Sophie argues in favour of the popularisation of literature.
There’s a certain prevailing stereotype surrounding the content of modern English Literature courses, and to be fair, it’s not without merit. Following the absolutely thrilling school curriculums of Macbeth, The Outsiders, and Animal Farm, maybe Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Mrs Midas if you’re feeling adventurous, there’s an expectation that university-level content will be just as dry. Fortunately, the days of dusty tomes and narrow curriculums of the classics seem to be long behind us, and, from personal experience anyway, seem to be replaced with a balance between classic authors such as Dickens, the Brontë sisters, and Joyce, and less traditionally studied authors such as Jenni Fagan and Katherine Dunn. It’s refreshing to see the academic curriculum grow more diverse, and why shouldn’t it? With self-publishing becoming ever-more popular, a fresh wave of diverse viewpoints has entered the literary scene, a scene which may very well have been completely inaccessible to them before. Not only that, putting a novel idea to paper has never been easier than it is now. Creative writing masterclasses are widely available on the internet, online forums are filled with people eager to proofread for you, and there are more avenues to publication outside of Wattpad and Fanfiction.net.
But where the sheer quantity of texts out there has soared, it can certainly be argued that the overall quality of literature has taken a notable dip. There’s the truly absurd, like M. J. Edwards’s Kissing The Coronavirus and Norman Boutin’s infamously bizarre Empress Theresa, but there’s also the novels of this calibre that were insanely successful, like Fifty Shades of Grey, which set a record as the fastest-selling paperback in the UK. And while Fifty Shades is undoubtedly hilarious in all its awkward, fanfiction-y glory, it’s not exactly pushing the boundaries of high art. The questionable depictions of sex and the presence of the whiny bastardised Byronic hero that is Christian Grey make for an enjoyable light-hearted read when you’re drunk with friends, but it’s no Crime and Punishment. It’s everybody’s go-to when talking about bad popular books, only edging ahead of the Mormonism-influenced masterpiece it paid tribute to, Twilight. With books like this becoming so popular, and not entirely for ironic reasons, is it reasonable to push back against the popularisation of literature, and the ability for anybody to create it?
Well, it depends. Fifty Shades is likely never going to be studied in English Literature courses (much to my everlasting despair), and while the academic curriculum is diversifying to include more women, POC, and LGBTQ+ authors in the mix, traditional publishers and a theoretical slant to the content that makes the texts prime for analysing in the context of literary concepts are always favoured. In an academic context, this makes sense, as books are meant to be studied with a critical eye, and while Barthes and Foucault have been the bane of my third-year existence, they are necessary to picking apart novels in an academic and contextual sense. While it’s very satisfying to see the curriculum diversified from the same dull handful of authors from reading lists of old, the very nature of themes and contextualisation being prioritised has led to academia staying largely immune to literature’s popularisation. But when these sorts of texts aren’t likely to reach academia anytime soon, does the question still apply to the broad scope of reading for enjoyment? Well, while it’s easy to roll your eyes at poorly written popular books, it’s important to recall that reading, in and of itself, isn’t a particularly highbrow activity. People read for different reasons, to unwind, to analyse, to get emotional, to laugh at. Reading for pleasure is far more common than reading for analysis, otherwise, we would all be English students. The philosophy of so-bad-it’s-good has been present in film for years; so why not literature as well?
That’s not to mention the subjectivity of literature. While bad literature, be it novels or fanfiction, has become far more notable to the public eye in recent years, that could just be down to the presence of the internet. Take the aforementioned Empress Theresa, an otherwise dull, cliched story propelled into viral infamy by the author’s erratic behaviour, including insulting and arguing with critics of his book on online review sites. Bad literature has existed for as long as literature itself, and classic literature is no exception to this, across past and present critiques. Even some books we would now consider to be classic, such as Lord of the Flies, for example, were poorly received upon release. Other classic novels have had new discourse surrounding them in recent years, such as challenging To Kill A Mockingbird and its notions of a white saviour complex, or challenging Atlas Shrugged and the cultural amnesia that has tricked people into believing it’s a good book. Such subjectivity proves one thing; allowing more people to publish their passion projects harms nobody. In fact, it might just broaden the horizons of what literature is capable of. With the Internet allowing avenues into literature for people who might have been shut out from it previously, allowing for a more diverse range of viewpoints into the fold, a handful of bad best-sellers aren’t the end of the world.