Popcorn Fiction

I’m sitting here with what is one of my favorite afternoon snacks: a bowl of

Popcorn Fiction?

popcorn and a mug of black coffee.  As I was making the popcorn, I started thinking about the term “popcorn fiction.”

The term popcorn fiction is usually used to describe fiction that – like popcorn – is light, airy, and goes down very easily.  I’ve wondered if the term evolved from the association of popcorn and movies.  I’m pretty sure I’ve heard people refer to “popcorn movies” as distinct from “three hanky movies” or “kiddie movies” or suchlike.

However, whereas with movies “popcorn” can be used simply to mean a movie that’s fun and fast, when the same term is applied to books it is almost always used derisively or, at best, slightly apologetically.

I have a friend who is both an avid reader and very smart.  Sometimes, when mentioning a book she’s just finished she’ll say, “It’s popcorn, but it’s kinda fun nonetheless.”

“Beach book” is a term that seems to mean much the same, but it’s more seasonal.  Late every spring, just about the time when kids get their summer reading lists from school, their parents are bombarded with lists of beach books for the summer.  I’ve often thought it unfair that a kid has to pack along Wuthering Heights or Great Expectations  while his or her parents are mulling over whether to grab the book with cover featuring the guy and the big gun or the one with the undressed girl.

I wonder why it is that many people do feel this need to apologize for what they’re reading?  The friend I mentioned above does not apologize when she tells me about a light movie or television show she has just enjoyed.  Is there some idea that the very act of processing prose is a serious act and should be reserved for serious things?  Or is it that people fear being taken for intellectual lightweights if they admit to reading something other than Sartre or Proust?

Well, I will admit that although I do read “serious” works (right now I’m working my way through a Jungian psychological study), I also read lighter works.  Some of what I read might even be termed – horrors! – popcorn.

In fact, from a certain point of view, much of what I read would automatically be termed popcorn because it’s science fiction and fantasy.  Oh!  And I also love YA fiction.  That’s another type of fiction that regularly gets tagged “popcorn” – even though there’s some tremendously thoughtful and intelligent work coming out under that label.

Now I’ll make matters worse.  One of the authors praised (or blamed, depending on your point of view) for introducing a number of techniques from literary fiction into science fiction and fantasy was Roger Zelazny.  He had an M.A. in English, with a specialization in Renaissance and Jacobean tragedy.  He wrote poetry.  Obviously, he was an Intellectual.

I knew Roger well.  I can assure you that, although he read poetry just about every day, and usually had at least one book of history, biography, and some other non-fiction study on his active reading shelf at a given time, he also read a whole lot of really light fiction, too.  One of Roger’s favorites was the “Destroyer” series of action adventure novels.  Back when we were corresponding, he’d often mention he what he was reading.  He didn’t shy away from noting something along the lines of “and I just finished Destroyer number infinity and such, since, having read all the others, I might as well keep up with them.”

So, I’ve put my reputation as a serious intellectual on the line here.  How do you feel about popcorn fiction?  Do you read it or is life too short?  Is your new e-reader a chance to get to all those great French and Russian classics you couldn’t lift before?  If you do read popcorn fiction, what’s the appeal?


11 Responses to “Popcorn Fiction”

  1. Alan Robson Says:

    Oooh! What a can of worms. Reading Science Fiction is one of my very favourite Proust avoidance techniques. I admit it — I’ve never read Proust. Oh! The shame…

    On the other hand, I will confess to having read Satre. I found “La Nausee” to be a wonderful cure for insomnia. Camus, on the other hand, woke me up again. “L’etranger” was just superb.

    It is hard for me to categorise what I read or to distinguish between types. As far as I’m concerned it’s just prose — some good, some bad, some indifferent. If I have to point to “worthy” books (whatever that means) I can legitimately claim to love Austen and Kipling and small doses of Galsworthy and I’ll even admit to a sneaking fondness for the Brontes (one of them taught Sunday School in the village I grew up in (a few years before I was born, of course) so how could I not love them?). Ah! Nested parentheses; who says I can’t write elegantly?

    And, to come a bit more up to date, you can’t beat Kingsley Amis, John Braine and Alan Sillitoe (with whom I share a birthday as well as a Christian name).

    But, without shame, I’ll equally admit to loving “Bride Of The Rat God” by Barabara Hambly (a book Roger Zelazny recommended to me) and that’s about as far from capital ‘L’ Literature as you can possibly get. It’s also the most wonderful fun to read. Popcorn? Possibly so, but what does that have to do with anything?

    There are two writers I admire above all others. Terry Pratchett and J. K. Rowling. And the reason I admire them is that children love them and voluntarily read their books. Anyone who can open a child’s eyes to the magic of words has my vote. Once you start to read words, any words at all, the rest of it takes care of itself.

    I just read words and I don’t measure them against an abstract standard. All I ask is that they hold my interest.


  2. Debbie Says:

    I was just on a panel where people were calling “popcorn” fiction “escapist” fiction. I made the point that all fiction is escapist, it’s inherent in the word fiction!

    I do use the term snack fiction, the meaning being the same as yours, easy to read. But I don’t think I use it as a deragatory term. I love my easy-to-read novels and admire the authors who are able to make them so fun and compelling. I especially like them when I’m terribly busy and just don’t have the time or energy to try and figure out what the author is trying to tell me.

    I love heavier fiction as well; I admire the writers who spend the time to craft this kind of fiction. I especially like this kind of novel when I’m travelling on airplanes, something that will engage me and make me forget that I’m spending hours in a small seat high above the earth trying to get somewhere.

    But I agree with Alan, much of the time I have difficulty telling the difference between the two.

    I love the Kindle because I can read samples of both kinds of books and download whichever one I want at the particular time. I actually read more books of each kind because of my Kindle.


  3. heteromeles Says:

    Light fiction has a very important and underappreciated use: it increases you reading speed.

    My parents taught me this–in fact, it was how they met. They were both engineers in grad school, and the number of technical articles they had to read was slowing their reading speed down. Reading mysteries and SFF kept them sane and reading fast. They got together when my mother saw my father’s place for the first time, and immediately zeroed in on his bookshelf.

    I had the same experience. When I’m feeling fried after doing research or reading some long, often badly written, technical document, light reading feels wonderful. It’s aloe for a thought-burned mind.

    This is actually quite important. If you read nothing but technical stuff, after a while, reading is no fun anymore. If you’re not careful, you may find that any technical paper provokes intense sleepiness, headaches, or other avoidance responses. And as I know from experience, habituating yourself to fall asleep while reading journal articles is a difficult habit to break.

    Keeping reading fun and enjoyable is important, and so are the books people use for this purpose. I think Alton Brown says it best: “Laughing minds are more absorbent.”

  4. Dominique Says:

    I was so pleased when I read your blog today Jane! I have felt the same way for so long, and it was so wonderful to hear my thoughts echoed here. I have some very good friends, who I playfully call book snobs for these very same reasons. They will read pop fiction, and enjoy it for that matter, but then bad-mouth it every chance they can! I think it is also a matter of reading what everyone else is reading. They consider themselves so much more intellectual than everyone else their age, and they can’t bring themselves to read pop fiction simply because it is popular. It is kind of sad really.

  5. Debbie Says:

    That’s interesting, Dominique. I know people that consider all pop fiction as light. And yet there are books like George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones and David Anthony Durham’s Acacia series (among others) that I would not consider light fiction. They’re both fantasy series. Then Jane’s own Child of a Rainless Year.

  6. Fiona Says:

    I guess it also depends on the generation – I’m in my 20’s so I’m use to reading the fantasy and ‘popcorn fiction’ so it doesn’t faze me in the least when people ask me and I’ll tell them I love reading it!

    I also agree with heteromeles, I found that when I was in Gr 8 and we were reading Lord of the Rings, it was definitely a bit harder to work through due to the language and took me a long time to read it but as I began reading more of the popcorn fiction, it was a lot easier to read it more quickly and I would fly through the books (and stay up really late reading). My boyfriend use to joke with me about how long I’d have some books in my hands and how others I’d be done in a day.

    I haven’t read many besides fiction and mainly the fantasy stuff at that…I guess my head is always up in the clouds :p

  7. Laura Says:

    I call them ‘twinkie books’ rather than popcorn fiction, but I am pretty sure they are the same. I used to feel embarrassed to be asked what I was reading, if I was reading twinkie books.

    I read for different reasons. I read non-fiction and technical stuff for work and education. And it may be fascinating and challenging.

    But at the end of a long day, when the nightly news is disheartening or work has been a stressful misery, a good twinkie book is like a warm cup of cocoa… not necessarily good for you, but comforting and a reminder that things could always be worse (at least I am not being chased by a zombie or finding a dead body in my backyard), or that things will get better if I work to make them better (a good HEA ending, or a quest).

    And I have at least achieved the confidence that when asked what I am reading, I just tell the truth. 🙂 Sometimes people look at me like I should be ashamed to be reading what I am reading, but life is too short to be bothered that way anymore. I just try to enjoy each book I read, for whatever reason I am reading it!

  8. Nicholas Wells Says:

    I fear I’m the odd man out on this one. I couldn’t tell you if I’ve read any popcorn fiction or not. I can’t even say if I like it, dislike it, or am indifferent.

    Mind you I tend to ignore labels a lot of times. I’ve seen young adult that thrilled me, and adult books that seam like they should have been young adult. I care only about the story. Is it a good one? Is it well told and interesting? Dose the world live? Can I care at all about the main characters?

    If I get a yes from all four, then that’s good enough for me.

  9. Paul Dellinger Says:

    “Twinkie books”…I like that. Two late writers who come to mind, whose works might be classified as popcorn fiction, are Robert B. Parker (mysteries) and Louis L’Amour (westerns). They seem to be fast reads, they go by rapidly and are enjoyable. The same goes for that “Destroyer” series you mentioned, especially the early ones before it got farmed out to other writers than the original pair.
    They all entertain, and some even enlighten, so it seems time well spent, reading them.

  10. janelindskold Says:

    There are so many good and thoughtful comments here that I could double the list by commenting on each one, but I think I’ll stay more general.

    I’m not sure many English professors would agree with Debbie that all fiction is escapist. After all, they make their livings showing how literary fiction casts a new light on life’s experiences or takes the philosophical or psychological material of the day and dramatizes it for our examination.

    However… I’d like to say that from what I’m seeing here, calling any fiction “escapist” as if that is BAD or WRONG is in itself, bad and wrong.

    What’s wrong with escaping? Doesn’t the need to escape imply that there is something to escape — a prison, so to speak, in life?

    I think that’s what Laura was touching on directly and several of you more indirectly. Paul noted that even apparently light books may “enlighten.” I certainly had my own thoughts on morals, ethics and tolerance shaped as much by apparently “light” fiction as by any other influence.

    Do you need to read a “serious” screed on, say, racial tolerance to learn about the pros and cons of such behavior, or might you read Terry Pratchett’s novel “Men At Arms” and find yourself thinking differently?

    Quite a while ago, I wandered on about “Walking Away From It” (WW 8-11-10) and how sometimes that’s the best thing I can do when writing a story. Why shouldn’t the same principle apply to life? It’s okay to walk away for a little — as long as you walk back and keep “writing” the text of your life.

    There! Wow… Did I ever go on!

  11. Tori Says:

    I feel like what makes popcorn fiction popcorn fiction for me is a novel that is fun to read but it does not challenge me or expand my worldview in any way. So there are urban fantasies that I will read for fun that are written almost more like dialog than prose. That is, they tend to not have any vocabulary I haven’t heard before and sentences have an almost conversational tone. I never have to re-read a sentence in popcorn fiction in order to understand it, but I never find a quotable and beautifully written one either. In popcorn fiction I don’t find profound metaphors or ideas so original I wonder at the genius of the author.

    But! At the end of a long day do I want to curl up with a book that challenges me? No! But do I want to read something that I scoff at thinking I (who I put among the lowest common denominator) could have come up with this story and characters? No! So I tend to split the difference and read really well-written YA. ^_^

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