Okay, so the other night I got into a spat on FB about "taking genre writing seriously." Because, you know, lolz, and whatever, amirite? *snort* But it got me thinking on the topic of writing and reading (shocking, I know), and what they mean in the everyday sense.The Value of Literature
So lo many moons ago I remember my Mom asking me in college, "Are you sure you want to be an English major? You're never going to get a job!" Which is a not unusual statement from many parents. Which is untrue because 1) strangely enough the ability to write in a concise and comprehensible way is actually NOT easy, so people actually do want these skills in a variety of jobs, and 2) the ability to write when balanced with an ability to think critically and under time constraints is also fucking useful. And these are the things that most often come up when people want to defend the humanities, but this overlooks the specific value of literature. Literature is valuable in that it is kind of the doctor of our culture, taking our pulse and telling us what's going on. The recurrent trends in publishing are more than what's popular, it's what we are thinking about, anxious about, preoccupied with.
Plus, my more cynical response: We can't all be fucking neuroscientists. There are a thousand and one ways to contribute to society, and literature is one. I think it's really telling that we tend to value only the really high-end jobs: actors, sports players, government officials, etc. But you know who is invisible and who, once they are gone, you really miss? The janitors. And a lot of writers are kind of like janitors, there's tons of "invisible writing" out there that we don't think about but we need in our lives.The Value of Popular Literature
Popular literature is like Culture Concentrate: everything that worries us in big neon letters. The common wisdom used to be that popular literature and genre writing were the distillation of the status quo, but a century of literary criticism has proven that's not always true, and often, far from it. Whatever you might think about the Twilight
books, they opened up a metric fuckton of conversations about young women in our culture--and a lot of these were conversations we REALLY needed to have!
The other thing about genre writing that I liked to point out when I taught was--literature that is not highly regarded thus has a LOT of wiggle room to do interesting things. For instance, comic books: as painfully bad as a lot of writing is especially in older books, they got away with a LOT. I remember being really struck by a Captain America comic ca. 1964 where Cap declares that the greatest thinkers of the new generation were Martin Luther King Jr., Marshall McLuhan, and JRR Tolkien: a civil rights leader, a media theorist, and a fantasy author. And holy fuck is that one trifecta to hold up as intellectual standard--and to a bunch of kids no less!! The entire genre of science fiction has always been the playing ground for a variety of exploratory political ideas, back to the 16th c. with Thomas More's Utopia
. Art is always political.
Whether it's high or low art, it's still true. Nothing is created in a vacuum, and everything is a product of its own time: it's an action, a reaction, and a lot of works are famous for starting chain reactions right back: Whether it's Uncle Tom's Cabin
, The Jungle
, or apparently right now, The Hunger Games
(check out what's going on in Thailand
if you don't believe me).Why I take genre writing seriously.
You know, a theme of the 16th and 17th centuries was the ability to read correctly
--it was part of that whole Reformation thing that then seeped into everyday life. I've been reading Thomas Hobbes and William Tyndale back to back, and man, the preoccupation with reading--specifically the Bible, but everything to a lesser extent--is just so acute. Which, of course, it would be, back when reading the wrong thing could get you hanged for treason or excommunicated or worse. But this determination to read everything as meaningful--the events of our lives as well as the words on (any kind of) page--is still something we see in our society, and hell, it's probably hard-wired into us now if it wasn't five hundred years ago. I think the ability to read seriously
is what gives insight not only into specific works but also into our culture. I feel that's important for me to do not only as an individual but as a citizen of the world. If by reading certain things I see that some are oppressed, then I want to do that which will free them; if by reading I see something that hurts, then I want to find the thing to contribute that heals--etc. ad nauseam. And we all do this too, whether it's by choosing to--or not--shop at certain stores or using certain products or companies or (strangely enough), books.