It is no secret that reading is highly subjective, but that doesn’t rid it from biases.
Writers – especially women: Don’t let anyone sneer at you for writing “fluff.” Fluff is an insulator. Correctly used, it can stop you from freezing, or burning to death. Fluff fiction is designed to protect you from the relentless toxicity of the real world. Fluff saves lives.
— Joanne Harris (@Joannechocolat) January 8, 2020
— Pandora Sykes (@PINsykes) May 6, 2020
What, for you, determines a book you want to read? Is it an acclaimed author, a particular genre, a recommendation from a friend or a book shop, or is it the accolade of prizes it has been shortlisted or awarded?
“Fluffy” literature fits into all of these frames, so why is it looked down upon? What even makes a good book “good”?
For me, generally, I define “fluffy” literature as often romance serialised novels that provide a strong degree of escapism. These types of novels are often viewed as “silly” or “fantastical”. A few examples are:
- E.L James – Fifty Shades of Grey Franchise
- Mills and Boon Novels
- Bridget Jones Franchise
- Novels that have cover designs like these below:
Yet, this definition comes with multiple caveats and cachés, “fluffy” literature could also largely be written from a women’s standpoint, it could be set within a young adult dystopian world, or it could be set within our own ordinary everyday timeframe.
“Fluff” in fiction itself is a pejorative connotation, often referring to written elements of the story, like elaborate and hyperbolic description, that doesn’t serve the development of the overall plot. Yet, this just generally makes it seem like reading is a means to an end, rather than enjoying the act of reading itself.
What we perceive as high vs low is constantly changing. For example, Charles Dickens is today perceived as ‘high fiction’, but during his time he was actually writing serialised fiction for the masses. What’s more, as he originated from a working-class poor background, this also affected how people viewed him at the time.
“High” fiction could also have a plethora of terms and connotations. Most of the time, I view high fiction to be classical literature, books that have won multiple awards, and books that are being recommended to you at every twist and turn (like Sally Rooney’s Normal People!). However, unlike the latter, a lot of people feel disengaged from classical literature, and it can also be argued that classical authors like Jane Austen adhere to many of the “fluffy” literature tropes.
It cannot be denied that fluffy literature can have an engaging plot, making you hold the pages tight between your fingertips. Whether you are reading it on holiday or at home, fluffy literature can hold you in its grasp like a crime, dystopian or fantasy novel. Soon the pages will curl from the hot condensation as you read it in the bath, or the spine will crackle in the heat from hours reading on a sunlounger. Yet fluffy literature is so often disregarded, sometimes given measly one-star, two-star reviews. And even if it did get a five-star review, it would be placed in the realm of women’s fiction, women’s reading. Because, of course, the only books worth caring about are ones that are written for men.
I have been thinking about this for a while, about how the books that are deemed “womanly” are not equal to others, even if they are beautifully written with intricate plots.
I often find myself confronted with my own ‘womanliness’ when wanting to read these books, and struggle with overcoming the negative stereotypes society has placed upon them as lesser literature; this is exacerbated by feelings that I should be reading from the higher echelons of accepted literature, especially because I have an English literature degree from a Russell Group University.
I not only like reading these books, but I’m tired of the negative snobbery surrounding them. On a micro-scale, it is dismissive of this style of literature, but on a macro-scale, it discourages the act of reading for pleasure.
In fact, a few of the narratives of fluffy literature is no different to many of the plot lines within revered classical fiction. Take Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones Diary, they mirror each other in so many ways. But Pride and Prejudice is considered a must, whereas Bridget Jones, an icon in its own right, isn’t pushed onto young men and women in the same way.
As a culture, we are reading far less than we used too, and discouraging people from reading just because of their book choices is completely alien to me.
The act of reading in itself is freeing, but reading for pleasure is tight in the grips of criticism. We are now, more than ever, scrutinised for our hobbies, and what we devote our time to is apparently indicative of our personality and our intelligence.
I remember the first time I felt misled for some of the books I chose to read. I had chosen to do 16th-century A-Level History because I had enjoyed reading Phillippa Gregory’s various novels on the Wars of the Roses and Tudor Queens, each written from a woman’s perspective.
On the first day of teaching, we had to inform our teacher as to why we had chosen 16th-century history. My history teacher scoffed at me, saying that these novels were largely false and nothing in them was accurate. Not only did this make me feel inadequate for my choice in literature, but my reasoning seemingly paled in comparison to my friend who then pronounced she had been reading Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’. I know that in the historical novel genre circles Gregory is looked down on more than others because she engaged with the “fluff” per se, and she extensively has used her artistic license rather than her historical one. But, isn’t it more important that her books got me interested in this period of history? That it fed an appetite that I didn’t know I had and encouraged me to learn more?
However, as the year progressed, I couldn’t help but notice something. At this point, EVERYONE was talking about the explosion of Game of Thrones. Perhaps now regarded as a bastion for the fantasy genre, sitting amongst Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, Game of Thrones captivated a global legion of fans. Yet if you dismiss the TV show (which I digress I am a fan of) and if you look at the historical inspiration of the Wars of the Roses, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a time period that George R.R Martin has stated inspired him, is Game of Thrones really any different from Phillippa Gregory’s The White Queen or The Other Boleyn Girl?
Yes, those who are die-hard Game of Thrones fans are likely going to balk at that statement especially if they are dismissive of Gregory’s books. I don’t deny that both of the Game of Thrones books and series were incredible with their visceral raw depictions of a meticulously thought out society. But, amongst all of the fanfare, those who were reading Game of Thrones weren’t made to feel as if they were dumb or had a lower IQ because of the books they had chosen to read, whereas, I think, the same couldn’t be said for Gregory’s readers.
These thoughts had been cooking in my mind for many years, floating about like hot stewed dumplings, simmering, boiling and cooling, until I saw the tweet from Joanne Harris, the award-winning author of Chocolat in January and recently, I saw the tweet from Pandora Sykes about Marian Keyes.
“Fluff is an insulator” Harris writes, a distraction away from the ordeals of everyday life. And now, with everything, (and ‘everything’ itself is a loaded word) isn’t that just true? But regardless, Harris makes an astute point also “especially women”.
And, it is women isn’t it?
It is no secret that history is patriarchal, written about men by men, and the history of the novel itself is no different. The history of the novel as we know it ignores the genuine importance of both women writers and readers. In fact, novels were pretty much invented for women, and in the Victorian period, fiction novels were largely written by women for other women. Yet, the patriarchy did want some control. They feared that women would get fancy “ideas” from the books that they were reading, so certain themes were encouraged like romance and domestic discourse. However, the themes they wanted to contain and control women with, were also the themes that they soon dismissed. Soon, the ideas of reading and writing became entrenched within the world of men, which meant that for women writers to be taken seriously in literature circles they had to adopt male pseudonyms.
In fact today, some women still write with male pseudonyms, J.K Rowling is an obvious example. Common discourse seems to be to look back and praise these women for their ‘bravery’ in overcoming their restrictions and falsifying themselves, yet when this practice is still being employed today, it is clear that these constraints are yet to be dismantled.
Another case study that I put forward is Mills and Boon. Founded in 1908, Mills and Boon were known for making “escapist” fiction for women in the 1930s. Considered “low brow” and “formulaic” in its iterations of a similar romantic narrative arc where the woman is submissive to the man, it was believed to play to women’s inner fantasies. Mills and Boon were widely successful because they provided escapism during the Depression years, and most importantly they were read by women of all backgrounds. What’s more, today they still attract three million readers in the UK. Now, whilst the dominant alpha male and submissive women rhetoric is problematic in their own right, it’s also the denouncement of some novels as “low brow” and reserved for only women is another problem that people overlook. I find the word “low brow” offensive to not only women but also working-class women too. I think it is assumed that people from lower classes are not only interested in reading “low brow” fiction, but also that it is the only type of fiction they can “access”, yet “low brow” fiction is also criticised in itself.
Reading is and always will be a tool for pleasure, but also no matter how escapist or fluffed out a novel is, it always will be a tool for education. The allusion to romantic liaisons or the meticulous details about the buttons and folds of a woman’s dress can open up a reader to a wider vocabulary or teach them more about romantic relationships. You shouldn’t just be recommending the classical giants or booker prize-winning authors, you should be recommending readers of all ages, genders and backgrounds. Not to mention that fluffy literature isn’t just for women, men might want to read it too.
All in all, A novel can still be a good novel if it doesn’t give a veiled critique on society or written in elevated language and syntax. In fact, I think the disregard of this said novel is more revealing of society’s inner prejudices against class and women as a whole.