Why I'd Rather Be Unpublished Than Considered "Beach Reading"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

Image via SheReads.org

Image of Cunt: A Declaration of Independence  Expanded and Updated Second Edition
Author: Inga Muscio
Price: $15.68
Publisher: Seal Press (2002)
Binding: Paperback, 416 pages
Image of The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Price: $11.02
Publisher: Berkley (2011)
Binding: Paperback, 544 pages

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Comments

Karl M Schirrmacher's picture
Karl M Schirrmacher from California is reading The Sunlight Dialogues - John Gardner June 20, 2012 - 8:55am

Great topic, and I like that you listed Beach Reading Lists from sources other than airport bookstores (Flavorwire, Slate). I have a question on this part:

...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...

If you knew how your book would be positioned in retail, would you turn down the publishing deal?

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer June 20, 2012 - 10:39am

Will you ever really have control over that, though? You might not have any influence over how people shelve your book, and quite frankly if you arent writing the sort of stuff that would be considered beach lit, you probably won't have to worry about it.

Personally, I write what I write and if shelving it a certain place is going to get me more readers, I could careless whether it is shelved with serious literature or not.

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life June 20, 2012 - 11:24am

I always thought beach reading was just popular books that people would be talking about, aka commercial fiction. I'm not sure I agree that books by women are necessarily looked down upon any more than genre ghetto-dwellers like Brian Keene or Joe Lansdale. They're white males, and your free to read them on the beach, but it's going to be tough to find anyone else reading the same book as you.

Why don't you place some of the blame where this belongs? The women's magazine that pepper little 3 line come-ons for Sophie Kinsella's latest alongside eyeshadow recommendations and 'What Sex in the City Girl are You?'

Also, let's cast a little light on the godamn bootlickers fawning all over Franzen. 

But what's with offering Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner as the voice of the women's lit group? That just shows you what the huffpo article is--linkbait. They just grabbed two female writers who hapen to be popular right now and aren't writing about shopping or vampires, and said 'So, what do you think is wrong with the literary scene as it concerns the NYT?'. 'Found themselves in the middle of the fray', says the article: but then what they did was 'tweet and comment' on this made-up controversy. 

So who is behind all of this? What shadowy cadre of Machiavellian patriarchs is masterminding this assault on women's literature? What's the common denominator?

Marketroids. Marketing departments chock-full of fresh-faced drones with the ink still drying on their Associate's Degrees, impeccable teeth and really loud voices. Twenty years ago these people would be in sales, but they got turned off by the the anti-greed backlash emerging from the big-money bubble burst in 2000.

Desperate companies hire marketing people by the bushel. Publishers are desperate. Marketing is the devil's work.

511Kinderheim's picture
511Kinderheim from Calgary, Alberta is reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman June 20, 2012 - 1:31pm

Stories like this are slowly convincing me that I have to publish under some kind of pseudonym to be considered a respectable author. Even E.L. James pulled this trick (though I'm not really sure why, because there was no hiding the content or the motive for her books). Even knowing that the male/female divide in literature is just a marketing invention, whenever I write there's this voice in the back of my head consciously making sure my work doesn't come across as too 'chick-lit'. Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure male writers don't really have to worry about being 'too masculine' or ending up as beach reading or cheap harlequin-style paperbacks. Whether or not it's just a marketing ploy or a true reflection of how readers view female authors as opposed to male authors, the situation itself can still be seen as (dare I say it?) male (and also usually white) privilege.

*Feminist rant skipped for your convenience~*

I'm either too young or too jaded, but I almost always ignore those '_____-reading' tables at the front of bookstores and go for what I know I'm interested in reading. The last book I remember reading on a beach was Harry Potter.

MandyHubbard's picture
MandyHubbard from Enumclaw is reading PUSHING THE LIMITS June 20, 2012 - 8:34pm

Hey Hanna!

 

Firstly I am also a 20-something in the Seattle area. I'm teaching the YA course here on lit reactor, I'm an author, and an agent. We should totally do lunch sometime!

Secondly, I really have to respectfully disagree with the whole angle/opinion of the article (The glory of opinion pieces!).

 

This line, in particular:

Beach reading is, by nature, somewhat embarrassing--regardless of what it is.

 

I could not disagree more. I LOVE beach reads-- I have several YA "Beach read" types published by penguin, including one, yes, with a hot pink cover-- and I read and adore both straight romance novels and a variety of beach read YA novels. And if someone strolls up and asks me what i"m reading, I'll happily flip it over to show them, talk about it, and reccomend the book if its good.

 

I kind of find it sad that anyone feels that they should be embarssed by their book choice. People watch freaking Keeping up with the Kardashians but we should be concerned that our reading tastes aren't high brow enough to show off?

 

And as an author, i know what it means if someone chooses my novel. Reading is not something you can do while folding the laundry or walking down the road. Someone is willing to give me HOURS Of their undivided attention and it's up to ME to spin a well-paced tale with engaging characters. It's not something i throw together or that happens in my sleep. If I can continue to entertain peoiple on the beach, at home, wherever, I will proudly keep on writing and publishing those books.

 

So... sign me up for more beach reads. As a reader, an agent, and author, and I will make no apologies for it.

Matt Attack's picture
Matt Attack from Richmond, Va. is reading As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner June 21, 2012 - 4:34am

I have always thought of "beach reading" as something you don't really have to pay attention to and therefore something of lower quality. Hopefully this perception will change. 

Ho Mo Heidelbergensis's picture
Ho Mo Heidelber... June 21, 2012 - 3:25pm

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GG_Silverman's picture
GG_Silverman from Seattle June 22, 2012 - 9:55pm

Hi Hanna!
Do you have any examples of female authors whose careers were damaged by having their books marketed as "beach reading?" Just curious about what you mean about being labeled a beach read not being great for the reputation of a writer.