Friday, September 28, 2012

TRASHY NOVELS, REALLY? by Rebecca Forster

 
Okay, here’s the thing. I am a really easy-going person, but recently I got really ticked. I was speaking at a conference. During lunch one day, a very successful author turned to me and said:

"I wrote a trashy novel - like yours".

Well, gosh. I write legal thrillers. I thought they were pretty good. I research. My plots and subplots are intricate and well thought out. I work hard to make my characterization deep and true. Every once in a while I use multi-syllable words.  But this gentleman’s comment got me thinking: why does anyone use the word trashy to describe a book?

I began my search for enlightenment by seeking a definition for the word, trash. Here is what I found:

Trash is:

1.Anything worthless, useless, or discarded; rubbish.

2. Foolish or pointless ideas, talk, or writing; nonsense.

3. A worthless or disreputable person.

4. Such persons collectively.

5. Literary or artistic material of poor or inferior quality.

I get definition number two. Writing without thought or a concern for craft usually does not produce a good book. But number five stunned me. Who, I wondered, could possibly define literary inferiority (or for that matter, superiority)? To me appreciation of the written word is a matter of taste.

I love reading thrillers, but nod off over most ‘literary’ works. I prefer country music to a symphony. On the other hand, classic clothing is my preference to trendy fashion. I suppose the arbiters of taste would give me two check marks in the trashy column and one in the tasteful column.

But we’re talking about writing. II have most often heard the adjective ‘trashy’ used in reference to romance novels. I defend my colleagues when I hear that criticism. I started my career as a romance writer and am in awe of authors who can consistently write within the parameters of the genre. But my defense goes beyond simple admiration to critical thinking.  Why is steamy contemporary romance of any less valued than classic erotica like The Story of O? Why is Fifty Shades of Grey being celebrated as groundbreaking literature? Why is a category historical romance of less value than Gone With the Wind? Is my work less intriguing or professional than John Grisham or Scott Turow?  

Does length determine a level of trashiness? Is it subject matter or style that relegates a book to the garbage heap? And, if these are the criteria, why is commercial fiction so popular? Is it not commercial fiction – romance, fantasy, mystery, thrillers – that keep the publishing industry alive?

I was never really angry about the trashy comment. I think I was more annoyed. The good thing to come out of the other author’s comment was that it led to a wonderful discussion among the other authors and agents at the table. I will never forget the agent who sat next to me.  She had remained quiet until the end and then told us about an author who recently pitched her using the ‘trashy’ comment as a selling point.

“Why,” the agent asked, “would I want to represent a book whose author believed it had no value?”

The answer is, she wouldn’t. I think that sort of says it all.

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