Literary Junk Food: The Pleasures of Reading ‘Trash'

Image: Mel Campbell

While author and critic Mel Campbell can admit that her preoccupations are literary ones, her reading habits sometimes beg to differ.

She interrogates the feelings of guilt and embarrassment that have accompanied her binges on ‘junk food fiction’ – and finds good reasons to savour her encounters with the clunky or unselfconscious expression of books untroubled by a sense of their own importance.

You’re really hungry. You stand in your kitchen staring at all the perfectly good food in your fridge and cupboards, but you don’t feel like eating any of it. What you crave is a nice takeaway. Something quick, comforting and tasty, that doesn’t require much effort.

I had that aimless malaise last week in front of my bookshelves, trying to decide what to read next. Questions of Travel is my current book club title. I knew I should read it, and I even leafed through the first few chapters hoping to be ‘hooked’, but it was just too … literary. I’m sorry, Michelle de Kretser: I couldn’t get into your multi-award-winning novel.

Nor did I feel like resuming any of the three other books I’m partway through. I’m still only on page 65 of Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick; I’m finding its language drearily ponderous and digressive. At this stage it seems I’ll be halfway through the book by the time Ishmael sets foot on the damn boat.

I’m also resisting Gentry: Six Hundred Years of a Peculiarly English Class by Adam Nicolson, a history book I’m about halfway through and was quite enjoying before I put it down. Reading about the values that animated England’s well-born families at crucial times of political, geographic and economic transition has illuminated my understanding of English literature from another angle. But now it’s as if that light has been switched off in my brain.

Am I getting stupid? If so, it’s worrying that I can’t even return to the dumbest of my current reads: crypto-archaeological romp The Sign and the Seal by Graham Hancock. I was up for a rollicking, Indiana Jones-style quest for the lost Ark of the Covenant, but Hancock’s travelogue wrings tedium from exotic locales, and his Dan Brown-level amateur scholarship manages to be both stodgy and preposterous. I suffered through his theory that Moses was actually an Egyptian sorcerer, but laid the book aside when Hancock mentioned Atlantis.

What’s scaring me is my concomitant hunger for trashy, clunkily written young-adult paranormal romance novels. I’ve just devoured the first three Mortal Instruments books by Cassandra Clare, the first of which was recently adapted to film. I told myself it was research for a feature story I wrote about young-adult film adaptations.

But I haven’t stopped reading now the article’s finished – I’ve just embarked on the fourth, City of Fallen Angels. Last night found myself unironically enjoying a cheesy scene in which star-crossed teenage protagonists Jace and Clary make out in an alleyway during a rainstorm. (Jace makes lots of growling noises ‘deep in his throat’.)

Oh god yes,’ Richard replied. ‘Most capital-L literature bores me shitless.’

Have these books irreversibly ruined my appetite for a ‘better’ class of literature? Has my brain actually regressed to a high-school level? I don’t know what’s wrong with me; last week I was walking down the street and, in some kind of awful adolescent fugue, I found myself in Dangerfield. (As I write, I’m wearing a Dangerfield hoodie with little stars on it.) Much as Clary learns to see through supernatural glamours and understand the language of runes, the overwrought lyrics of ridiculous emo bands are beginning to make sense to me. Yesterday I had a house inspection and, as I showed off my freshly tidied bedroom, I felt like shouting at my real estate agent, ‘YOU’RE NOT MY REAL MUM!’

Because reading is such an interior pursuit – a silent dialogue with one’s own experiences and feelings – my first instinct has been to worry that this is the result of some intellectual weakness unique to me. Surely any ‘proper’ author and critic wouldn’t slump like a teenager, devouring prose such as, ‘Between his teeth he hissed, “So be it. The Forsaken will take you all.”’

I sent an anguished cry into the Twittersphere – did anyone else struggle with not feeling ‘into’ literary fiction? The results were encouraging.

‘Oh god yes,’ Richard replied. ‘Most capital-L literature bores me shitless.’

‘Life is too short to worry about that,’ added Peter. ‘I will put any book down 100 pages in if I’m not entertained.’

‘I want it all!’ said Jess. ‘But I never feel bad about the trashy stuff. Life is too short to deny yourself pleasure.’

‘I decided years ago to just own it,’ said Lisa. ‘I don’t always want to read prize winners and I don’t always want to be challenged.’

Paranormal romance’ is especially low-hanging fruit for critics – hell, I’ve mocked it roundly myself.

There’s a nasty misogynist tang to our suspicions surrounding the readership of novels for pure narrative pleasure. While women dominated the authorship of fiction between the 15th and 18th centuries, and have long been the most voracious readers of romances and novels, 19th-century literary critics mansplained that this was because women were frivolous, emotional creatures dominated by imagination rather than intellect.

Today’s snide jokes and moral panics over the low literary value of cult fiction franchises such as Twilight and Fifty Shades have their origins in the 19th-century press’s intense, paternalistic worries about the deleterious effect of novels on women and tender, impressionable children, both in England and the United States.

‘Paranormal romance’ is especially low-hanging fruit for critics – hell, I’ve mocked it roundly myself. Yet what draws me to it as a reader is its artless energy: its power to seek out and amplify our most atavistic feelings, without seeming to require an intellectual agenda. These books aren’t formally or stylistically ambitious, and don’t necessarily set out to ‘say’ anything beyond the demands of their own universes… although if they become wildly popular we often retrospectively dissect their zeitgeisty appeal.

As well as the emotional pleasure junk-food fiction offers, perhaps it also challenges us to read as adventurously and omnivorously as possible, disregarding ideologically fraught questions of literary merit.

I guess what I admire best about junk food fiction is that, while I’m ashamed of myself for reading, the author never betrays any similar self-consciousness or uncertainty. On more than one occasion, I’ve thought to myself, “I could write better than this… while drunk, and without any research or planning!”

But when I interrogate myself further, I realise my compulsion is not simply to write a satisfying fantasy, but also an elegantly written one that innovates within its genre and is packed with witty subtext. A book that snobs would be happy to be seen reading, basically. I must admit to myself that my preoccupations are literary ones.

Perhaps the best way to look at my current YA jag is in the cyclical context of my past reading habits. I’ve had similar obsessions, and have bounced back to enjoy complex, challenging writing. I’ve stuck with Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books to this year’s bitter end. Then there was my heady excursion into Faerie Pr0n, that is, Laurell K Hamilton’s Merry Gentry novels.

Such binges actually sharpen my critical faculties, helping me distinguish between mere shameless corniness and truly reprehensible literary badness. On Friday night, I picked up Austenland by Shannon Hale, thinking it would be a fun, effervescent riff on the cultural obsession with Pride and Prejudice. But it left me hollow and depressed, the way you might from eating only crisps for dinner. And rather than resorting to the knee-jerk ridicule that dominates scathing reviews of ‘bad fiction’, I was able to articulate my reasons for disliking Austenland, and show that it is bad in its own way, rather than self-evidently because of its topic, theme or genre.

As well as the emotional pleasure junk-food fiction offers, perhaps it also challenges us to read as adventurously and omnivorously as possible, disregarding ideologically fraught questions of literary merit. As Haruki Murakami wrote in Norwegian Wood (which I haven’t read, although I saw the film, which was awful), ‘If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.’

Portrait of Mel Campbell

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and critic who co-hosts the fortnightly literature and culture podcast The Rereaders. She is a columnist on writing at Overland magazine, and a university lecturer and writer-for-hire on film, TV and media. Her first book was the nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (2013), and she’s currently co-writing a second romantic comedy novel with Anthony Morris; their first was The Hot Guy (2017).