Lately I’ve seen articles popping up with names like “25 Novels You Can Read on the Beach Without Embarassing Yourself” and “What Are You Reading In Public?” The books suggested for public reading tend to be literary tomes with plots like It will take a tragedy to fully bring the lessons of grace, honor, and tradition home or Three women are drawn into the painful glare of the national spotlight and forced to reconsider their lives, who they are and who they are meant to be. At finer online retailers you can purchase brightly colored canvas or velveteen book covers as the perfect way to hide the actual cover of your lurid mystery or horror novel from those prying eyes on the subway or at the lunch table. In other words, someone, somewhere, thinks there are books one should be ashamed to admit reading, and the general assumption is that genre fiction is the worst of it. Once upon a time, I read a book I was guilty about. The summer I was 13, my parents were working during the day, so I spent a lot of days at the pool, reading in the sun and watching my little sister splash in the water with her friends. Having read The Fellowship of the Ring the summer before, I knew I liked fantasy, and decided to try a little science fiction, too. I was burning through the library’s limited speculative fiction collection, and one of the books I’d checked out was Robert Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil. I’d already read Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and I assumed Evil would be similar. Oops. (For those who haven’t read it, here’s a synopsis. Go ahead and read it – I’ll wait.)
I knew about the facts of life, of course, but I’d never read a book that had so much adult behavior. I wanted to finish, but I was afraid my parents might look over my shoulder, see what I was reading and snatch the book away. It was a thick book, not one that I could easily hide in the pages of another. I remember one evening, when my aunt and uncle were over for dinner. “What are you reading?” they asked. “I Will Fear No Evil,” I said, “What’s that about?” Panic!! I stammered something about it being science fiction involving brain transplants, my cheeks flushing. Fortunately none of my family reads SF, so the conversation moved on quickly and I was saved. Some years later, I asked my parents what they would have done if I’d admitted what I was reading, and they reassured me that they believed that I was able to read whatever I thought I could handle, a philosophy I’ve worked hard to use with my son.
After that, I determined never to be ashamed of my choice of reading material, no matter what. Along the same line, I’ve never been ashamed to write what I want to. Some people (likely the same ones who think I should only read literary fiction on the beach) think nice Southern ladies shouldn’t write fantasy. When my book first sold, and I started telling people about it, I often got the shocked stare. “Fantasy? For adult readers? You mean like…sex, right?” As if erotica would even have been more acceptable than all that naughty magic. Which is why it bugs the daylights out of me to read articles that seem to indicate genre fiction is the wrong choice for smart people to read. Some of the genre fiction I’ve read is more well-written and brilliant than any ten literary doorstops, but kept from the eyes of the literati merely because of the genre label. And don’t even get me started on literary writers who write speculative fiction then moan and wail at reviewers who dare to label their books as such.
There’s nothing to be afraid of. Genre fiction sells millions of books each year, and we all read it. Isn’t it better that we’re reading at all? Next time someone looks at you askance for reading Stephen King or David B Coe, you stare them right back down again. Reading is power, no matter what the book’s about. One thousand years ago, reading was limited to the religious communities and the sons of wealthy families only. Today, everyone has the chance to read. Daily reading keeps your brain healthy, regardless of whether you’re reading James Joyce or Faith Hunter. *grin* I’m reading Mike Carey’s Vicious Circle, a fantasy/noir mystery genre blend. There’s magic and exorcism and ghosts and werewolves and I’ll read it in front of anyone. Hold up your genre fiction proudly, y’all!