From the blog

Reading Cynicism Out of Genre

I have a confession: I like reading genre fiction. I also have a confession about the confession: I feel ashamed about it. And I shouldn’t.

Mostly-true story

I was on the phone with a college friend–the type who makes his own cheese and wants me to read more Bertrand Russell. He asked what books I was reading, and I responded with equal parts hemming and hawing.

At the time, I was reading A Morbid Taste for Bones, a detective story set in Medieval Wales. To make things more shameful, I was enjoying it. The characters were pleasant, the puzzle was engaging, and the prose was admirable.

But of course, my friend couldn’t know this:

“I’m working through a period novel right now. Lots of insight into the Scholastic mind, meditations on guilt, and grasping with ordinary men’s capacity for brutality.”

At this point I’m afraid he’ll ask for the book’s title, so I pivot:

“I also bought Infinite Jest. I’ve just nibbled on it so far, but I’m loving what I’m seeing.” I then compared David Foster Wallace’s writing style to literary kudzu, because I read that in an article once.

This was all true enough. I had bought Infinite Jest because it was ninety-nine cents at the Kindle store, and I had enjoyed reading through the first four pages. But I knew perfectly well that I was never going to finish that thousand-paged hydra.

I just needed to balance my detective story with something literary…


This habit is epidemic among humanities majors. We hide genre-reading the way nutritionists hide twinkie-eating. It’s especially rampant among the cynics. Genre novels are low-end, mass produced entertainment. The sort we turn our noses at in airport bookstores. Michael Crichton, James Patterson–these were the Walmarts of fiction.

Far below our cultivated taste.

Reading, then, isn’t about discovering the instructive and delightful; it’s a way to advertise my sophistication. And when I get caught reading genre, I sound like someone whose mom just caught them smoking. I know it’s a bad habit, but it’s such a nice way to unwind after a long day.

Most people, though, have no problem with genre. If you’re an accountant, or an engineer, or a baker, you don’t mind polishing off another Ludlum on the plane. To the less pretentiously-inclined, simply enjoying a book is justification for reading it..

For us genre hiders, it’s more complicated. We presuppose lots of things in our reading philosophies:

  1. There is a clear demarcation between the hallowed literary novels, and the lowly genre novels.
  2. While reading literary novels is a sign of sophistication, intelligence, and insight, reading genre novels is a sign of lazy consumerism.
  3. Reading a book primarily for enjoyment is shameful.
  4. If a book is largely meant to be enjoyed, it cannot be literary. Literary books are about making profound points and should be serious.
  5. Our reading habits reveal something important about us as people. Something that can be easily judged by those more sophisticated than us.

As luck would have it, I plan on exploring each of these assumptions….

Are there any other genre-hiders out there? If so, which books do you hide?


Photo credit: Moyan Brenn


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