As someone who gets paid to read (and teach) Chaucer and Dante and others whom people view as “classics,” I still spend a lot of time reading genre fiction.
I don’t even have excuses, not real ones, anyway. I could tell you I cut my reading teeth on my mom’s romances (I did—at 14 I devoured much of the Danielle Steele oeuvre in a summer). If I were to go there, I’d also praise RL Stine for keeping my boyo in books through much of 3rd and 4th grade, by the end of which he was an avowed reader, one interested even in writing his own books.
So we could say so-called “pulp” novels and series are good gateways to other books. We could say they train one how to read fiction, and therefore, literature. They introduce us to plot and character, and each genre has its own conventions in terms of stock characters and structure. Enough trips through a fictional world, or a science-fictional world, or a murder mystery milieu, and you know what to expect, whom you’ll meet, and roughly the order of things as they proceed. The spunky heroine will win over the rugged, taciturn maverick; the butler will be discovered; the signature RL Stine twist will appear and satisfy.
They’re no Dante, but… they’re not supposed to be.
I’ve read hundreds of mysteries now (I switched gears from romance to mystery sometime in my 20s and never looked back), in addition to my Dante and Chaucer, and I can say a few things. First, there is something very satisfying about the speed of reading a popular novel. You can really get swept away, engrossed, lose track of time, and come out disoriented because you are fully steeped in the world you’ve just given yourself to. You flip pages like a demon, trying to get deeper immersed, trying to chase the characters, unfurl the mystery, get to the end. That speed, that rush, that voluntary oblivion, you don’t get in Dante. And it’s cool. It’s a fine reason to read.
You can also get to know characters very well if they have several books to develop. In that way, reading a series is akin to watching a television series—lots of time to see the characters in action and lots of different circumstances, developing different aspects of their personality. But in a book, you do considerable work to construct the characters. You imagine their physical appearance, and you have more freedom in seeing them act. Television actors are intermediaries, offering you their reading of a character. When you’re reading, it’s all you, and there’s something magic in that.
Finally, one thing Agatha Christie has on Dante is volume. Dante is awesome—one of my favorites—but I mostly read and reread the Divine Comedy. Agatha Christie wrote eighty novels. One of my modern—living (gasp!)–mystery writers has written well over 200 and is not dead yet. That means, despite the conventions of my chosen genre, (and remembering there are conventions in all texts, even “high literature”), I have a nearly inexhaustible supply of new stories. That’s worth a lot.
So popular fiction has the rush, the characters-cum-friends, and the novelty cards. Not a bad hand. I’m not going to quit my day job or anything, but I’m also not going to put my book down long enough to respond when someone asserts that I’m reading pulp.