Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Case for Mind Candy

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There are two types of books out there: Mind Candy and Literature.

Mind Candy: Ranges from light, humorous fun to stomach-clenching suspense to dark, life-depends-upon-it melodrama. Either features lots of romance or spies and explosions. Happy endings. Easy reading.

Literature: Thinking required. Complicated, flawed characters. Often dysfunctional families. Prose is as important as plot. Satire. Social commentary. Fewer happy endings.

(I realize this stark separation is unfair and unrealistic. You can't truly paint the world of books with such a broad brush, but it is a convenient characterization that has a ring of truth.)

There is a large contingent of people who believe that we should be reading only Literature...the Good Books...the Classics (capitalization on purpose). As a country (be it the U.S., Canada, Australia, the UK, etc) we seem to be growing more ignorant by the day. What does it say about us if we flock to news articles about Lindsey Lohan's latest mishaps and skip over the ones about Syria and Libya? ({{{{Guilty}}}}) We should read to learn and grow. Books shouldn't be easy. Flowery high-brow prose will open our minds to the wonders of fine literature and improve our vocabulary and writing. Social commentary will make us more aware of the world around us. Flawed characters and imperfect endings will teach us about the human condition. Mind Candy will rot your brain as surely as M&Ms will rot your teeth.

I don't think anyone is going to argue that Literature is inherently bad, but many will make the case that Mind Candy novels are worth a share of a reader's time. We all have complicated lives. It's nice to be able to escape with an effortless read. It may be a book that paints a happy brush on life. Think chick lit. Or a book that, no matter how bad your life is, makes you happy that your life isn't as awful as these characters' lives (think (some) paranormal/urban fantasy or "issue" books). Most Mind Candy books resolve all the characters' issues in a few hundred pages. It's so comforting to think that things can work out...that happy endings are possible.

Common Complaints About Mind Candy and Rebuttals:

1. Lack of Educational Value:

There's this idea that we learn more from Literature. While that may be true with a book like Huckleberry Finn or The Grapes of Wrath, I don't think it is so with every literary novel. Other than being thought-provoking, what do you learn from a book like Freedom by Jonathan Franzen or even Catcher in the Rye?

Then again, any book can be educational, be it Literature or Mind Candy. Some books just wear their educational value on their sleeve more than others. Let's take Twilight for example, since as an obsessed fan, it's always on my mind. On the surface, you wouldn't think a melodramatic romance would teach you much...but does it? Think of the Cullens' vegetarian lifestyle. You learn the value of standing by your beliefs even when it's incredibly hard and none of your peers are doing it. Another example - Secrets of My Hollywood Life, the fluffy, fun series by Jen Calonita, teaches readers about a few ins and outs of Hollywood - nothing you need to know, but interesting nonetheless.

2. Bad Messages:

As much as the author of that Wall Street Journal blog post crowed about the abhorrent darkness of YA books today, I think she was mainly complaining that books today teach teens the wrong things.

While I disagree with her blog post as a whole, she raises an interesting issue. Has a book ever changed your life for the better? I think most passionate readers can point to at least one book that did. If a book can positively affect your life, isn't it reasonable to think that a book is also powerful enough to negatively affect your life? Let's examine Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson (although I'd argue that the quality of Laurie's writing places all her books in the YA Literature category). If you've ever had a problem with anorexia and want a book to trigger you further down eating disorder lane, Wintergirls will do that.

Does that mean that books like Wintergirls that deal with painful, dark subjects shouldn't be published? Absolutely not. In fact, I think people with eating disorders cherish Wintergirls more than anyone else. It is so nice to realize that someone is battling the same monsters as you, that the same thoughts run through other people's heads. You don't feel so alone. Dark books can bring pain to readers, but comfort as well.

To explore this further...Why should YA save?

I read to be entertained. Mind Candy is often simply more fun than Literature. As a reader, I don't necessarily want to be "saved," or helped by a book. It would be nice, but I'm more interested in a good story. And if I write something, it's because I think the plot is interesting and I like the characters. I don't think it's the purpose of YA authors to save anyone. But I digress...

One last rebuttal to the Bad Messages argument is that Literature is no stranger to dark, moral quagmires. Mind Candy can be dark, but it's also the genre where virtually all of the cheery, squeaky-clean novels reside. In fact, I defy you to find a work of Literature that is hippity-happity perfect (aside from something like Jane Austen).

3. Bad Writing:

Literature lovers say that Mind Candy is poorly written. An author's prose should almost be a character unto itself. The writing should be such that you step back from the plot and simply enjoy various quotes and phrases. I agree that a well-written novel is a wonderful thing. I treasure books like Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta where even a brief sentence at the beginning of the novel has enormous meaning later on - where the prose is a puzzle, slowly fitting itself together. And books like Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan where I repeatedly stopped reading to mark touching, thought-provoking quotes.

Mind Candy may not be known for high-fallutin' prose, but that doesn't mean that many books aren't well written. They're just well-written in different ways. The first book that comes to mind is Matched by Ally Condie. Her writing makes reading effortless. It's like watching a movie play out on the page. I so admire her ability to make you forget that you're even reading.

Swim The Fly by Don Calame is another skillfully written Mind Candy novel. It is distinguishable for its humor. Being able to make readers laugh is really difficult, and Swim the Fly does it better than any book I've read in years. I literally had tears rolling down my cheeks multiple times. A truly funny book is a testament to a writer's ability just as much as philosophical, complicated prose.

Even I, the unapologetic Twilight fan, cannot argue that the Saga is well-written. But...like many paranormal and fantasy novels, the books create a rich alternate universe with one-of-a-kind vampires who have their own history, culture, and politics. Stephenie Meyer also did a wonderful job of creating characters who evoke strong feelings of love or hate from readers. Even where the prose isn't that great, many Mind Candy novels stand-out for excellent world-building and interesting characters.

Some Mind Candy novels feature prose on par with or superior to Literature. Take Maggie Stiefvater's books. In her blog yesterday, she said "I write mainstream fiction, not literary." I was ready to disagree with her. Her prose is beautiful, atmospheric. With a few words, she manages to convince me that I'm in a stark, snow-covered Minnesota winter in her Wolves of Mercy Falls books even if it's 100 degrees outside. Not only that, she incorporate poetry and lyrics into her stories that turn her books into works of art. Her writing is just as good as many of the kings and queens of YA Literature. Yet, Maggie's right. Because her books are paranormal romance, they are pigeon-holed into the world of Mind Candy. Lovers of Mind Candy know that our supposed "light-reading" genre is chock-full of truly talented writers.

What do you think? Are you a fan of Mind Candy? How would you characterize Mind Candy v. Literature?

22 comments:

  1. Great post! I love literature but I equally love to be entertained and adore a junk binge - whether it be books, TV, movies or food! lol

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  2. What a fabulous and poignant post, Alison! I kept nodding my head in agreement while I read through your rebuttals. I really do think many people are ignorant in particular of YA literature that is happening now and some even go further who want to keep their kids wrapped up in a bubble where "dark, hard issues" aren't discussed. What bothers me the most is the call for the elimination of all "tough" books which not only degrades teen readers' intelligence but it really is censorship.

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  3. My biggest problem with the Literature vs mind candy debate is that people lump genre fiction in as mind candy. I've read sci-fi, horror and fantasy books which are 100x better than Literature in terms of prose, language, message, character development etc etc. It makes my blood boil.

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  4. I think book snobbery is my biggest pet hate when it comes to books and reading. There seems to be an idea that we shouldn't enjoy what we're reading - that it all needs to be about Good Literature and lessons learned. Of course, people forget that the classics of today are often the mind candy of yesterday! Personally, I read for enjoyment, and my own personal mind candy can be Dickens one day and Meyer the next and I think that both are successful successful authors, regardless of what the critics say, because they entertain. That's an ability that I think is too often undervalued :)

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  5. Awesome, awesome post! I love both, I have to say :) And really, I do believe that some books offer both in one. An example would be LOTR, HP series.. those are some of the greatest works of literature that I'm sure will be remembered years and years later! Yet, they're fun and entertaining. Why can't it be both?

    I hate book snobbery.

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  6. What a fantastic post! I agree with everything you've said. I read both kind of books, though I think many books are a little bit of both. Besides, I believe it depends on a person what you can learn and enjoy and therefore what is a Mind Candy for you.

    For example, I recently reread The Stranger by Albert Camus. While this work of Literature was a real torture for me in high school, this time around some parts were practically Mind Candy.

    I think Mind Candy can teach you things and make you think just as well as Literature. It depends on you as a reader whether you are able and/or willing to look deeper (and how deep) behind the plot. Let's take Twilight (yes, I am a fellow fan)for example: you can just set your mind off and let yourself be entertained by the romance or you can start thinking about life, death, friendship, love...there are many thought provoking issues only if you want/can see them.

    So, I don't let myself be told which are "Good" books to read and which are not. I am really, really against book snobbery.

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  7. I love this post! I read for escapism, whether it's light-hearted chick lit or a dark crime thriller, I read for enjoyment. I get enough of the real world in my real life. I read for enjoyment, not particularly to learn anything.

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  8. I think there's enough books to have room for both on your shelf. I never understood the literary vs. genre debate because some of the best books are genre but have literary style writing. I don't know, I like both. Sometimes you just need that mind rotting candy.

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  9. It all depends on what you are in the mood for. Mind candy is a great word for a delicious chic lit or cozy mystery. Just because it is in a "genre" doesn't mean the writing isn't wonderful though. Great post.
    Ann

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  10. Agreed! I've always felt "Mind Candy" has great value and I dislike it when book snobs say it doesn't. It's insulting to me that they would think that only literature is worth reading. I feel like Mind Candy reaches a broader audience because, like you say, it's a form of escapism, but I think it's one of the better forms of escapism for sure. People complain that teens shouldn't be reading poorly written books like Twilight, but don't take into account how wonderful it is that books like Twilight have managed to get people, of all ages who normally don't read, reading! I think that's pretty cool. That people could be choosing to read instead of choosing to watch reality TV and whatnot. Great post :)

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  11. Variety is the spice of life. And, honestly nearly any book reading is better than no book reading. So even though I'm not a fan of Twilight for example, I'm happy as a calm that it is so popular because it's getting people to read who wouldn't normally read (like my little sister who is dyslexic in a way that reading is painful work for her).

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  12. Love this post! Hmmmm... I have to say I like a variety. I read mostly YA books but from time to time I do pick up a classic or something more my age! LOL

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  13. This is such a wonderful post Alison, thanks so much for writing it! I've read a lot of the "classic" literature (Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment, Shakespeare, etc.) and while I think it's important to read those at least once in life, I think there's really something to be said for the "mind candy" books too. As someone who reads a ton of YA and also a lot of romance (which also gets a bad rep as being of little to no value other than fluff), I know just reading everyday has improved my writing ability and my vocabulary. I read to be entertained and to escape like I think so many of us do, but there's definitely value in just the fact that I'd rather pick up a book than turn on the TV:)

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  14. I read both! I agree that sometimes you read just to read, not necessarily to be saved. For me, reading is a pleasurable experience. A time when I curl up on something comfy and just drift in the world the writer creates.

    And who's to say you don't learn anything while reading a mind candy book? Just the act of reading itself is more engaging on the mind than say surfing the internet or watching TV.

    I consider it a personal victory when wildly popular "mind candy" books get people reading. Like Twilight, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games.

    Great post!
    ♥ Trish

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  15. Yay for your awesome post. While I call it brain candy (and usually picture something yummy and light, like cotton candy), there's something to be said for giving yourself an escape. And that's why I love the "lighter fare". Sure, deep, philosophical novels that explore dark themes and human nature are all well and good but I get enough of that every day. Gimmie the sugar, baybee!
    Happy reading,
    Mary @ Book Swarm

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  16. What a fantastic post Alison! I am a fan of both literature and Mind Candy - although I have to admit that sometimes after a long day of wrangling kids, working in the evening, and dealing with all of life's little stresses, my mind simply cannot take heavy literature and I need a little "Mind Candy" to unwind and relax. I am a firm believer that it doesn't matter what you read as long as you are reading - this was my stance when I was in high school and teachers, and even some churches in my town were forbidding younger kids from reading Harry Potter.

    Thanks so much for adding such great dialogue to the ongoing discussion!
    Bonnie @ HandsAndHome

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  17. I love Mind Candy! Especially when it's Summertime. I don't think there's anything wrong with these kind of books and who cares if you only read these books! I mean as long as your reading, right?

    Ps: great post!

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  18. Bottom line is all books tell stories, just like films, just like music. All of these have the power to influence in good or bad way or even not at all. It's subjective, which also makes it easy to place blame and cry wolf when someone is 'influenced' and does something that hurts themselves or others.

    I mean just think about how many times you listened to The Dark Side of the Moon backwards & watched The Wizard of Oz just so you could smoke weed and trip out.

    Okay, bad joke, but I remember hearing endless stories about real like 'Romeos and Juliets' that killed themselves because their parents didn't let the be together when I was studying Shakespeare in high school.

    I totally understand and appreciate what you are getting at here Alison. Very insightful, powerful post!

    P.S. I would have wanted to disagree with Stiefvater myself. I live down in South Texas where the sun and the heat is brutal, and when I read Shiver, I felt the chill down to my bones. Stiefvater is amazing! Her prose is poetic and mesmerizing.

    And I think you already know how I feel about SM not getting the credit she deserves.

    P.P.S. I can honest admit to not following the happenings of Lindsey Lohan or any of celebrity news really, but I still manage of regular diet of Mind Candy with other treats!

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  19. For the record #1: I have never tried the Dark Side of Oz thing myself, only heard of it.

    For the record #2: I believe there are two reasons why I don't hear news stories of RL Romeos and Juliets anymore. One is because I'm not in h.s. any more but the second is because of Mind Candy books like Twilight. Who would want to kill themselves when the idea of eternal, undying love is much more appealing?

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  20. Awesome post! I think the line between mind candy and literature is an interesting one, but I myself enjoy both kinds of books. I think diversity in reading is a fantastic thing to have-- a little bit of light happy endings and a little bit of thought-provoking truths about humanity can never hurt. :)

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  21. Great post - I have shared it with a friend - I hope she stops by :D

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  22. Have I told you how much I love your discussion posts, Alison? LOVE them! :)

    To me, there are only two categories of books: The stories I like and the stories I don't like. I couldn't care less about separating them into "literature" or "mind candy" or whatever. I know some people think there's only value in literature, but why? I think a reader can find value in even the fluffiest book.

    Look at Princess for Hire! It's about as fluffy as you can get, but it also has good lessons about consequences and self-esteem. I like how in the Secrets of My Hollywood life series Kaitlin always learns something like how to manage stress or juggle a demanding career, or deal with cruel people. Maybe that's not high brow philosophy, but I think it's valuable nonetheless.

    Historical fiction (or historical romance, or time travel fiction) are usually looked at as mind candy reads, but I've learned a ton of historical facts and details from reading those books.

    Besides, what's wrong with wanting to read for fun? How is that a bad thing?

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