Gone are the days of the period romp: the Jane Austens, the Charles Dickens, Sunday nights on the BBC and Keira Knightly in oversized wigs. Adaptations of classic novels are thin on the ground these days, replaced by adaptations of books more likely to be found on Richard and Judy than the GCSE syllabus..
Often in these cases the films are more popular – and, some may say, better – than the novels themselves. Take for example 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada; based on the 2003 book of the same name, a prime example of the ‘chick-lit’ that has been invading best-seller lists in recent years. Filled with fashion and glamour, and a spunky heroine who overcomes adversity to Do The Right Thing, both the novel and the film are favourites of women and teens everywhere. Similarly, Sophie Kinsella’s five Shopaholic novels have been optioned by a studio, with the first film, Confessions of a Shopaholic, released earlier this year. As films, it seems, these works can be passed off as ‘chewing gum for the eyes’, but as novels they are often deemed a waste of time by readers with higher literary aspirations. So what makes chick-lit such a staple for the bookshelves of so many women who are quite capable of enjoying the romance and escapism of a good Austen?
Escapism is, perhaps, the key word here. What woman wouldn’t love to master the high-pressure world of a glamorous magazine, dressed in Chanel and Jimmy Choo? It is a modern world that they can relate to far more than to the fields and farms of Thomas Hardy. While the likelihood of becoming a professional fashionista may be much lower than the opportunity for you to work in a field and be seduced, the world of The Devil Wears Prada still seems closer and, with the proliferation of glossy celeb magazines, at our flicking fingertips. It’s a low-pressure, low effort read, far less daunting than the big names of literature whose status lends the work a mysterious air of intimidation perhaps left over from school days of badly taught English Literature, where analysis, and not inspiration, was the order of the day.
It is, of course, not just women that have their guilty pleasures in reading. Men, when asked, will often name graphic novels as their equivalent. Graphic novels, again, often rise in status with a Hollywood adaptation, but are much less frowned upon. Tucked away in their own genre, there is much less of an intellectual inferiority complex when reading these works, particularly with writers such as the award winning Etgar Keret co-authoring several comics, not to mention the critically acclaimed Sandman and Watchmen novels. The guilt of graphic novels, then, is not literary in origin but rather a social dictation that says comics are for children and geeks. But with the aforementioned works winning literary awards and the Pulitzer-winning Maus, this hang-up is steadily decreasing. Quality aside, most graphic novels offer a similar sort of escapism to chick-lit – the sort that allows us to revisit childhood dreams and fantasies, whether this is in the form of shoes and weddings or superheroes and the supernatural.
Similarly, the fantasy/sci-fi genres used to be reasonably exempt from the scorn of the literary snobs who wouldn’t be caught dead with a copy of a chick-lit romance. Like graphic novels, these genres seem so separate and self-regulating that they often go unjudged. They have their own great names, such as Terry Pratchett and there are of course sci-fi and fantasy novels that are literary classics such as the works of H.G Wells or J.R.R.Tolkien.
Then along came the much beloved – and much ridiculed – Stephanie Meyer, teen hero and fantasist extraordinaire. A literary(?) precursor would be the more critically acclaimed Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles (which, incidentally, are named as the ‘guilty pleasure’ books of several of my friends when asked), and The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris. Meyer’s Twilight saga is the Harry Potter of teenage girls the world over. To sum it up as briefly as possible, an unremarkable teenage girl, Bella Swann, moves to Smalltown USA and meets Edward Cullen, a tormented ‘vegetarian’ vampire who sparkles (yes) when exposed to sunlight. They fall in love. Some regular vampires try to kill Bella; Edward saves the day. Eventually Bella joins Edward’s vegetarian vampire family, marries Edward and is transformed by him during the birth of their half-human-half-vampire daughter. And don’t even get me started on the werewolves.
But it works. For its target audience, it works. It’s the sort of love story many dream of as young girls, rendering the novels the ultimate indulgence for older teens and even – dare I say it – twenty-something graduates such as myself. Never have I wanted to launch an attack of the red pen so much as when I first opened a Meyer book. And yet never have I felt such a childish, girlish addiction to a work of fiction. It feels a little like the guilty indulgence of settling down with Heat magazine and an especially large bar of chocolate. I found that if I read quickly enough, I could ignore the quality of the writing and focus on the bubblegum sweet romance and faintly ridiculous but nonetheless gripping action. With the first film in the series released late last year, the comparisons with Harry Potter continue. It has become a global phenomenon, catapulting its young stars into the spotlight and even causing a riot in a San Francisco mall where Robert Pattinson (the literally dazzling Edward Cullen) was scheduled to appear.
It is hard to say what causes this extreme devotion in young adults. I have read and enjoyed both Twilight and Harry Potter, and am (almost ) not ashamed to admit it. But for me the fascination ends the moment the credits roll or the book is put back on the shelf. Not so for millions. I have a friend who once genuinely considered getting a lighting bolt tattooed on her forehead. I have heard tales of the ‘fanfiction’ that fills the internet, I have seen youtube videos of Twilight fans’ reactions to the film’s trailer that made me want to cancel my internet subscription and move to an island somewhere with some tea bags and a copy of Shakespeare’s complete. One can only assume that suspension of disbelief is easier the younger you are, that escapism is a more extreme need for teenagers, and the power of Edward Cullen’s beauty, even in print, is bewitching to more than just Bella Swann.
The line between great literature and low-brow reading has been stretched, blurred and generally pulled apart as we progress through post-modernism and into the mists of 21st century modernity. The definitions of art and culture are constantly changing and as such, the idea that escapism and story-telling do not legitimise a work of fiction as art seems a dubious one; the balance between technical skill and creative intent is increasingly delicate in all mediums of art. The level of embarrassment associated with so many books – I threw away my Twilight books when I had finished them – is interesting. Who decides which books are legitimate and which must be excused as a guilty pleasure? Gender, age, and education are some of the factors that come to mind, with of course quality of writing being the most prominent. But I think there’s a difference between a Bad Novel and a ‘trashy’ novel, which is all too often overlooked. There is a grey area. A grey area in which I will happily sit with a copy of Twilight for all to see.