The problem with “great” modern fiction is that it’s seldom popular. And popular contemporary fiction is seldom “great”. Last week, DJS Harrington took on two genre fiction giants, Nora Roberts (with her alter ego D.J. Robb) and Janet Evanovich.
I happen to be a Nora Roberts fan. That said, Carolina Moon is the only Nora Roberts book that I sat back after reading and said "now that's good." It doesn't mean that I don't enjoy her formula romances. I do. They’re candy. I like candy.
Now, I had a problem when I began reading Ms. Roberts as D.J. Robb, the name she uses for her In Death series. My library didn’t carry her. Even after I bought, read and donated those books, my library didn’t carry her. When I asked an elderly gentleman library volunteer where I might find books by Ms. Robb, he gently took me by the arm and escorted me to the shelf containing the Left Behind series. He made it crystal clear that is what a good Christian woman of a certain age should be reading. I have nothing against Left Behind, but no one’s chosen my library books for me since I was six. I thanked him and left. I went to Barnes & Noble. I’m content to be guided in morality by my Church—but not by my library.
Censorship issues aside, Ms. Roberts’ books are fun. They’re not great literature. But she's not pretending to write great literature. She's writing genre fiction appropriate to her "brand". Readers know what she's going to give them, and so she sells books. It's pure fluff. And sometimes, as Ms. Harrington acknowledges, fluff is enough.
I’ve never read the Janet Evanovich series Ms. Harrington mentioned. I balk at any series that relies on numbers in the title. It’s a foregone conclusion they're going to be formula and designed to sell the next book with no real concern for quality beyond that. James Patterson's work is the same kind of thing. And yet both writers are capable of so much more. But making a living is their objective, and they've accomplished that. I salute them. Heck! I wish I was them!
Seriously, how can anyone object to genre series work? Did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle write great literature? It filled a popular need. It's entertaining. But Sherlock Holmes isn't The Odyssey. Now before you get excited, remember that Shakespeare filled a popular need. So did Neal Simon. We call Shakespeare "great literature", but is it any greater than that produced by other writers of his day? Since even some of his contemporaries attributed some of his work to other Elizabethan playwrights, perhaps not.
I'm of the personal opinion that all literature that entertains is valid. If it teaches the reader something, it's valuable. If it makes the reader look at life in a new way, then and only then is it great.
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