Thoughts on Reading Trashy Novels

It is not a surprise to anyone that reads this blog regularly that I enjoy reading.  It is one of my favorite ways to relax, think and process.  So this past long weekend my wife and I and the extended family went up to my mother-in-law’s cabin.  Over the weekend I read three novels, a Kindle short and parts of two more non-fiction books.

My tendency is to review every book I read.  But I decided there was nothing in particular that either recommended the two trashy novels that I read, nor a good reason to discourage the reading of the particular books.  So I am going to just give some thoughts on the reading of trashy novels.  If you are really interested I read these two. (Yes there is a content warning.)

Unrealistic Expectations

One of the biggest, and legitimate complaints about trashy novels is that they set up unrealistic expectations about life.  They are filled with incredibly rich, incredibly beautiful people who seem to have lots of time.  In the real world there are not a lot of 28 year old self made billionaires, but they seem to pop up pretty frequently in novels.

Even in romance books that are not filled with explicit sex, there is an insinuation that the people of these novels do little other than have sex.  Even the novels tend to make fun of the amount of sex these people have.  But the problem is that often it is the sex that seems to define the relationship instead of the relationship building a safe place for sex.

We are all adults, we get this intellectually, but in the real world, just become you love them, and even if you are married, it is not a guarantee of great sex.  I think Christians teaching plays into this just as much, and maybe more than the trashy novels.  If you grew up in the Evangelical world you were told, probably a lot, that if you waited your wedding night you would have mind blowing sex (probably in those exact words.)  If you have not figured it out yet, it is a lie.  Even if you have good sex now, you will at some point have issues.

The Hero

One of the thing I like about reading trashy novels (although it is probably equally unrealistic) is that there usually is a hero, maybe more than one.  For all of the sex, language and violence, most of the time the story is pretty traditional.  There is a person or a group of people in trouble and someone is going to save them.  One of the seemingly missed themes about the 50 Shades of Grey books last year ( reviewed 1, 2 and 3), was the redemption of Christian Grey by the end of the third book.  Anastasia was the hero and saved Christian by her love of him.  Christian was a more traditional hero and saved Ana from a murderer.  Both people acted as a hero.  Similarly in the books that I read this weekend, both members of the couple had horrible abusive pasts.   In the end the love from the other (eventually unconditional and real) brought about healing.

Unlike a lot of traditional action adventure hero stories, the hero in trashy novels is often more than one person.  And unlike reading a James Bond novel, we actually can be a hero for those around us by giving ourselves to them.  Yes there are some real problems with the way books like this save the characters.  It often includes sex but the themes are still there.

The Twilight Phenomena

One of the most significant complaints about the Twilight books was Bella’s utter absorption in all things Edward.  If there is no Edward, then Bella has no reason to exist.  That type of pain and attachment is common through most trashy novels.  When Ana left Christian he was at a crisis.  When Eva and Gideon, in this most recent set of novels, separate it is full blown depression and crisis.

Clearly that is not all made up.  People get left all the time and there is real pain, lots of people slip into depression.  So I think the complaint is that these books use this type of pain as a common plot point, not that this type of absorption is made up.

When I read this type of attachment (which clearly verges on a type of co-dependency at times) I often think of the way that our relationship to Christ is described.  This type of utter absorption is exactly what we are told should be our relationship to Christ.  We should love Christ above all other things, above family, above money, above our own life.

So is the complaint about Bella (and everyone else) that she loves Edward with all of her heart, or that in loving Edward with all of her heart that she doesn’t love Jesus the same way?  Either way I find the complaint unfair.  Because in the right context, that type of love is celebrated.  The complaint with Bella is that she was too young.  But there are people that fall in love, and stay in love from a very young age.

Bad Decisions

Anyone that has read a trashy novel has at some point wanted to throw the book across the room in frustration.  (An expensive proposition if you have a kindle.)  Either the people just make flat out bad decisions, they seek after revenge instead of reconciliation or there are narrow points where the couple just can’t get back together because of timing issues.

One good thing about trashy novels is that it can help shed light on the bad decisions that we make.  It is easier to see bad decisions in other people than ourselves.  One of the gifts that books give us is that we can see the results of bad decisions that other people make without having to actually live those bad decisions.

The hard part is actually making the right decisions when it comes to our own life.  Christian and Gideon are billionaires.  If they make a bad decision they can spend some of their money to try to solve it.  If we make a bad decision, it has real, and often long term, consequences.

The Content Warning

I am not a Christian that thinks that just because there is a content warning we should not partake.  Lots of people part ways with me right there.  And I know that there is lots of potential harm.  Unrealistic expectations, when made on real people, will end badly.  De-sensitized view of sexuality (or violence) leads to not taking seriously actual harm to real people.  I do not want to minimize this.  There are real people that just should not read trashy novels, others should not watch violent movies, others should not drink any alcohol.  We all have a propensity toward sin and we all have weaknesses toward specific sins.  We need community around us to help of stay away from the areas where we will lose control.

On other other hand, there is some real beauty that can come about from things that have content warnings.  If you say no to all nudity, then you lose some great pieces of art.  If you say no to all alcohol then you lose the positive ways that alcohol is attached to celebration.  If you say no to all bad language, you lose some of the ways that very real (legitimate) anger can and should be expressed.

That is not to say that all people should say yes to bad language, nudity and alcohol.  Just that as abstractions, there can be some value in them.

Final Thoughts On Reading Trashy Novels

So while I enjoy the occasional trashy novel I tend to limit them.  This past weekend, and with the Fifty Shades books, both my wife and I read them.  (We don’t read them out-loud together, but we read them at roughly the same time.) It led to a lot of interesting conversation.  I love being able to talk to my wife about books and it is pretty rare that we read the same books.  (I am sure we can find other common books, but this is one place we usually read together.)

As much as there are lots of unreal things that go on in trashy novels, there is also a lot of real things that happen to.  It is one of the reasons that I will probably keep occasionally returning to the trashy novel.  I love a good love story. I like the fairly traditional redemptive arc.  It is not so much that I like being reminded that I am glad that I am not single and in my mid-20s, but that is something that I get out of reading these.  I also get reminded that the life I live has been impacted by Christ and the characters of these stories have felt Christ’s grace.  That is a bit of Jesus Juke, but it is a frequent thought that I have as I read trashy novels.

So have I got this all wrong?  What are your thoughts about reading trashy novels?  (It can be a thought that your friend had, because of course you haven’t read one yourself?)

One Comment

My friend says she agrees with about everything you have said, I don’t know about this topic since I too have never read a trashy novel. Do trashy movies count? Do those have some of the same qualities? I would guess yes. How about T.V. soaps and serials and contemporary news shows!!?? The best point is that I have learned lots from other people’s mistakes although I seem to have committed more than enough of my own! Thank you Jesus for forgiveness.

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