Wake up, Polly Parrot.


Defending The Hamburger
by Brian Plante

"When are you gonna stop reading that trash?"

Have you heard something like that before? Unless you do all your reading in the privacy of your own home, you probably have. If you are like me and take along a book or magazine to read when you go out, you usually have to deal with the stares and comments from family, friends, co-workers and even complete strangers.

Part of the blame goes to those lurid covers. Books with jacket paintings of dragons, unicorns and scantily clad maidens. Maybe it's starships, bug-eyed aliens, and large-breasted women in skin-tight space suits. Perhaps your favorite books have paintings of slasher victims or scary monsters dripping blood from menacing fangs. Cover artwork has gotten more respectable in recent years than in decades past, but I still read lots of old classic genre books from the public library and second-hand bookstores, and their covers harken back to a time when these icons of genre art were still in vogue. Even with the recent trend for more understated artwork, an occasional paperback or magazine cover still makes me cringe in embarrassment.

So, how do you handle those rude comments from other people? Just ask them what kind of books they read for fun. If they are non- readers, case closed. They are speaking from ignorance and there is probably little you can do to convince them of the merits of the books you read. Just tell them the books are fun and they should try reading a few before forming opinions.

Suppose the person making disparaging remarks about your genre books is a reader of mainstream bestsellers. Point out that the genre tags (SF, horror, fantasy, mystery, romance, suspense) are marketing strategies, not value judgements. Many mainstream bestsellers can easily fit into one of the genres, depending on how the publisher wants to push it. Consider the examples of Michael Crichton and Kurt Vonnegut, who are clearly writers of SF, although they are not marketed as such.

Maybe the people looking down their noses at you are fond of more "learned" types of literature. Perhaps they've read a few genre books in the past and decided that they were not worthy of further attention. It could be that they picked the wrong books, or maybe the genre is truly not to their liking. They are entitled to their opinions, just as you and I are, and I don't waste time trying to convince them they are wrong.

The best defense against this sort of thing is to avoid the problem altogether. Buy one of those slip-on plastic bookcovers they sell at places like Dalton's and Barnes & Noble. Mine is made to look like old leather, and it appears I'm reading an old classic when I put a paperback in it. If a nosy person asks what I'm reading and it's a book I'm not especially proud of divulging, I tell them I'm reading about "my Lord" and that usually shuts them up. If they're interested in religion, as is common here in the Bible Belt, and want to talk to me about their personal relationship with Jesus, I tell them "my Lord" is Anubis and he revealed Himself in a puddle of vomit to a wino in Tacoma, and we're having a meeting this Tuesday and would you like to come along and learn the mysteries of the One True Path? Yeah, that shuts 'em up real fast.

If I'm in the right mood, and dealing with someone who might actually listen, I might try singing the praises of SF and horror and win a convert. If I'm feeling particularly brazen, I might even reveal that I've written and sold such fiction, and that it's damn hard work. More likely though, I'll let whatever scorn they heap on me and my reading habits just roll right off and not fight back. Even though I may disagree, everyone is entitled to their opinion and I don't have to waste any time defending my guilty pleasures.

Lastly, I admit that a good deal of what I read for pleasure is indeed trash. Sturgeon's law says that 90 percent of SF is crap, but that 90 percent of everything is crap. Sturgeon was a generous man. Sometimes I know before I start a book whether it's going to be part of the 90 percent or the 10. Sometimes not. I have no real defense for some of the books I read, except for the fact that once in a while a little trash fiction is fun. In a world of steak and hamburger, you don't have to eat steak every day. Sometimes a plain old hamburger is just fine.

Copyright © 1997 Brian Plante, first appeared in The New Jersey Graveline , January 1997.


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