What Do You Gain from Dismissing Popular Fiction?

Nothing, really. I’m talking to you, fellow English majors.


By Sonali Mathur, Contributing Writer

It seems like these days, every literature lover I come across manages to take some time out in his or her life to criticize Rupi Kaur’s line-breaks, John Green’s mysterious young women and — of course — Stephenie Meyer’s glittering vampires. These young adult authors have received plenty of criticism for being, at best, average writers who rely on cliches and stereotypes that do a disservice to both their subjects and their craft.

Kaur was denounced by Rebecca Watts, a British poet, as a “Noble Amateur” who has contributed to social media’s “dumbing effect” in the PN Review. A popular Reddit thread, “Am I the only one who hates John Green’s novels?” criticizes him for his characterization of teenage girls as too perfect and mysterious and teenage boys as too philosophical. Teenagers aren’t like what Green says they are in real life, users conclude. And, well, “Twilight” is widely attacked by pretty much everyone.

Self-proclaimed literature connoisseurs are quick to dismiss the fiction genre’s so-called average writing. But popular fiction like “Twilight” provides a form of escape for readers. It is instantly entertaining — something that is important in the fast-paced world of the 21st century. Millennials tweet and snap instantly — everything is done in a second.

It is understandable that young people might have trouble concentrating on books; according to the Washington Post, 1 in 3 U.S. high school seniors did not read a book for pleasure in 2016. In the same time period, 82 percent of 12th-graders visited sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram every day. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and one of the authors of the study, said the lack of leisure reading is troubling. For her, the most important discovery hidden in the data is this statistic: In the 1970s, about 60 percent of high school seniors reported reading a book, magazine or newspaper every single day. Four decades later, in 2016, 16 percent of high school seniors reported doing so.

But poetry like Kaur’s is short and to the point; she doesn’t have the complicated metaphors of metaphysical poets that demand time and energy, and her lines break easily, without concentrating on structure and form. This isn’t a dumbing down of the work — it is just material that can be consumed faster, and it’s better than nothing. If people do not have the time to read in general, perhaps popular fiction can be a way in. “Twilight” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” may be lengthy, but they have the allure of the handsome, mysterious stranger from the very beginning; readers don’t have to wade through Jane Eyre’s tragic childhood to get to the exciting affair. It is like the draw of a TV show over a movie — the audience doesn’t have to wait for the scandalous affair because “Sex and the City” provides the same excitement in just 20 minutes. People want instant entertainment and popular fiction provides this.

Critics also fail to consider the audience of popular fiction. John Green and Stephanie Meyer both target teenagers, while Rupi Kaur writes for South Asian women who share her experiences. Green is condemned for his female characters being manic pixie dream girls: female characters who “function in the story as a catalyst for the male protagonist’s growth, while remaining essentially a static character herself, with no story arc of her own.” But Green never claimed in the slightest that he was trying to emulate reality; why is other fictional work not held up to the same standards? Are all women psychopaths like Amy from “Gone Girl” and Lisa from “Girl, Interrupted?” Why do we read those unrealistic portrayals of women?

Popular fiction allows the individual to live vicariously. Fiction isn’t news; the point isn’t to relay reality but to provide an exciting version of it. Green and Meyer are adept at this — their work is successful with their target audience, and that is what matters. Those that don’t find enjoyment in their works can read something else which panders to their specific imagination or desire for intellectual stimulation.

Denouncing popular fiction is little more than an attempt to convince the people around you of exactly how intelligent you are. Maybe you want to show that you don’t spend your time imagining the exciting parts of Tina Fey’s life or the latest affair by Kevin Kwan as movie scenes; instead, you highlight and annotate pages written by your brethren, Shakespeare and Virgil. You don’t hope to be stalked by Christian Grey; you reach for the green light at the end of the dock. At some point in the semester at NYU, some English majors take time out to decry popular fiction, dismissing it for not having the qualities of nuanced thought and exceptional writing that they learn literature must have. “Terrible writing,” English majors say, Moleskine notebooks in hand, noses high in the air. “I would never read that.” Well, maybe you should, because you’re not published, they are.

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Email Sonali Mathur at [email protected]