers of empathy. Again, I yelled at my former self. What had I been thinking, denying myself pleasure? Pure, unadulterated, un-guilty pleasure. There may be no deciphering needed in these books, no head-scratching about meaning or metaphor, but sometimes, what a reader needs is just to feel.
In the writing world, an either-or attitude pervades about reading. It may be gendered, the idea that “silly” books are the province of women, and it may be born out of real insecurity that opportunities for writing great books have dwindled. Over and over again, genre writers’ popularity and literary writers’ status get pitted against each other in Internet boxing matches. The nastiness goes both ways. But why choose?
With an MFA in my pocket, I am training to write “literary fiction,” because I enjoy crafting small interactions with what I hope have big meanings. But I’ll never stop reading for pleasure, or learning from popular writers who give me a head rush. Maybe someday I’ll even try to write genre fiction, although I’ll have to get better at writing plots first.
When I read articles at Slate saying that adult YA fans should be ashamed, or a prominent literary critic mean-spiritedly disparaging Jennifer Weiner’s chick-lit and asking, “How can a novel do justice to real life and also serve as an escape from real life?” -- which in my opinion, is what many successful novels actually do –- I get really frustrated. Because my 12-year-old Nancy Drew self and my 12-year-old Jane Austen self are the same person, the same aggressive reader.
I mostly read to be challenged and moved. But sometimes I just read to be transported. Depending on the day, the hour, I want to laugh, think, or cry, or find out what the kids today are up to. Often I want to learn a narrative technique I can use for my own short stories.
I wish both sides in this battle would lay down their weapons. If we don’t feel the need to directly compare a catchy, danceable Rihanna song and a difficult art-rock song by St. Vincent, why should we compare a 500-page epic novel with the latest chick-lit tome? Read and let read.
I would love to see more writers at prominent book reviews scanning the historical fiction, YA, romance or chick-lit out there and telling me, with a book reviewer’s expertise, which will give me the most bang for my buck. They needn’t compare those books to “The Goldfinch,” but scrutinize them on their own claims: How satisfying are they? How much fun? How badly will I want to stay up all night, sucked into a vortex, reading like I’m 12 and Nancy Drew’s life is hanging in the balance?