One of my favorite books is Paul Fussell’s Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. It takes a rather tongue-in-cheek look at a subject about which a great many people get themselves quite upset and makes me laugh every time I read it. Of course, class pervades every part of life, including writing. For as long as I’ve been writing I’ve had an unconscious awareness about the kinds of creative writing that are “better” than others: poetry, essays, and extremely complicated science texts are on the top of the heap, at least if you’re among academics or intellectuals (if you’re in the middle of a gathering of working class folk, telling them you are a poet is akin to admitting that you still suck your thumb at night—the news is met with blank stares, so I usually prevaricate and tell them I’m a stay-at-home-mom which has more cachet). Science fiction, fantasy, romance novels, and (gasp!) erotica are at the bottom of the literati’s list of what one should read, unless of course you’re writing a scholarly article about erotica or compiling some sort of academic erotica which usually has something to do with feminism or gender studies at which point the erotica rockets to the top of the pile (one must find some legitimate way to read one’s favorite porn, right?). These days, thanks to the internets, there’s an even lower form of writing, the lowest of the low, the very dregs of the whole enterprise: fanfiction. I mean, that stuff isn’t even published! My word!
So, of course, growing up, I did my best to hide the fact that I love genre fiction. Sci-fi and romance have always been my novels of choice. While everyone around me was reading Tolstoy and Plath, I was busy sucking down every last one of Asimov’s books and chasing them with a helping of regency love stories. When I tried to force myself to read Dickens or Austen, guess what happened? Yes: FAIL. What does this all mean? For me, after many years and thousands of books I have discovered a secret: there are really excellently written sci-fi/fantasy and romance novels, and yes, even some incredible fanfiction. Eventually I forced myself to read some classics and I found that I far prefer literary non-fiction to fiction (I have never finished a Dickens novel, not ever, though I love Poe). This gave me an extremely broad vista of material from which to form my ideas of what is ‘good’ writing and what is not. I didn’t limit myself to what I was ‘supposed’ to read and in so doing, I have discovered that buried beneath all the dreck are some pretty damn good stories. I would not be the person I am today if I hadn’t read the incredible and far-reaching political theories in sci-fi, or learned how very deeply love can heal the soul from reading romance novels. And the best part? These books are fun! They don’t make me weep uncontrollably at the end, wishing I had put out my eyes with a spoon instead of reading that insanely sad novel (see Cry, the Beloved Country, and no, I don’t care that it was brilliant, it was freaking depressing).
Now, this begs the question, why do so many academics and professionals insist that one should only read the stuff on the top of the creative writing class heap? Why do they wrinkle their noses and sniff if you happen to mistakenly fart out that right this very moment you are reading the latest Laurell K. Hamilton book? Why do I still reflexively hide the cover of my fantasy novel when I’m in public? Because what you read is a form of self-advertising. And because the collective mass of people around you believes you are a nerd if you read sci-fi, or stupid if you read romance, you hide your guilty pleasure like you hide your fixation with American Idol. It’s so much more impressive to bleat about how much you like NPR and did you know that people are reading Rand again? than it is to just own up to the fact that you could care less what subject Gladwell has tackled lately as long as you can get your Balogh fix. It’s all about appearances, which is, of course, the original function of class ideology and status in the tribe: full circle baby, go directly to Fussell’s book. So, when I say I’m a poet and I read non-fiction books about science, I’m not lying. Yes, I’m waiting for you to be impressed and hoping my literary superiority will rocket me to the top of the pile when grazing amongst the herd. However, I also read Scalzi’s and Asaro’s sci-fi novels and most hideously, Emma Holly’s erotica and I love them. Yes I do. I just don’t tell you.