Beach Read – Romance Meets Literary Fiction

I read Beach Read by Emily Henry as a challenge. I had this plan to look at unfamiliar genres, with the unexplored territory of romance seeming like a good place to start. Trying to choose a book, I discovered that Beach Read was about a romance author and a literary fiction writer deciding to attempt each other’s type of book. Seeing as I was engaged in a similar swap myself, Beach Read made sense.

January (romance) and Everett (literary fiction), two former rivals from high school writing club, find themselves living in neighbouring beach houses on Lake Michigan during turbulent times in both their lives. Trying to overcome an engrained distrust of each other’s writing, they devise a scheme to swap genres, and agree that once a week they will take turns in organising some practical teaching activity. January’s training course consists of an evening at a drive-in cinema watching three Meg Ryan films in a row, line dancing, going to a funfair, and walking on a beach at sunset. Everett’s training course in literary fiction is more vague – as is literary fiction, if you ask me. It’s all about heavy meetings with survivors of a cult. You get the feeling that literary fiction is meant to be dark and twisty, with tragedy waiting at the end.

Beach Read is much more romance than literary fiction in its tone. Told from January’s point of view, the book in many ways turned out to be definitive romance, an education for a reader, and Everett, in how it’s done. Most of the tropes of romance – which I now know about – were there. We had enemies to lovers, forced proximity, second chance romance, work romance, and fake relationship/dating – which is where people pretend to be in love for some reason, and then fall in love for real.

My favourite parts of Beach Read were when January and Everett sat working in their separate beach houses, or went on each other’s research trips, trying to find a way to communicate. I felt this was a very interesting, amusing reflection on the way writing has divided itself into genres serving particular groups of people. And yet writing is also about communication between people. Romance itself is a genre that seeks to bring two people together, people who are usually enemies, if one of its most popular tropes is to be believed. So that aspect of the book – the idea of writing splitting people up and trying to bring them back together – was fascinating. It is also timely with trends in writing heading towards ever more focused genres serving different groups of readers.

The ending seemed more straightforward romance fiction than the first three quarters, with January and her best friend discussing their respective relationship problems. There was a lot of crying in this section. I felt out of the loop at the end, as any man would when two women get together to discuss men and how disappointing they are. I’m not saying they’re not disappointing, obviously, but this part of the book felt like it was for a different audience. But maybe that’s the point. Sometimes writing is an activity that defines who you are and where you belong: and sometimes it’s about trying to escape these boundaries and reach out further.

Beach Read offers a perceptive insight into life, love and the fragmented modern literary scene. I enjoyed it.

A Book For Everyone, Or Everyone With Their Own Book

Today writers can work in a bewildering variety of genres tailored to certain groups of readers. It’s as though each group can aspire to have their own books. This is an interesting and characteristically modern development, the history of which it might be instructive to explore.

All contemporary categories of writing are descended from an original single category of book which existed when the printing press first appeared around 1440 – the Bible, or books about the Bible. In 1440, very few people could read, and books were prohibitively expensive. Writers are sometimes known as authors, and that word author – derived from the word authority – is very much a hang over from the time when “divinity” was, in effect, literature’s only genre. The ultimate author was considered the writer of the Bible, which reached people almost entirely through the authority of the Church.

One of the great social schisms of Western culture occurred in the sixteenth century, when the printing press, and some increase in literacy, allowed people to start reading the Bible for themselves. This widening readership was actually the beginning of the shift away from the idea that one book, and one author was relevant to everyone. Now individual viewpoints started to become more important.

The centuries continued to pass, literacy rates crept up, and improved printing technology continued to make headway in reducing book prices. By 1700, academic Jeremiah Dittmar estimates that there were around eighty basic varieties of book serving an enlarged, but still modest, book market, where divinity continued to account for half of all sales. Through the next three hundred years, the rate of change gathered pace, so that today, literacy is now almost universal, and digital publication offers reduced book prices, and an opportunity for anyone to publish their work. As a result, genre varieties have exploded. The current situation in publishing is a mirror image of what it once was in 1440. Whereas in the fifteenth century everyone shared the same book, now it’s almost as though everyone can have their own book, unique to their own part of life. The bewildering variety of genres reflects the fact that today almost everyone is a potential reader, which means that all kinds of different people with varied tastes, interests and experiences, are all looking for books which reflect themselves.

It is of course great that perspectives and viewpoints reflected in books have increased out of all recognition. And yet, perhaps there are new difficulties in the way a widely inclusive culture is also a fragmented one, with people tending to live more in their own cultural bubbles.

Writers write based on their own experience, so it’s inevitable that people similar to themselves are more likely to resonate with their work. Nevertheless, I think in some small way, any writer instinctively harks back to 1440, when there was one book for everyone. Writing has to manage that trick of reflecting its readership, while not confining them in a bubble. A book should be a means of offering a wider perspective rather than closing the door. After all, a best seller is by definition a book that crosses divides, appeals to lots of different people, and echoes in a small way that situation right at the beginning of publishing when a book was something that everyone shared in together.

We All Live In A Jar Of Pickle – Midnight’s Children By Salman Rushdie

On 14th August 1947, the British colonial authorities, bowing to the will of religious pressure groups, partitioned British India to create the state of Pakistan.  Then at midnight the same day, India gained independence from Britain. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie tells the story of Saleem Sinai, a boy born on the stroke of that midnight. The stories of India and Saleem then continue in parallel up until the 1970s.

It’s tricky to sum up such a massive multi-layered story, but I think the Beatles might help:

“It’s a fool who plays it cool by making his world a little colder.”

Salman Rushdie’s advice in Midnight’s Children would be:

“It’s a fool who thinks that the world can be brought together by dividing it up.”

The novel opens with an account of the meeting of Saleem’s grandparents.  His grandfather is a doctor, who attends a young woman called Naseem, whose protective father only reveals portions of his daughter for examination through a hole in a sheet.  The doctor falls in love with each piece of his partitioned patient and ends up marrying what seems to be a complete woman.  But she is not complete. Her rigid, intolerant outlook means that as a person she is herself something of a hole in a sheet, uninterested in the entire picture. Eventually, Nassem’s borders shrink in upon her until she really only has her kitchen and pantry left.

But Midnight’s Children is not a simple morality tale about seeing the big picture.  Along with illustrating the destructiveness of partition, the book also accepts that the hole in the sheet has value.  There’s the example of a painter who in a futile attempt to include the whole of life in his art made his pictures ever bigger.  This is never going to work.  An artist has to find the whole in a small part.  He has to take a vast sheet and cut a tiny hole in it.  So no simple moral there then. You have to allow in things that confuse the picture.

I started Midnight’s Children aware of its daunting reputation, but I was soon laughing at Saleem’s often hilarious scrapes. Midnight’s Children is profound and complex, but also light and humorous. This contrariness is what you’d expect from a book that doesn’t believe in bringing people together by driving some of them out. The book invites you in, welcoming human foibles and variety in all its forms. Food recurs often in the book, particularly pickle, which of course is a blend of ingredients left to marinade together. Midnight’s Children is a massive jar of pickle. Tasting it, the diner might well decide that people should live together in the same way.