I’ve been having really bad insomnia for a couple of weeks. I’ve wanted to find something like a good old-fashioned murder mystery to read before bed. I decided to try The Guest List by Lucy Foley, based on comparisons to Agatha Christie, in particular Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None. I read the first thirty or so pages in one night, and I fell asleep eager to see how the rest of the story played out. The next night, I finished the entire rest of the book.
So now I’m torn. I’ve always been frustrated by how slowly I read, so I rarely get into books and don’t read all that much. I can’t even remember the last time I got engrossed enough in a book to finish it in one night. This one is a page-turner in the purest and most cliched sense: short chapters jumping back and forth in time, a number of intriguing omissions from each character’s story, a cliffhanger at the end of every few pages.
At the same time, I’ve got to admit that it was all pretty silly and predictable. I’d figured out who the murderer was at just after the halfway mark, even before we were explicitly told who the murder victim was. The references to popular technology and snobs-vs-slobs class divides seem just shy of authentic, as if the book is laser-targeted at a very specific type of thirty-something who’s just familiar enough with online pop culture to be aware that they’re not familiar enough with it to be cool. And the most shocking thing in the book was the absurd lengths it went to in order to tie all its characters’ tragic backstories together. I realize that’s a trope of murder mysteries, Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None in particular, but when you have a book that’s told almost entirely in the first person, it stretches credulity too far.
For years, I’ve been insisting that the division between high art and low art is a pretentious, snobby, and unnecessary one. Being well-crafted and engaging has merit in and of itself. In the visual arts and film, we can recognize the value of something that is beautifully made but doesn’t aspire to be “high art,” so why shouldn’t that apply to everything else. There should be no such thing as a “guilty pleasure.”
The Guest List is making me rethink that.
Or more accurately: it’s making me rethink whether I actually care. For years I’ve been trying to make a case that there’s not a meaningful distinction between “high art” and “low art.” Instead, I should’ve realized long ago that the people who insist on making the distinction are people whose opinions I don’t particularly care about. And the people who’d actually be affected by the distinction — creators and fans — don’t actually care.
Lucy Foley’s brief bio says that she worked in the publishing entry, so that, plus the fact that The Guest List is a best-seller that’s made it to the top of several recommendation lists, including the one that made me find out about it, all make me suspect that she knew exactly what she wanted to accomplish with the book, and she accomplished it several times over. I’m kind of skeptical she considers a discussion of “literary merit” at all relevant.
I think more than anything else, the fact that I consider it so bizarre and alien to read a book for pleasure is a sign that I simply don’t read enough. And also, my own biases about genre. I’ve read two Star Wars novels this year — okay, one and a half before I gave up on it — so presumably, I understand how genre fiction works. I suppose I’ve just always had a shallow assumption that books involving lasers and/or elves are exempt from literary requirements. I’d never considered mysteries or thrillers set in “the real world” to be “genre fiction,” even though they’re every bit as much.
The truth is that the whole question of high art vs low art, genre fiction vs literature, graphic novels vs comic books, TV vs film, movies vs cinema, etc, stopped being at all relevant over a decade ago. The lines have blurred, the gatekeepers have been made obsolete, and good riddance to all of it. The only times it reasserts itself nowadays is when a snob pipes up with an opinion that can be ginned up into a controversy: “oh no, that guy said the MCU movies aren’t ‘cinema!’ Let’s write 10,000 essays and blog posts about it!”
And, of course, it reasserts itself when after years being told about the transformative power of challenging literature, I reflexively get defensive when I realize I’ve just enjoyed reading or watching something that was strictly entertaining instead of insightful. I mean, I’ll spend hours sitting in front of YouTube watching strangers recording themselves going to a theme park, but God forbid I read a book that’s not “challenging” enough. I suppose I spent too many years in school having it stressed that I should be Reading At Or Above My Grade Level, that I never quite got over it. And considering that I’m pushing 50 and I’m still voluntarily writing book reports, that seems to be the most likely explanation.
To be clear, I’m not trying to defend blatantly commercial or derivative works. But then, I don’t think anybody’s asking me to. Of the two Star Wars books I mentioned, one was essentially an advertisement for the last movie, while the other was essentially an advertisement for a theme park expansion. Still, one felt so uninspired that it might as well have just been ad copy, while the other felt like someone genuinely wanting to share a story. It ended up being fun and engaging and a perfectly fine use of my time, no matter whether someone else thinks it’s “trash.”