Speaking at a Wheeler Centre event on 3 March novelist Michel Faber invoked the long-standing cultural distinction between books that are good for us and books that are unhealthy, lacking in intellectual nutrition. Faber was ‘bemoaning the shift from Victorian appreciation of the literary potboiler’, as Wheeler Centre director Michael Williams tweeted, towards an increasingly judgemental perspective on genre fiction. On one hand, literary fiction is healthful to consume but considered unenjoyable and dull. On the other, popular genres such as sci-fi, fantasy, horror and romance are works that are presumed to be immediately satisfying but nutritionally empty.
Faber compared literary fiction to muesli, prompting poet Alison Croggon to tweet her dissatisfaction at what she termed ‘the muesli theory of culture’. Tempting though it may be to simply dismiss this as a matter of taste, there is an implicit value judgement in the Muesli Theory. It suggests both that literary fiction has some quality that makes it healthier to consume than other genres, and, more insidiously, that our choice of reading ‘diet’ reflects upon our intellectual and moral capabilities. Debunking this moralistic and paternalistic concern over what other people consume is necessary in order for us all to broaden our ability to think complexly about everything that we read and to take pleasure in reading without guilt or stigma.
The moral judgement about the health value of certain types of fiction can be traced back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when improvements in printing technology led to a vast increase in the availability of works of fiction. As a result, with literacy no longer just the province of the rich and the pious, it was no longer possible to contain the quantitative growth of the book industry. Thus, attention shifted towards quality: what made a book good or bad, what effects it could have, and, most significantly, what types of books should be read (and what types the vulnerable members of our society should be protected from). Of course, many of the classics in canon of English-speaking literature emerged from the popular genres: Oliver Twist was first published in serialised form in the magazine Bentley’s Miscellany, and a great deal of influential early twentieth-century literary criticism focuses on mystery and detective fiction. Well might Michel Faber lament the loss of this particular Victorian appreciation for popular fiction, but the value judgements that we continue to place on different genres also have their roots in a more paternalistic mode of Victorian thought.
By the Victorian era, the rise of relatively cheap and readily available popular fiction, combined with a rationalist approach to science and medicine, made it possible for the cultural elite to couch these ‘diagnoses’ in medical terms. Defining ‘healthy reading’ was a means for the cultural elite to protect their own value amidst a sea of populist fiction–the threat from reading was no longer overindulgence, but any consumption of the wrong kind of books. Popular fiction, and the desultory reading practices that were believed to accompany it, was harmful to the intellect (as it encouraged consumption without critical consideration); ruinous to the body (as it absorbed leisure time with purposeless activity); and potentially disastrous to the individual’s moral capacity (as it encouraged an ongoing escape from the realities of one’s own life and society).
We must also remember that value judgements about certain forms of writing, especially genre fiction as distinguished from ‘proper’ literature, have often taken the form of a slanted attack on women, both as authors and as readers. This paternalistic judgement continues today, though perhaps not explicitly: both Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey have been vastly popular with female readers, and though both are deeply flawed, the critical reaction to them has centred on the dangers they might pose to the ‘impressionable’ girls and women who read them. This misogynistic assumption that women are unable to read critically and reflects Victorian concerns about the susceptibility of women to the immoral influence of creative writing. While excessive reading was a health concern for both men and women, in the Victorian era there was an ongoing concern that women’s supposed lack of innate critical faculties meant that they were particularly at risk.
Given that these cultural assumptions are centuries old, why, then, do we continue to judge books on their nutritional value and presume that reading good literature is the sign of a good person? Perhaps the Muesli Theory is recurring now, in the early twenty-first century, as we see another major shift in publication technologies. The rise of e-reading means that we can no longer judge a stranger’s book tastes by the cover in their hands, and this may increase the cultural panic that many good citizens are secretly consuming books that We (the great elitist mass) do not consider valuable. Add this to the ease with which authors can self-publish works without subjecting themselves to the cultural sanctioning of traditional publishing houses, and we see a similar proliferation of supposedly ‘junk’ books.
All of this is, of course, governed by the literary cultural elite, and is primarily a tool for maintaining the moral superiority of the intellectual class. There is a temptation to brush this all off as a matter of individual taste: some people quite like muesli, and some people quite like literary fiction, and many wouldn’t regard either thing as something they eat or read for the good of their health. But this isn’t the whole story. The Muesli Theory isn’t actually about taste at all, but about choice. Yes, you may find literary fiction a dull meal, but the implication is that it is the right choice, even if you’d prefer to be reading sci-fi or horror. Choosing healthy-but-dull literature over the satisfying, hedonistic, but nutritionally empty ‘junk genres’ becomes a sign of one’s moral and intellectual discernment. Thus, pronouncements of the relative quality of different types of books carry an implicit judgement on the quality of these books’ readers. Yes, as readers we are faced with plentitude and many of us need some way of working out what book to invest our time, money, and energy into next. However, to my mind, that choice should not be motivated by shame and fear of making the ‘wrong’ choice or the arrogant satisfaction that we’re reading ‘right’.
Let’s assume, though, that the literature as food metaphor holds any weight. If that were the case, I would propose an approach more like the Rainbow Diet, popularised in the early 2000s following the release of the US National Cancer Institute’s Savour the Spectrum campaign. The more colours on your plate, the healthier you are likely to be, as you obtain a greater variety of nutrients and depart from the meat and two veg habit. Seen in this light, it isn’t necessarily the nutritional value of any one food that is important, but rather the variety of your foods as a whole.
If we apply this principle to our reading diet, then it becomes clear that narrow reading is the real problem. Whether it’s women’s magazines or grand literary tomes, reading too much of one thing stifles our intellectual and creative energy. Reading broadly allows us to develop a critical sense of our own – to compare and contrast the works that we read against a broader canon, and to see more keenly the historical trajectories that our texts follow. Reading literary fiction at the expense of other genres and forms might seem healthy or economical, but it means constant exposure to the same echo chamber of ideas and techniques. Put simply, there is little variety, and without variety our critical faculties, our human capacity to analyse, interpret, and learn from what we read, wither.
Ultimately, creative writing in all genres provides a space where readers can grapple with emotional, intellectual, and moral challenges outside of the realm of their own experience. It allows us to test who we are and to see more clearly who other people might be, both the characters that we read and the people we encounter throughout our lives. Greater variety leads to greater understanding, and we will be more sympathetic and stimulated readers when we include more colours on our book-plates.