Tim Parks tries to debunk the myth, to which I’ve always subscribed, that genre fiction can serve as a ramp to reading literary fiction—the “I don’t care if they’re reading Harry Potter so long as they’re reading something, and maybe it'll lead to reading something better” argument.
Parks admits that he only has anecdotal evidence to work with, but his experience indicates that the myth is, in fact, a myth. People will read genre fiction and literary fiction interchangeably, without drawing any clear difference between the two. W.H. Auden, for example, admitted he was addicted to detective fiction. (Walter Benjamin had the same addiction.) More commonly, though, people will read only genre fiction, and once they discover their genre, they stick with it, rarely if ever venturing into another genre. Parks concludes, “narratives do not form a continuum such that one is naturally led from the simpler to the more complex, but offer quite different experiences that mesh with readers’ psyches and requirements in quite different ways.” The reason why the myth endures, he says, is because teachers of literature want to believe that peoples’ reading habits can be improved.
Parks claims that “no one has ever spoken to me of making [the] progression” from low to high literature. But surely he has—and so has pretty much anyone who reads literature for leisure reading. For most people—or maybe I’m only speaking for myself—the taste for serious literature comes after one has developed the habit of leisure reading. I didn’t start reading literary fiction until high school. Before then I read a lot, but indiscriminately. I read a lot of stuff well below Harry Potter in quality. It wasn’t that I longed for more elevated reading; I just wanted to know what to read. Once I discovered it, literature focussed my reading. In effect, it became my genre.
Writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Saul Bellow I probably would have encountered on my own eventually. The first two are famous beyond literary culture, and to grow up in Chicago in the 1970’s was to know who Saul Bellow was. However, there comes a time when some professional guidance becomes necessary. How else does one learn the name D.H. Lawrence—or W.H. Auden, for that matter? To come across them on one’s own suggests that one is already wading into literary culture.
While I think Parks is correct that people’s reading habits are set early in life, I don’t think that they appear fully formed. Nor do they develop in isolation from other modes of cultural practice. I’ve noticed that people who have broad and sophisticated tastes in music also tend to appreciate literature. Adventurousness in music is easily carried over into reading. While still in my teens I learned that oftentimes the most rewarding and meaningful listening experiences were the ones I had sought out. I applied the same approach in my reading. Who wants to read the same story over and over again?
Here’s another possible myth: Those indiscriminate readers who come to need to see something expressed, see it expressed, that is, for the sake of experiencing the expression rather than accumulating knowledge and understanding about the thing itself, will invariably develop a taste for literary fiction eventually.