Good fiction has the strange power to introduce us to reality. Great fiction does that in a challenging and sublime way, forcing us to contend with difficult and transcendent truths. Because it immerses us in mysteries, the very act of reading it can refine us. Yet there are many decent contemporary books that are neither great, nor timeless. Most books must be content to be good, bad, engrossing, or forgettable, in their own common way. Even so, popular fiction, when done well, is a wonderful and necessary thing.
A door that opens into a different world. Spaceships of colossal size. Intrigue in high places. A murder case that isn’t what it seems. A common man against the world. A clash of wills in a corporate boardroom. A secret that should have stayed buried. Love that lasts a lifetime. This is the stuff of contemporary fiction. This is the drama of the popular.
While great literature captures the sublime and holds it within itself, popular literature merely wishes for the enjoyment of its encounter. This is the literature of play, the literature of adventure, the literature of closure. It achieves these ends, sometimes by allowing the reader to see the high drama already present in his own world, sometimes by allowing him to enter another world that illuminates his own. There is a time for struggle, for weighty things, for mysteries as bottomless as the sea. But there is also a time to play in that sea, to experience the refreshing catharsis of good triumphing over evil, truth over lies, love over hate, life over death, and all between pages of a dog-eared, paperback novel.
Popular literature has the power to refresh us. It is both a break from, and preparation for the very same mysteries that are explored in the more refined kinds of literature.
There is also a good in being contemporary and popular. Contemporary literature is the literature of now, of newness. Beauty is not only ancient; it is ever-new. Likewise, to be popular is to be oriented toward the people, toward the common man. This can be a healthy and wholesome thing, since not every truth can be known from the vantage point of an ivory tower. There are ordinary truths that no academic chicanery can extinguish, and these are often the stuff of popular fiction.
Any fiction that effectively introduces a reader to the drama of truth, goodness, and beauty, can be considered “good” or “decent”, within the limits of its genre and type. Considerations of literary greatness are of a different order than considerations of quality in general. Likewise, any fiction is bad when it portrays lies, wickedness, or ugliness as goods, or when the degree or quantity of disorder it contains is so pervasive as to make it not worth one’s time. But truth, while it is as hard and singular as a diamond, also has many facets. Differences of opinion about the quality of this or that book are inevitable. For the same reason, book reviews are a valuable resource.
Anyone who agrees on the value of reading popular and contemporary books, will also the agree on the importance of seeing them reviewed. Assuming good judgment, the best evaluation comes, of course, from reading a book oneself, but with so many books published in our time, that’s just not possible! We can learn a lot from book reviews by writers with similar tastes and similar judgment to our own. In this way, we can better arrive at a shortlist of contemporary books that are worth our precious time. If we have other readers in our care, contemporary book reviews provide a great resource for conversation. We may even decide to read some of the books our children read, and they, in turn, may be more encouraged to read books we recommend to them.
Story is a universal language. That language has the power to put us in dialog with the great truths of life. While there are great and timeless books, not every book is like that, nor should it be. Contemporary books can be a delightful way to encounter the world around us. With good judgment and with the proper resources, we can benefit from current fiction, while also being readers of more timeless works.