So, apparently I’ve become Mrs T for this purpose. Mildly ironic, since in the 3 months and 13 days (yep, I’m counting) we’ve been in Australia I’ve been getting low-level grief from Mr T’s real family for not changing my name. The most strenuous objections, sadly, come from our teenage nieces, who have some scarily antiquated ideas about wifely duties. But despite my unreasonable insistence on retaining my own name, I can always make an exception for Gregory Peck…
But I digress, because I’m supposed to be here to defend what Mr T has termed fritterature. Or if not to defend it, at least to problematise another of Mr T’s sweeping and unforgiving generalisations. I would be the first to admit that huge amounts of time, money, energy and paper pulp are wasted on churning out crap books (hell, I used to work in the business section of Manchester Blackwell’s. Some of those ridiculous how-to-be-Gordon-Gecko books marketed to would-be management gods to read on the bus could be included under the ‘fritterature’ heading too. I also tried to read The Da Vinci Code once, and had to give up after about a chapter-and-a-half, it was just too excruciatingly written. And then there was the chick-lit book about WAGS of a Luton football team which I got free off the front of a magazine… but I’ve tried to blank that experience from my brain).
But I also think that there are problems with the fritterature classification, however entertaining it is. So:
1: it assumes by incorporating the word ‘fritter’ that reading ‘fritterature’ is a waste of time. I don’t think it always is. There may be a few super-humans out there who never need to chill out (Uncle Noam, apparently, from the volume of work he puts out). But most of us occasionally just need a rest, and I reckon ‘fritterature’ is a good way of diverting the tired brain from going off and having more thoughts and ideas, in an undemanding way. We could watch telly, most of which is even more crap AND is peppered with adverts. Sure, if all you ever read is ‘fritterature’ your mind will get lazy and you’ll limit your outlook, but judiciously used I believe it can be a useful way of (shock!) relaxing a bit.
2: to assume that it can be applied to genre fiction (romance, detective, sci-fi etc) in a blanket fashion is unfair. We all know that there is plenty of quality writing going on under these headings, and that some truly great writers – Kurt Vonnegut springs to mind – have written within much-despised genres. On the flip-side, there is also some really lousy writing which doesn’t get dismissed because it isn’t ‘genre’, but is nevertheless awful. One example, for instance, is the massive hit ‘The Kite Runner’. Like one of those Hollywood movies where you just know that because it tackles ‘an issue’ it’ll be up for an Oscar, TKR talks about Afghanistan, the Taliban, war, refugees, child abuse and drug trafficking, so it Must Be Good. Well, no, actually. It’s laden with wooden stereotypes, leaden characters and clumsy plot devices. My theory is that it was originally an elegant little descriptive memoir of pre-Soviet invasion Afghanistan, and that someone in Khaled Hosseini’s book group told him he had to bolt on A Plot and some Big Issues. I may be wrong, but that’s how it reads to me. But because it talks stridently about Important Stuff and is marketed with a ‘literary fiction’ rather than a ‘genre fiction’ cover and blurb, it gets a completely different treatment.
3: one of the problems with a lot of fritterature for some readers – like me, and perhaps like other readers of this blog – is that it has lousy politics. The ‘women’s’ stuff uncritically urges us on to buy more stuff (see the Shopaholic series, with its constant brand referencing), while the ‘men’s’ stuff – police/army dramas – is violent, right-wing and either uncritical of the security state, or depicts any occasional problems with it as solely a question of individual ‘bad apples’, rather than systemic racism and corruption.
But I’d argue that this isn’t entirely the case. Some ‘chick-lit’ titles advocate women’s empowerment and independence, although often in a way that remains dependent on mainstream careers and heterosexual norms. There is one called, I think, ‘Elegance’ which epitomises everything which writers on ‘ethical fashion’ say against ‘fast fashion’ – it clearly promotes the idea of owning a small number of quality items rather than buying lots of sweatshop-manufactured throwaway crap from Primark. And although many of the schlockier police/detective/spy novels are nastily right-wing, there are successful series which have comparatively decent politics – such as Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski novels, or the work of Ian Rankin, Carl Hiaasen and Henning Mankell (and even later Le Carré, although I’m personally a big fan of George Smiley and not of Le Carre’s later, worthier titles). During the 1980s The Women’s Press published a wide range of feminist and lesbian crime fiction, often with accompanying left-wing values.
If there is too much right-wing, badly-written/edited light fiction around, perhaps it’s because lefties and ‘serious’ readers sneer at genre novels too easily. And maybe because we abandon (or claim to abandon) ‘genre’ novels and ‘fritterature’ to those who won’t question their politics, assumptions and quality of writing, we create a vicious circle where writers and publishers can assume that all readers of light fiction are happy with regressive values, formulaic plots and bad grammar.