On Sadness Porn And My Disdain For Literature

I have never really like literature. I know. I know what you’re thinking. Um literature spans huge amounts of space and time that’s not even possible define ur terms plz. Fine. I mean literary fiction, I mean “the classics.” Classics are classics for a reason, you sayAre they though?

Snooty-Professor-Credit-iStockphoto-137206350-630x420
Don’t let snobby professor dude catch you with dat mass market paperback.

I mean, they are in the sense that the white, straight, cisgender, Christian, male academic elites have defined the canon as we know it [I’m sorry I had to fall back on that old chestnut of a rhetoric, but you have to admit that it was relevant]. The reason is because we value what we perceive as a break from all the bullshit of the world. We value pretension or at least perceived complexity. We want to read what everyone else is reading, because if so many smart people are reading it must be important, right?

There is a quote by an author whose books I’ve never read that goes

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”

(That author is named Haruki Murakami, in case you’re curious). I love this quote because it has often been true for me. I have always held a staunch identity as a reader, both by myself and others. I used to read in every spare moment I got (and still do), scanning the backs of cereal boxes or street signs when I could find nothing else to satisfy my cravings. Some of my fondest memories are sitting with my family on Shabbos afternoons and reading in silence together. In short, I really fucking like words and stories.

lil girl reading
Representative footage of me reading the heck out of something or other. Source: http://househatke.tumblr.com/post/82189805816/three-sketches-drawn-in-the-same-sitting-of-the

However, I’ve never been a “fangirl,” able to name every character, reading along with a community and swapping theories. It’s not that I never read some of these books (the Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games trifecta included) but that I have never been obsessed with them. I have never idolized a work or author, believing it beyond fault. I mention this because I have equally never been an unwavering devotee to the words of Shakespeare or Joyce or Salinger either.

I know, I know, people who love literature don’t believe that texts or authors are beyond fault, if anything they latch onto those faults as a source of meaning. Trust me, I’ve been there and I’ve taken that AP Lit class. And, admittedly, there are some classics I like-FrankensteinHamlet, Pride and Prejudice. I’m not opposed to being proven wrong about a given text, but the canon as a whole? Both for popular literary fiction and more academic tomes? Yeah, no.

13 reasons
Some problematic mental health bullshittery courtesy of 13 reasons why. Source: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1837492/mediaviewer/rm184761856

I don’t judge or condemn people who do like these books, but I would like to elaborate on why they so repel me. As a rule, I do not read stories about abuse, genocide, rape, war, self-harm, suicide, or even just garden variety ruminations on cruelty or the futility of life. Strangely, these topics seem to show up in an overwhelming and disproportionate amount of “great literature.”  There are some exceptions to the rule, of course, but as the Netflix adaptation of 13 Reasons Why shows us, these topics are often poorly handled. In fact, I have historically called these works sadness porn. I simply cannot stomach casual mentions of horrific traumas used to spice up story lines or cheap, masturbatory fixations on pain.

Wait, you say. These issues are important, how will people learn if we don’t tell these stories? This is the way the world really is, how dare you hide from other people’s pain? Well, I have two reactions to that. Firstly and simply, I do not oppose the discussion of difficult issues. I just reject the notion that excruciating detail of traumatic events should be used as a plot device. Indeed, many experts have found that these narratives only hurt vulnerable people. I also firmly oppose the idea that novels have to be devastating and hopeless and soul-crushing to be moving, meaningful, or even realistic.

The second reason, though, the real reason I don’t read or enjoy these texts, is something completely different. The second reason is about emotion. I don’t read about these issues as an act of self-care. While I’ve never experienced true trauma (and actually many previously traumatized people intentionally turn to these stories as safe ways to understand and relive their experiences) I do know from deep emotional distress. Some people read these novels to “feel something,” but I have always feel too much.

You might close the book and move on, changed but functional, but its images give me nightmares, make me shake and turn my stomach, long after I’ve stopped reading. I am already a preternaturally anxious person whose thought patterns lean towards deep empathy, a miserable sense of responsibility for others, and a vicious cycle of intrusive negative thoughts. In short, I do not need others to add to the scripts of my terror or personal culpability. If I am going to psychologically torture myself in the name of understanding or helping the world, I’m at least going to do it through nonfiction.

Most importantly though, liking or disliking literature, in all its depressive glory, depends on why you read. Some people want to linger on every word, challenge their own feelings with an unreliable narrative, use each letter as an opportunity to figure out the limits of human language and existence. I am not these people. While I am not fully opposed to this style, I prefer poetic prose when used sparingly. I like when flowery turns of phrase and shocking revelations happen as a crescendo within the larger story, rather than an incessant bashing of the cymbals for the entire symphony.

For me, the best prose writing is writing you don’t even notice. Writing where the words are so immersive it is as if you are thinking them yourself, as if the events are unfolding before you. I do like abstract and artistic plays on language- I usually turn to poetry for that (though I still have the same rules about disturbing content). If I want to ponder something in a deep and complex way, I more often than not turn to nonfiction.

It is not that the books I read and love do not transform me. It is rather that when I read on my own time it is not to analyze opaque symbolism, but, rather, to heal. Reading as therapy, then, is not about exacerbating angst. It is about imagining better realities (hence my love of romance and science fiction novels) and embarking on an unpretentious search for truth (hence my extensive collection of comics and young adult works). And yes, reading, for me, is about escape from my own existence, if only temporarily. Perhaps, next time, you’ll join me.

Says: "The Ripped Bodice: Purveyors of Fine Smut" with a pile of books with various romance author's names written on the spine
A lovely image from one of the only all romance book stores in the world. No matter what you read, though, you can always sit with me <3. Here’s a link to the Ripped Bodice website which you should definitely check out! http://www.therippedbodicela.com/

P.S. I have a few book reviews in the works so hopefully soon you can see what kind of books I do like!

 

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