Half-Baked Ideas: On Giving the People What They Want

A few years ago I was reading, I believe, Elizabeth Berg, when it hit me: This was, in my view, lady porn, by which I mean that it seemed intent on offering to a particular group…well, exactly what they wanted. I thought this contemptuously: Who, I thought, would only listen to what they wanted to hear?

But the weird thing is, I had a similar thought about The Cobble Street Cousins series, by Cynthia Rylant. If you don't already have a 7-year-old girl addicted to this, it's something you might want to consider: Three cousins live with their beautiful maiden aunt (a florist!). Their parents are ballet dancers, away on tour! They live in a beautiful attic! They make cookies! And I thought: Wow, it gives them exactly what they want. But this time, I thought it affectionately.

What gives? I have just finished my third and last library sale book: Songs Without Words. It's by Ann Packer, and I somehow thought it was by Ann Patchett (oops). But, I thought, why not give it a try?

It seemed to me that it too did this thing: it offered a certain kind of wish fulfillment, that of the well-heeled, well educated white mother. First it scares her with the specter of her worst fears: your children are not OK, your husband is repelled by you, your best friend finds your neediness insupportable. And then…everything is better (as does, indeed, sometimes happen). Your children are fine, your husband is attracted to you, your best friend wants to have lunch.

Why am I contemptuous again? Why is it OK for children to be given every pleasure they long for in books: cloaks of invisibility! Dragons! Boxes of chocolates!, and how is it different (and I think that it is somehow) to give poor adults some wish fulfillment? Why does it feel so different?

11 thoughts on “Half-Baked Ideas: On Giving the People What They Want

  1. The only thing that’s freaking me out right this moment is that this morning I finished Colum McCann’s new novel and put it on the bookshelf. I picked up a paperback lying on top of the other books and looked at it for a moment. I didn’t know where it had come from and don’t remember reading it. It was Ann Packer’s “Songs Without Words.” And I, too, thought, “Hmmm–I don’t remember this Patchett book.”


  2. I was about to reply that I had just read my first bit of “lady porn” yesterday, but then I Googled Elizabeth Berg and realized you meant the “lady” part and not so much the “porn.” So I can only speak from the experience of one erotica short story that mysteriously appeared on my Kindle.
    I’ve gone through a patch of recently reading exactly what I want (mainly some combination of magic and circus, though I really liked the Lev Grossman books) but I think your frustration comes from books that offer absolutely no challenges to the reader. I think books for adults, even when ensconced in the comfortably of genre, should still offer us the opportunity, should we choose to take it, to think more deeply about the larger world. Elizabeth Hunter does this brilliantly in her elemental world series which is, I am almost ashamed to admit, a paranormal romance with gasp, vampires. Yesterday’s lady porn, not so much.
    I think for kids, they already spend a tremendous amount of time thinking as deeply as they can about the larger world and their place in it so sometimes they need a book where they just don’t have to do that. Sometimes they really need a book to throw new wrenches into their thought patterns (I also finished Wonder yesterday, so there’s some schizophrenic reading for you…) but I think there is a place for both.


  3. hmm. i think I’m going to be thinking this out as I write it. and what I think is: it’s okay for everyone to have exactly what they want: kids who love ballet and cookies, middle-class moms who want their families to be OK, guys who like spy adventure,…everybody. everybody gets to have what they want, everybody gets to be happy.
    BUT. or maybe AND: ONLY getting exactly what you want all the time is boring, for kids and adults. 7-year-old girls might be perfectly happy reading Cobble Street Cousins (or, in my kid’s case, its even-less-classy distant cousin Rainbow Magic) for a while, and that’s great. But there comes a time when they’re ready to mix it up with a little Clementine or Ivy and Bean, and it is also great that those books are there for them when that time comes. And a stint of Elizabeth Berg can shore those (us) moms up until they’re (we’re) ready to be braced by something like Olive Kitteridge or The Interestings (although in my case recently it turned out that The Interestings was, in fact, exactly what I wanted).
    It reminds me of music; did you ever hear that This American Life episode, years and years ago, where someone did a survey of all the elements of music that people most wanted to hear? (low male voices, low female voices, steady tempo, singing about love, etc.) and then made a song that incorporated all those elements. And the song was incredibly boring! Whereas the song made up of all the things people hated (advertising jingles, opera, bagpipes, children’s choirs) was this amazing gleeful trainwreck. sometimes it’s soothing to read the Most Wanted Book, but too much of that is just not enough of everything else.


  4. I love els answer! I am going with that! And may I say Olive Kitteridge was so wonderful! I read it this summer. So now I feel like I need to go get The Interestings.


  5. I think that when we’re young kids we still believe wish fulfillment is possible. Past the age of 13 however we pretty much get it that the world is not going to deliver the goods (nice breasts, clear skin, a decent retirement plan). So those grown-up novels that feel like fairy tales also feel false – and reading something that feels false is not satisfying (at least to me). That said, I indulge in a good smutty romance novel once in a while …


  6. Interesting. I wonder, too, whether kids books have cool things, while adult books have desirable…occurrences, for want of a better word. So a cape isn’t character related, while a child’s recovery from suicidal depression based on a renewed interest in art books is. I feel like this has something to do with it all, but I am not sure what.


  7. well, kids do like THINGS a lot in general, while middle-aged adults, at least most of the ones I know, are kind of over their romance with physical stuff and just want good stuff to happen. So it makes sense that wish-fulfillment fiction would reflect that.


  8. could it maybe have to do with the sense that it’s good for kids to read anything, anything at all, because reading builds their decoding skills and comfort with narrative and love of books, which will all help them In The Future? While us adults should already have all that under our belt and not need any trashy enticements to read, being as how we’re already In The Future?


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