As a librarian, I want to help people discover new authors and titles they may never stumble across on their own. An ideal way to do this, is through book discussion groups, so my library jumped on the band wagon back in January 2000.
I picked up books on the subject, and even attended a workshop featuring an author of a book group guide, only to come away feeling insulted. There is a prevailing snobbishness in the book group world, a belief among many, that only serious literature can challenge a reader and provoke meaningful discussion.
This narrow-minded attitude really rubs me the wrong way. Iíve read both serious literature and escapist genre fiction, and I can tell you Iíll pick the genres every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Why? Because they are often a pleasure to read, engaging me in a story I can rarely put down, and leave me feeling good when I finish the last chapter.
Does this mean I hate literature? Of course not. My favorite book of all time is Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, long considered a classic. Although, as much as I love that story, even I am the first to admit that it possibly has one of the most depressing endings ever written.
I can only handle so much depression before I want to rush off to my doctor for some Prozac. Since checking out the library shelves is much more cost effective, I often find myself drawn to genres where I know what Iím going to get. With my mystery reading, I know that the bad guy is going to get caught by the good guy and justice will be served. In romance, I know that the hero and heroine may face seemingly insurmountable odds, but they will always find a way to come together for a happily ever after.
There is no denying that genre fiction provides readers with escapism, but thereís also a strong and persuasive argument, that any fiction a person reads can be labeled as such. Letís get back to Mr. Steinbeck for a moment -- I have never been, nor probably ever will be, a transient farm hand working in the American West of the 1930s. When I reread Of Mice and Men, I am leaving behind my reality to become engrossed in a fictional one. All fiction, regardless of classification, is a made up story. That is why itís labeled fiction, and something that is not real is escapism.
Any good book is going to transport the reader from their reality into a totally different setting. Readers can forget about their troubles, and the daily horrors on the evening news, to read about anything they desire. Whether that be a novel that won the Nobel Prize for Literature or the latest Nora Roberts is inconsequential -- both stories provide escapist qualities to their audiences.
So if all fiction provides the reader with escapism does that mean that none of it is capable of provoking reader thought? Of course not. As readers, we have all encountered that one book that we couldnít get enough of. The one that made us laugh and cry; the one we didnít want to see end; the one we continually recommend to others. In recent memory, I have read two books like this - Breathless by Laura Lee Guhrke and The Hostage by Susan Wiggs - both of them escapist romance novels. The character develop, settings, and themes of both stories would provide ample opportunity for in depth discussion.
Both of these titles address a central theme of redemption. The fact that two people can overcome their pasts as individuals, seek forgiveness, attain it, and build a life together is a powerful concept. We all seek forgiveness in our lives, and we all have to cope with our past actions and misdeeds. These are common issues every person can relate to on one level or another. These are themes that romances novels continually address, and what makes it such an emotionally powerful genre.
Genre fiction also has some of the best character development around. I can read a romance and enjoy the writing and atmosphere, but if I donít believe in the characters, I have a hard time enjoying the story. I may not always like them, but if the writer can craft characters that feel authentic, ones with real emotions and troubles, I will be able to empathize with them. Characters, and their actions, often provide some of the meatiest discussion in my book group meetings.
Who made up the rule that readers have to read a negative and depressing fiction title in order to be challenged by what they read? Just because I may not be ďchallengedĒ by one book, there very well could be another person out there reading the same book who is. Novels affect people a variety of ways, and that is ultimately one of the greatest benefits of book groups. What I get out of book is often totally different from what my group members get out of it. This sharing of ideas, thoughts, and opinions should not be pigeon-holed into discussing just a certain type of book. To eliminate a book title based solely on its happy ending is cheating readers out of solid stories that just may challenge them.
But that's my opinion.
Readers, email The Romance Reader with your opinion. Have an idea for a Forum of your own? Let us know.
September 7, 2000