For a very long period of my life, I read just about everything that I could get my hands on. Even the idea of categorizing some kinds of books that I might rather not read came to me at the age of sixteen, when I moved from the vicinity of carefully chosen home and school libraries into the college hostel. With good intentions of focusing all my time on communication theories and microelectronics, I had refrained from taking any reading material other than my textbooks, and within a few short weeks had started to make surreptitious visits to the arts college library adjoining ours. There I read vast quantities of the classics and there I came across Tender Muse, a poetry collection by Russian poetesses, which – but that is another story.
We were forbidden from borrowing the arts library books, and so on the long weekends in that little town which was surrounded by hills and bordered by misty pathways of coniferous trees, my eyes would seek and find random novels lying about the hostel, which I would seek to borrow from their owners who would always, generously share them. It was there the I was exposed for the first time to ‘commercial’ or ‘popular’ fiction. I read through novels and stories of Jeffrey Archer and wondered why so many swooned over the forgettable page-turners. Shocked by some of the graphic scenes, I threw up my dinner while reading Bloodline. A friend with a penchant for the classics lent me Gone with the Wind, which I enjoyed. But I was not able to get through more than the first five pages of a Mills & Boon novel, coloured paperbacks of which were scattered around the hostel like fallen spring flowers in the wind. The classmate who lent me the book was a connoisseur of the said romances. According to her, reading them cleared her mind and relaxed her. As I was rather prudish, she chose a novel for me from her large collection, a book which according to her was ‘very mild’, ‘no strong scenes’. But the first five pages of that novel were not only devoid of strong scenes, they did not appear to have scenes at all – just three stick figure stereotypes standing on the page, speaking atrocious dialogue. Whatever else it might have been, it was not literature. I returned the book and learned to ignore pulp romances as well as thrillers of most kinds, with the exception of standard science fiction and literary mysteries. My days of reading ‘everything I got my hands on’ were over.
Sometime later, I picked up a book from the British Library intrigued by the premise of a leprechaun switching the minds and bodies of a married couple. I regretted it from the first few paragraphs, on the very first page. The cardboard characters were more unimaginative that those found in a women’s magazine story, the descriptions were tedious, the scenes barely hanging together, the dialogue flat and uninspired. That was the British Library in a boring little coastal town where I was working at the time, and its collections were small but highly selected. It was surprising to find a book of such poor quality on its shelves. I skimmed through the pages and read the author’s note at the end on ‘why he chose to write this drivel’, which was the only statement that rang true in that book. It was the beginning of the realisation that I read fiction to find the truth within it.
Since then, I learnt to fastidiously avoid pulp of any kind, averting my eyes from the rather vulgar looking displays in bookstores and skipping whole sections in libraries, the exception being one ladlit paperback by the chap who unleashed a cottage industry of poorly written English novels in India. An ex-colleague in my previous office urged me to take a look, according to him it was ‘crap, but time-pass crap’. The book reminded me strongly of the first and only Mills & Boon that I had tried to read – with poorly conceived characters, badly written dialogue and a non-existent plot, there was nothing commendable in it but nothing that gave offense either, until I got to the last page and found that the climax bore more than a strong resemblance to that of Life of Pi. The plagiarism has been hinted upon in many other blogs, but it will most likely continue to go unnoticed as it has over these years as despite the millions of copies sold, no one takes these lowbrow novels seriously. For these are but the twenty-first-century versions of dime novels and penny dreadfuls – cheap reading material that is mass produced, consumed like fast food and forgotten soon afterwards, poorly written pulp fiction which is the polar opposite of good literature.
But is every book that calls itself literary fiction really worth reading? Though not exactly in the same league as the pulp paperbacks referenced above, I recently read a book that aspired to, and was categorised as literary fiction for a class on dramatization taught by the author. Despite the striking opening with the main character who wins a reality show and is thereafter lost in a jungle, and a promising premise of nostalgia for old England which is often interesting to readers of English literature across the world, the characters and narrative turned out to be flat and uninspiring. It comes as no surprise that Amazon mentions the book being out of print. This is one of the very few books that I plan to give away as it was really not worth the time spent on it.
Words, Wide Night
Somewhere on the other side of this wide night
and the distance between us, I am thinking of you.
The room is turning slowly away from the moon.
This is pleasurable. Or shall I cross that out and say
it is sad? In one of the tenses I singing
an impossible song of desire that you cannot hear.
La lala la. See? I close my eyes and imagine the
dark hills I would have to cross
to reach you. For I am in love with you
and this is what it is like or what it is like in words.
By Carol Ann Duffy
Today I remembered an afternoon from years ago on which a friend and I spent a few hours in the library of the arts college adjoining our engineering college. We had a good time giggling over the cookbooks one of which described several ways of preparing the humble Mysorepak, and afterwards we read and wept gently as only silly, sentimental nineteen year olds can do over a book of poems titled The Tender Muse, a collection of verse by Russian poetesses.
It was over ten years ago and strangely, I am unable to recollect the friend’s face, or her name. But I clearly remember the lines of verse that we read together, and how they evoked the same feeling that I had when I read this poem by Carol Ann Duffy today.