In Defense of Reading (and Writing) for Fun

Melissa Caruso has just published her debut fantasy, The Tethered Mage, and we have a lot of good things to say about it. But if we have to describe it in a single word, that would could easily be “fun.” Today, Melissa joins us to push back at anyone who thinks reading fun books isn’t “serious” reading.

You know at least one of them: the kind of person who tries to draw a stark line between “Entertainment” and “Literature.” Teachers who don’t let graphic novels count toward kids’ weekly reading requirement. Professors who assign nothing but literary fiction in contemporary lit courses. That guy on the internet sneering at genre or YA books. People who dismiss romance novels as “beach reads.”

I have bad news for those folks: reading is entertainment. Books are fun. And seriously, that’s not a bad thing.

When I was a kid and told grownups I wanted to be a writer, they would smile indulgently and say, “Oh, so you want to write the next Great American Novel?” and I would look at them like they were nuts. No, I didn’t want to write the next Great American Novel. I wanted to write—and read—books with swordfights and dragons and adventure and magic. But I kept hearing, essentially, that if characters weren’t suffering family tragedies or spending long hours dwelling on the ennui of modern existence, it wasn’t really literature.

But as I learned more about the literary canon as an English major in college, I realized something. Shakespeare’s comedies (like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest) have endured as well as his tragedies. Dickens wrote entertainment for the masses. Nobody looks down on War of the Worlds or Frankenstein for being genre fiction.

The whole reason we’re still reading those books is that people enjoyed them. They were good stories, and fun to read (or watch, in the case of plays). They were (gasp!) entertainment.

Now, there is nothing wrong with books that seek to edify or enlighten as well as entertain, and some amazing stories are dark and tragic, or difficult, or rooted in mundane life. It’s wonderful to read, love, and teach these works. But it makes absolutely no sense to elevate Jane Eyre as a classic while dismissing romance as trash, or to laud Romeo and Juliet as one of the greatest stories ever told while sneering at YA characters for falling instantly in love and making bad choices due to an excess of teen feelings.

I shouldn’t have needed to pretend to my professors that I wanted to write literary fiction when I really wanted to write fantasy. Happy endings don’t make a story somehow lesser than tragic ones.

Stories are great if they sound notes of truth in our hearts. We need ones that make us laugh just as much as ones that make us cry. Sometimes we need books that help us understand the real world, and sometimes we need ones that help us escape from it.

If lots of people love a book, then something in that story has touched a string on the invisible harp of human experience (even if the characters are elves or aliens). To dismiss a book as too lowbrow, too commercial, too weird, or too juvenile is to close off your own mind from authors that may one day, because of those very characteristics, be the next Poe, Dumas, or Austen. To reject time-worn tropes that appeal to the masses is to turn your back on the deep lore woven through our shared experience: the ancient tales that have inspired and comforted people by firelight for thousands of years, from the days our ancestors first started telling stories…and thereby changed the world.

When my daughter got her first migraine at the age of eleven, she lay in her bed with the lights out, miserable and in pain, waiting for the medicine to make a difference. All my love had no power to make her feel better. So I sat down with her, got out a dim flashlight, and started softly reading her a book. The author’s words wove a spell in the pitch-black room, wrapping mystery and magic around us both. She forgot that she hurt, forgot that she felt sick, and lost herself in the pure wondrous bliss of the story.

That is the deep and awe-inspiring power books possess. A light and fluffy “beach read” can give you a moment of escape in a time of stress or grief. A happily-ever-after can kindle hope when everything around you seems to be heading toward ruin. Comics and picture books can touch on profound truth words alone can’t reach. And imaginary places can become more real and meaningful to us than anywhere in the mundane world—just ask everyone who has more vivid memories of Hogwarts than of many real life places they’ve been.

So don’t let anyone make you feel like you need to hide your genre novel cover on the train, or justify why you like to read “kid stuff,” or defend your preference for a happy ending. Don’t let them tell you the stories you like aren’t serious enough. They’re fools if they think so. Books are serious stuff. Even the silly ones.

They’re our best and strongest magic.

The Tethered Mage is available now.

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