Time to Ponder Books: the purpose of garbage novels

Welcome back! Last week, I wrote my first “Time to Ponder Books” discussion post, asking whether readers should learn something from adult books. Many of you responded saying that you always learn something from a book, including information about a time period or place, how to be more empathetic. I was thinking more about novels for adults that seem to have a Moral Of The Story (*said in a deep voice with an echo, so you know it’s important*). You know, that Very Important Lesson we must all take away. Christmas Jars by Jason F. Wright is one novella that comes to mind. Although it almost has four solid stars on Goodreads, I argued that Wright pimps a dumpster fire of a story, one filled with lessons like “Budget Better” if you and your infant are freezing in a house without heat because you live on the brink of poverty.

In fact, a lot of stories with a Very Important Lesson come across as garbage to me, because it takes a certain type of person to think their way of living is superior enough to tout it to others. But you guys brought up a different kind of “garbage” novel. . . The escapism novel. So let’s chat.

The escapist novel may be one you’re attached to because you read it at just the right time in high school. Maybe you can’t put down those PG-13 vampire novels, including the one with the half-human, half-elf. Or a rom-com with a woman sucked into the virtual reality headset in a computer game about pirates, and oh, my, does someone have a shiver in his timber. Some people even consider an imaginative famous novel one step away from telenovela trash. If you’re like me, you might fall into a fantasy hole for a while and not come up for air until the dragon is happy and the pig has farted his last fart.

Do you ever swim hard to the surface just to ask yourself: what am I doing?? Sure, we can claim we’re escaping, but some of the garbage I’ve read and loved was so bad that I felt ashamed as I read. Maybe you’ve moved past that. I’m so glad! Maybe you’re feeling kind of iffy about it. You liked the book, but it’s so “garbage” that you have nothing to say about it. But can that “garbage” teach you something? In his amazing memoir/how-to On Writing, Stephen King points out that we must honor the books that made us into the people we are, and those books are the ones we couldn’t get enough of as young people. If that’s the case, I need to do a lot more kowtowing to the Sweet Valley Twins.

But I get what he’s saying. When we get older, we assume we’re more sophisticated than genre fiction, better than the lukewarm prose of those Louise L’Amour novels on the spinning rack at the truck stop gas station. We become traitors to the garbage that we loved and loved us back (some writers, like Francine Pascal, needed ghostwriters to keep up with our greed).

But I have to ask myself: if I’m going to keep using my limited time to read “garbage,” should I learn something from it? NOT a Very Important Lesson, but something about culture, history, place, or empathy? As far as I know, the Sweet Valley Twins taught me that everyone, no matter what they did, no matter what they’ve done before, no matter how mad the situation makes me, can be forgiven. And I can’t think of a single literary novel that taught me that lesson half as well. Whoa.

What “garbage” do you like to read, and does it teach you anything?

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61 comments

  1. 100% agree with this – I’m pretty sure all my most significant literary influences are things I watched or read between the ages of about six and twelve (which sadly, rules out Sweet Valley for me – that was more of a teenage obsession). Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Animorphs, Fighting Fantasy, various Point Horrors, Robin Jarvis’s books (niche), Redwall…

  2. I read far too many trashy novels – ‘straight’ science fiction for years and years. I went through a stage of Mills and Boon, then Regency Romances, Sookie Stachouse I loved, a detective called Dallas, I forget her other name. Now it’s lots of crime fiction, some of it even literary. Did I learn anything? I could say no, but what I needed, what I got, was how people interact, which I was not very good at.

    • Were you a truck driver at the time? I can see how driving all day might make it harder to interact with people. I love that you read straight sci-fi. I’m guess at your age, but that guess leads me to believe you were around when some of the good sci-fi was being published–the “new wave” of sci-fi, including Delany, Asimov, and le Guin.

        • I’m sure I stand 100% alone on this one, but I find myself most enjoying science fiction when it’s about the science and not social issues. I know a lot of sci-fi now wants to say something about race or gender, but I just want things that go “pew pew!” and “beep boop” if I’m picking up sci-fi. I don’t care what race the characters are in those hardcore sci-fi novels, so long as the book doesn’t make white people the heroes and the aliens are clearly other races (the Barsoom series actually has yellow and red aliens. *sigh*).

  3. I’ve certainly read my share of ‘garbage’ books. Here’s my thinking, especially on the topic of what young people choose to read. To me, when young people read, even if it’s Sweet Valley High or its equivalent, that’s a good thing. Even if they don’t choose what most of us consider ‘better’ fiction, they are reading. They are getting ideas and seeing how people express them in books. To me, that’s a good thing.

  4. I did a bit of a post about this recently, pondering the value of ‘bad’ books. In the end, people are reading, and the more books are bought, the more books can be published!

    I love escapist novels, but I’m so picky with what I like. I try to read romances, but I struggle to find any that live up to the ones I cut my teeth on – Georgette Heyer! And I like YA genre fiction, but I then struggle with characters that are younger than me, or perhaps more dramatic than I would like. But the only way to find a new favourite is to keep reading haha!

    As a kid? I had a shelf full of Sabrina and Buffy novelisations, and then the Jedi Apprentice series, as well as being crammed full of Enid Blyton. One of the things which comes up a lot in children’s literacy campaigning is that becoming a reader isn’t about reading the ‘right’ things, it’s about fostering a love of reading, promoting it as an activity to be enjoyed. You can’t enjoy it if you don’t like the subject matter, so at the developmental stage then all reading is good reading!

    • I was trying to steer this conversation away from reading the right vs wrong things and more what we learned from the “garbage” we’ve read. I’d love to hear more about what, if anything, you learned from reading Buffy! I never got into the show but was obsessed with the movie. Mmmmm, Luke Perry.

  5. I’m currently listening to yet another Agatha Raisin audiobook – they really are nonsense, but I like them a lot anyway. When I was in my preteens, I read the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books as if they were going out of fashion. Some of those books are great, but most of them are terrible (they are obviously written by a syndicate, and the ghost writers are of extremely varying quality) – I think it was probably good for me to see girls having adventures, being clever, catching the baddies, and being at the centre of their own stories without too much help from men, which I wasn’t getting a lot at home.

    • I forgot to even mention Nancy Drew! I think she was just a BIT dated for me, because I could never figure out why a teen girl was mystery solving in the first place. She wasn’t in school because she had just graduated, but she was so young. I just Googled Drew and learned her first appearance was in 1930!

      • I still read and enjoy Nancy Drew, honestly, even though I know they are bad books. I think that, because I had a slightly old-fashioned childhood for the 90s/early 00s, they probably didn’t seem dated to me. I liked the earlier books best – maybe they were the closest thing to preteen Agatha Christie books, and I liked those. I also liked the ones where she hooked up with Frank Hardy (my disdain for romance didn’t really come about until I was a bit older).

  6. I have read and continue to read a lot of “garbage” books. I loved the Sweet Valley High books when I was younger, but also Nancy Drew, the Famous Five and Point Horror. At the moment I’m obsessing over Charley Davidson and Tessa Dare’s historic romances. I’m sure I probably do learn a little something from each of them (looking at the list most have strong, fairly independent women) but to be honest I mostly read those types of books to switch my brain off, or to recover from a deeper more thought provoking or emotional read. I often think of them as a reading palate cleanser.

    I don’t think anyone should ever be ashamed of what they read and what kind of books they enjoy. I mean I don’t really go around recommending the latest Mills and Boon to my co workers but if anyone asks what I’m reading I have no problem admitting to a trashy novel. They’re fun.

    • I’ve read that people will cover a book they’re reading while in public because they’re so ashamed of what “trash” it is. Now that I’m going through the comments on this post, I’m seeing a theme: young women reading about young women doing cool things! Why don’t we see more of this in literary fiction? So many “smart” books still don’t pass the Bechdel Test.

      • I have to confess I love my kindle for that very reason. Means I can read whatever the heck I like without judgement (although I have had strangers on the train ask me what I’m reading because I find it hard to hide my reactions).

        I suspect the majority of those “smart” books are written by men or geared towards them (or at least aiming for an audience that includes a lot of them).

        • You bring up an important point. Books by men are advertised as “literature” whereas books by women with the same type of content or theme are sold as domestic lit, women’s lit, chick-lit….something genre to demean what’s written by women.

          I also tend to exclaim aloud when I’m reading! LoL.

          • Don’t start me on the whole “women’s fiction” thing, I could go off on a really big rant about that. It’s not a genre and describing a book as that makes me (a woman and I’m assuming the target audience) want to refuse to read it on principle.

            Weirdly I don’t mind chick lit as a genre. It probably should bother me but I think it’s gotten so ingrained it washes over me.

  7. I also read a great deal of “garbage” series during my preteens. I grew up as the youngest in my family, so I read all the series my older siblings handed me down — The Hardy Boys, The Babysitters Club, Sweet Valley High, The Clique. Those books helped me stick with reading when I probably otherwise would’ve stopped, and as you pointed out, they often came with a heavy-handed but positive moral. I think those books especially have value for kids who are put off by school reading lists, which often can kill an interest in reading altogether.

    When it comes to adult fiction, I think there’s even less of a need for fun/light novels to “teach” anything to readers, who hopefully are already mature. Thought-provoking post, as always!

    • Thanks, Michael. Oh, The Babysitter’s Club! I forgot about them. There were 7 girls, each unique, and all the best of friends. Those books introduced me to some diversity I certainly wasn’t getting elsewhere. Claudia is Japanese, Jesse is African American, there was a deaf boy, kids with learning disabilities, all sorts of people.

  8. Those novels play up to the emotional context of life, and we need that. We feel the ups and downs because they’re so clear, so easily integrated into what we know of life. It’s a journey where we ‘sit back and go along for the ride’ rather than sink into a world of deep and meaningful where every sentence needs time to unravel.
    There are times in our lives for all these things, and I’m going to enjoy each and every one. I’ll find one that makes me cry when I need to feel that, one that makes me joyous … etc. We need what we need when we need it, and stories are the safest places to experience whatever it is …

    • I really like your idea about books being a safe place to experience emotions. Now I’m wondering if that’s why so many people love Fifty Shades of Gray. Stark sexual situations seem improper, immoral, or even embarrassing in real life, especially if you’re old, fat, religious, tame, etc. I’m also wondering if my strong designer to pick up a Christmasy cheese-ball of a novel is tied to some underlying desire to feel festive and generous when in reality I eat a lot of food and nap too much!

          • Unfortunately, even in the garbage books, it has to have a story to capture the reader. There’s no point going into a story that doesn’t get the synapses fired up in some way. I give a book about ten pages to hook me, and if it doesn’t do it by then, there are plenty more. Often, it only takes a couple of paragraphs for me to know whether I’ll finish it.
            Sad, but a lot of newer books are missing the basics of what a story needs to be to attract a reader …

            • You know, my fellow blogger Fiction Fan would agree with you. She constantly notes how many contemporary books are at least 100 pages too fat, and many rely on gratuitous torture of animals or children to try and hook the reader.

  9. I was a Sweet Valley girl too – it all seemed so exotic to a teenage girl in Northern Ireland! I still read a lot of trashy crime – sometimes, like with TV and movies, I just want a bit of mindless fun! Nothing wrong with that.

    • What I didn’t realize when I was reading the SVT is that they ARE exotic compared to real life in the States, too. Married parents with important, respectable jobs. A loving brother who never teases too hard. A convertible to drive in the California sun, a place that used to be perpetual summer but is now on fire. Families with old and new money. None of that stuff really touches most of us.

  10. I also loved Sweet Valley. And babysitter’s club. And Goosebumps. And Fear Street. And when I think back to those books, I can’t remember ever learning a lesson persay, other than “Reading is fun!!!”

    • I’ve been thinking about it all day. And partially because I’m always trying to figure out “what is the point of art?” when I work in a theater, I came to the conclusion that we have to manufacture the big feelings that make life worth living. We can only have the most amazing day once in a while, so feeling a character’s feelings through a play or even a cheesy novel is what keeps us living with joy.

  11. I read lots of “good” books and lots of garbage, and I think of both as escapism. Do I learn anything from garbage? I don’t think so. I look on it like food – you have to have protein and vegetables to keep healthy, but you have to have ice cream and pie to keep happy.

  12. I read and re-read L.M. Montgomery’s books and I think they influenced me quite a bit, especially the Emily series. My parents never censored our reading growing up but they definitely let their disdain be known for the trashier stuff or more teenager-y reads. So I don’t read a lot of junk food style fiction and if I do I kind of feel like it’s a dirty secret!

    • I wonder if your parents thought they were helping. Earlier this year, a colleague of mine was lamenting that his daughters like to read Captain Underpants instead of the classics. I get lost in arguments like this. When we say classic, we really are saying something about “old” books. But old books have a hard time speaking to children today. The characters don’t live in the same world as kids today, especially now that personal technology is ubiquitous. I even struggled with Nancy Drew pre-cell phones because her personality was antiquated (thought I didn’t know that’s what it was; I just thought I was a bad reader).

      • I’m sure they thought they were. They were pretty strict about our media consumption in general so I think it came from both a moral belief but also a desire to see me read “quality” books. (As you say, classics = old books). I still see that with parents who don’t think their kids should be reading graphic novels when really, if the kid’s reading, let them be!

  13. I definitely went through a pretty hardcore “chick lit” phase. I know people totally judged me for reading it but I always read it openly and proudly. Those books were perfect for me at a certain point of my life! I think if the “garbage” gets people reading, that’s enough!

    • What kind of chick lit? And what did people say to you! That’s not kind of them. I never was told what to read during my hardcore garbage book days, but maybe that I read a bit too much, lol.

  14. My “garbage” or “guilty pleasure” books are the cozy mysteries that I read. They are so silly and ridiculous, but I do really enjoy them and the tropes that go along with the genre. But, I can’t read too many of them before I get burned out on them and have to shift gears to something totally different.
    Do they really teach me anything? Maybe. I look at them like a puzzle (puzzles are good for the brain!) and try to see if I can figure out whodunit before the main character does. Many times I do not, but some times I can figure it out ahead of time. And I suppose they have taught me how NOT to behave should I find a body, or try to clear the name of someone I care about.

    • Oh, man! That’s what I was going to say! A cozy mystery (not that I’ve read many) is like the ultimate guide on how NOT to interact with the police! I put the cover of Terror in Taffeta up on my “garbage books” list because the protagonist was so….flimsy! Not only was her nose in everything, but it was in everything because she was a wedding planner whose clients wanted her to investigate a murder. She just buckled like a belt and started sleuthing around.

  15. Wow! I love not only your post but all the comments here. This is an extraordinary trip down memory lane. GREAT post, Melanie!

    The “garbage” books I read as a child, as you know, are the Star Wars (now Star Wars Legends) novels. I never read any film novelizations, but I did read many books set in this universe. I still own all of these books to date, and I re-read them when I’m feeling nostalgic. XD I also own and have read the first 115 Boxcar Children novels. I kid you not.

    But I feel like “garbage” isn’t the right word for these. And you allude to that by always including quotes around “garbage”. To me, a garbage novel is something which not only has a Very Important Lesson, but this lesson is more important than the text itself. If I’m going to read a VIL I need quality literature surrounding it. Escapism novels are just that– escapist. On some level, all the novels I read are escapist. I don’t like to read things which upset me in my free time. Now, this doesn’t include book club books. Because book clubs are about discussing issues and themes with people! But when I’m alone? I don’t want to be scared, frightened, or made nauseous. Nope. Instead, I want something fun.

    Escapism for me changes often. Right now, I’m into contemporary YA books. They don’t have to be romances (though they often are). They almost always include silly 16-year-olds making silly decisions. But I love getting lost in the memories of my life as they are reflected in these books. Yes, I did that. I was that person. I made some of those bad decisions. It’s gratifying to hear the same cycles are still occurring today.

    Who knows what escapism will look like next for me?!

    • I want to say that Mercedes Lackey will be your next escapist novels, but they’re also quality, so I don’t consider them “garbage.” And there are many complex emotions in them, too, which is more than the simplistic black and white scenarios found in most “garbage.” You know what’s funny is that while I was reading Sweet Valley Twins, Nick was reading all those required books that you’re supposed to have read by the time you finish high school. Not because they were assigned in his middle-of-no-where rinky dink high school, but because he felt he “ought to.” Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Animal Farm, Stranger in a Strange Land, etc. I look back at my time in high school and junior high and realized I super didn’t learn much. Nick is so much smarter than me. I can tell you loads about how to steal a boyfriend, how to steal car keys, how to peck your way to the top of a social group, how to sneak out of your house, how to say you’re sorry in a very dramatic way, and what happens when you paint your bedroom walls dark purple. Thanks, Twins!

      • I try to read quality escapist novels, so I wouldn’t say I often read garbage. 😉 That said, many things could become garbage depending on your perspective…

        Pft, both you AND Nick are super smart. I don’t learn well through reading. I need to interact with the content, which is one of the reasons I love buddy reads, book clubs, and the like. I can read something like Animal Farm and miss absoutely everything if I don’t have another person to interact with.

        That said, I bet you learned a lot about how to identify toxic relationships, navigate the crazy of high school, and determined a lot about how you want to grow into the person you are today. Books like Sweet Valley Twins taught you a lot about social interaction I bet Nick didn’t get from his books. Also — I know a lot about piloting a starfighter then. 😉

  16. I used to read a lot more classic novels mostly because I thought I was supposed to. There is definitely pressure to be “well read” when you’re one of the smart kids. Of course, “well read” meant reading certain kinds of books and no matter how many other books you might have read, if they didn’t belong to the literary canon of classical books, they didn’t count. I almost never pick up classic novels because when I did, they mostly felt like a chore and the ones I pick up now just feel more satisfying in the end. For me personally, reading is a hobby and if I’m not enjoying it, regardless of what kind of books I’m picking up (“garbage” or not), what’s really the point? I also feel like the novels you enjoy stick with you more than ones you are supposed to read.

    • There are so many novels from my English degrees that I don’t remember at all, and these are supposed to be the ones we studied and analyzed and wrote papers about, so you’re on to something about enjoying novels and remembering them going hand in hand. I’ve also found the biggest problem with the canon, one that is acknowledged but ignored, is the massive lack of diversity. New canons are created in different areas; for instance, there is an African American canon. But those aren’t the books that schools teach first. I paid attention in college and realized that the only students who had read Invisible Man or Native Son or something by Toni Morrison went to predominantly African American high schools. White children are reading Romeo and Juliet, The Scarlet Letter, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, etc.

  17. Such a wonderful post Melanie.

    I’ve been thinking about it and it really depends on what you define as garbage. I read a lot of books that won’t be “classics” and / or “don’t have a very important lesson to teach me”. Some of them are read for pure fun. For example Sarah J. Maas’ books are overly dramatic, annoy the heck out of me when I think about them afterwards but are so addictive and perhaps even guiltily enjoyable… does that count? I also read a lot of fluffy romance books whenever I feel sad or a bit anxious as they make me feel good. I know there’s not much going on and the ending is always utterly predictable but still, I do enjoy reading them when needed.

    I am a mood reader and pick up books depending on how I feel and how I am hoping the books will make me feel – when I’m content and fully switched on, I’m happy to think and analyse and be educated and all of that. When I feel a bit nostalgic or sad, I usually want something light and fun so I can espace that particular emotion. 🤔😀

    • There is another comment on this thread about how books allow us to safely experience an emotion that we need to experience, and I REALLY like that comment. I don’t think it’s far off the truth. Think about it: why would some many people want to read Fifty Shades of Gray? They want to feel what the characters feels but experience it safely in the book where no one really gets hurt forever.

      • I’ll read through the comments – what a great insight, I absolutely agree. That’s what I love about these posts, they always make me think and I carry on learning.
        Wonderful series Melanie! ❤️

  18. Oooo very interesting! I do not think you have to learn something in a “guilty pleasure” book… I’m sure there are many terrible books that you can learn lessons both big and small, but it isn’t a requirement for me. I’ll throw out the Twilight trilogy. I devoured those books back in 2009 and would consider them pretty terrible books. I wouldn’t say there is anything to really be learned in those books… unless you count learning what a toxic relationship is…

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