How do you categorize fiction reading?

I ran into a problem the other day when trying to describe my reading habits.

As I’ve said many times, I usually have a few books going at once—at least one nonfiction and one fiction. Because I tend to get bogged down in nonfiction, these are the books I am most likely to start more of before the current read is completed. Plus, I find that many nonfiction books make their most important point in the first third of the book, spend the second third backing it up, and then often lose focus in the end as they start rambling about related concepts that may someday become their next project… but anyway, I digress.

My real problem is that I sometimes have a similar problem with fiction, where I’ll pick up a challenging book, get tired partway through, and then turn to something less challenging for a break. I generally think this is a fine practice, but I don’t like my options for how to describe this second category of fiction.

In general, I find that my fiction reading falls into two main groups:

  1. What is generally called “literary fiction,” meaning the types of books from authors who go on to win prizes of the Nobel or Pulitzer variety.
  2. Everything else, which I hesitantly refer to as “light fiction,” or “escape fiction,” or “genre fiction,” or anything not likely of receiving a Pulitzer Prize, but that I can burn through in roughly a day.

You see my dilemma, I hope.

Making a distinction between “literary” and “non-literary” fiction reeks of snobbery by endowing the former with a desirable quality and then defining everything else by the absence of that quality.

Sometimes I see this other category called “light” fiction, which I don’t like, because it implies triviality, and I don’t think there’s anything trivial about a book just because it happens to be a mystery or a romance or a sci-fi novel.

Speaking of, I sometimes hear people avoid the dichotomy by describing books in this category by their genre—fantasy, horror, thriller, etc. But here’s the problem I’m getting at: When I say that I have about three books going at a time, and that one is non-fiction and another is literary fiction, then that third book is usually one of these other genres.

Which is to say that, collectively, science fiction, mystery, romance, fantasy, and their counterparts in youth and YA fiction form about a third of my reading material.

And if they don’t, it’s only because reading them is so much easier, most of the time—to the extent that I can easily burn through a thousand pages in a weekend, which I certainly could not do if those thousand pages were GEB or Infinite Jest or something.

For now, I’ve taken to calling this collective pile “escape fiction.” By that I mean that this writing is something I escape into—more so that with literary fiction. And I think that this term hits on a positive quality these books have which makes them so necessary.

I read nonfiction to be informed about the world on a factual level, and I read literary fiction both to revel in the talents of authors whose grasp of the English language on a fundamental level is a delight to experience, and to feel stretched outside myself in a way that is good for me, even if it isn’t always comfortable.

But I read escape fiction when I need to rest. I read it to mentally unspool for a while, to unhook from real-life cares and anxieties and get safely lost in another world. This is the reading I do for fun, and if it weren’t, on some level, fun, I’m not sure what the point of it would be.

Although even saying that, it’s not as though these books still don’t break my heart. They can still be plenty challenging, thought-provoking, boundary-bending, etc. I just also know that when I walk away from the book, if it was a good book, I will have enjoyed myself.

I can’t say the same of literary fiction, in the sense that I have at plenty of times walked away from a book (or, for that matter a film, or a piece of music, or some other art form) with the distinct feeling that what I’d experienced was excellent and worthwhile and something I was glad to have experienced, and would experience again, and would recommend other people experience, but not a thing that I enjoyed, because enjoyment was not the point.

The Pixar film Inside Out comes to mind—not as a thing I didn’t enjoy, but as a thing which I enjoyed immensely, but which probably also falls into a lighter genre category than, say, Schindler’s List, which I want to see but don’t expect to enjoy.

Anyway. The big lesson from Inside Out (spoiler) is that learning to experience the full range of emotions—including sadness—is an essential part of developing as a human being. And that another part of maturing is realizing that certain memories and experiences can be a mix of emotions—even ones that seem, on the surface, to conflict.

Most of us, left on our own, would prefer to shelter ourselves from unpleasant emotions. But in doing so, we become less capable of handling those difficult things when they come our way. I believe that being a more resilient, more compassionate person means learning how to manage challenging emotions when they come our way, and intentionally working to understand perspectives that differ from our own. Good literature is one of many ways to do this.

But there’s a flip side. Good literature grows our emotional capacity, but temporarily depletes it in the process—like exercise. I think most of us need time to recover from a really intense piece of literature, otherwise we become emotionally exhausted. That’s what escape fiction is for—a necessary and valuable part of a healthy literary life so that we can challenge ourselves with a really hard book but then recover with something more enveloping.

Without escape fiction, many of us would lose the joy of reading. And without literary fiction, many of us would miss an opportunity to push the limits of our emotional capacity and development.

I’m still not satisfied with the terms I have to describe these different styles of fiction, especially as I believe that the distinctions are often blurry, and that as individuals, we all have different preferences for what we like to escape into. But if you’ve gotten this far, I hope thinking about fiction in this way encourages you to read more widely.

And at the very least, you’ll know what I’m talking about now when I’m categorizing my reading lists.