Columns > Published on June 20th, 2012

Why I'd Rather Be Unpublished Than Considered "Beach Reading"

Every year, around May or June, booksellers get busy setting up their big displays. They've weathered the post-gift-giving lull and are ready for sales to pick back up again--particularly if they're selling books in, say, airports, where people are still prone to purchasing actual paperbacks to take with them on the plane and, ultimately, on vacation. "Beach reading" season is upon us. Unfortunately, much like "chick lit," just because being deemed "beach reading" may be great for sales, it's not always excellent for the reputation of a writer. Particularly if that writer is a female.

Traditionally, "beach reading" is a round-up of all the light-hearted, feel-good, female-heavy fiction and, sometimes, non-fiction from the year before, with a little steamy boddice-ripping thrown in for good measure. Beach reading books are hot page-turners that'll put you in the vacation mood, or they're heartfelt stories about women overcoming something. Maybe they involve some kind of career woman who does something thrilling, like solve crimes.

And whether the books are super-smart and savvy (Mindy Kaling's memoir has already appeared in my local big box bookseller as "beach reading," ostensibly because they had a lot of copies left after it initially went on sale, so now they're hoping the pink cover will make it friendly enough for waterfront consumption) or a little more standard and commercial (I saw a lot of women reading The Help in various levels of relaxation last summer and the year before), they're placed on the same plane of frivolity. Beach reading is the great equalizer of literature that's both about and by women (The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest was a popular in 2010). Because the beach isn't where you do your serious reading. It's not where you delve deeply into David Foster Wallace and Malcom Gladwell and other serious men--or even less-serious male contemporary fiction, like Tom Clancy. It's where you lounge about and are entertained by silly women and their silly women-troubles, or possibly books about non-serious issues, like food and animals.

Beach reading is, by nature, somewhat embarrassing--regardless of what it is. You could be settling down to lay out in the sun with Janet Evanovich or a re-read of Inga Muscio (not even kidding--I once saw Cunt filed under "beach reading" in a bookstore in Oregon), but when someone asks "Oh, what are you reading?", if it's happening on the beach (or in a beach-like environment, like by a pool or on a patio), you must, as a woman, giggle a little and show the cover without speaking its name. It could be something from Twilight. It could be a Harry Potter book. It could be Cheryl Strayed's Wild. It could be one of Mary Roach's well-researched, ultra-scientific explorations like Stiff *. Doesn't matter--you can't be proud of your beach reading.

Female authors and critics have already spoken out about the differences in reception, acceptance, and rhetoric between books written by and for women, and books written by men--and I think a lot of the criticism of "chick lit" (or, as NPR's Linda Holmes has dubbed it, "shoe lit") is applicable to "beach reading" as well. Jodi Picoult, for example, has had great success and some critical acclaim for her work, and yet, she's never been categorized as anything so respectable-sounding as, say, "commercial women's literature" or even, you know, just plain "literature"--she is always, always relegated to "chick lit" or "beach reading."

In fact, most fiction written by, for, and about women is placed, sight unseen, in one of these harmful categories. And yet, not all fiction by, for, and about women is the same. Some is good. Some is thoughtful. Some is beautifully crafted. Some is terrible (I'm looking at you, E.L. James). But come June, they basically all end up in the one, giant, sand-filled bucket: beach reading. And that's just not helpful for advancing the careers of female authors. 

More recently, as critics try to discern what is "good" literature and what is crap, and the Internet becomes more of an authority on what to read than an actual bookstore, the category of "beach reading" has been expanded a little to include more interesting literature, and more literature of merit, in the conventional sense. Also, more literature by guys. But with those lists, there's almost always a gimmick. 

Take this Flavorwire list. It contains some really great names--Salman Rushdie, Virginia Woolf, John Waters--but that's because it's not your usual Adirondack-chair-ready beach reading list. It's a "decidedly high-brow" one, so it includes actual literary heavy-hitters. This list, by Slate, is also a little different, because it was compiled by writers, not bloggers or booksellers looking to move a lot of units. Thus, it includes a lot of books by men, many of which are not particularly Franzen-esque, but they're also not about four single gals sharing a house in the Hamptons and trying to get their groove back. This is how respectable websites deal with an otherwise mostly-unrespectable practice. They distance themselves from it ("it's beach reading, but better! Now with more critically-acclaimed white males!"), while still trading in it.

As a young female writer, the idea of getting a lucrative publishing deal and putting my books out there and seeing them in airports sounds amazing--but not if they're lumped together in a display with a bunch of other works in different genres, with different target audiences, on different subjects whose only commonality is that they were written by women, and thus, must be acceptable only at the beach.

*Which, by the way, are often similar-ish to Jonah Leherer's science-based books, and yet, guess who's considered beach reading? Not Jonah.

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About the author

Born and raised in Eugene, OR, Hanna Brooks Olsen is undersized and frequently overextended. She's a fan of physical activity, well-written sentences, and excellently employed profanities, and is unashamed to be utterly enamored by her little dog.

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