In Defense of Fluffy Fiction
It's weird to me how “light” or “fun” can often be used as an insult in terms of fiction and entertainment. We speak of guilty pleasures, things we read or watch, that it have no value but we enjoy them anyway. We dismiss a work of fiction as a “popcorn” flick as if that delegates it to some sort of side category where it shouldn't be considered in the same breath as “serious” art. I do it too, warning people if something I like is “fluffy” or just for fun or even a little silly. But isn't it weird that the emotions we associate with “light” and “fluffy” fiction are more often positive whereas the deep and dark often makes us contemplate things that make us fearful, sad, doubtful … and not that there is anything bad with exploring negative emotions in fiction (I'm a big proponent of it, personally. I think it lets us work through things, learn to feel empathy, and develop coping strategies for when we encounter those things in real life... but that's a whole other post), but why do things that make us smile or laugh immediately feel like they are lesser to us than things that break our heart? Why is a joke of less value than a lecture? And why do we feel to need to apologize for things we enjoy
Light fiction has a purpose.
To me, I think it comes down to one thing: the purpose of a story. Does a story need a purpose beside being a story? There are a lot of readers and writers who seem to think so. Some of it is that they need a story to say something important, to have a lesson, to teach you something. A story that is seen as “light,” according to this, either doesn't teach anything or teaches a lesson that's on the sweet side rather than the tough truth side (Think “friendship is magic” or Vin Diesel rasping about “Family.”). These “easy pill” lessons supposedly have less value than the social, moral, or spiritual issues tackled in “serious” fiction. But even aside from the lessons you might learn from seeing a plucky underdog become a champion in their chosen field because they never gave up, story itself has a purpose if it entertains and makes us happy. Joy is a purpose.
Light fiction can be good for you.
Light fiction can be a coping strategy for those who suffer from stress or anxiety, which one of the reasons why I think “mindless” is a foolish label for it. Minds, like bodies, need both exercise and rest. Maybe difficult and deep fiction is the gym routine that hurts you to make your body stronger while light fiction is the bubble bath that soothes the aches or the comfy chair you rest in when your work is done.
Also, the amount of fan theories that come out of supposedly light entertainment definitely suggests to me that people do not turn off their brains to absorb light fiction. Brains work even when they're sleeping, so imagining that they somehow turn off when watching cartoons or reading comic books seems a stretch. It might not be as strenuous as thinking done during other consumption, but it is still thinking. To continue the exercise/self-care metaphor, light fiction is the walk through a garden to difficult fiction's “tough mudder.”
People sometimes assume dark=depth and light=meaningless.
The idea that light fiction is mindless or useless doesn't take into account that light fiction can still have depth … and being dark and gritty doesn't always mean you have something worth saying.
It's hard to write a story that says nothing (unless you're getting into absurdist fiction but even that reveals something about how the author sees the world), and some very deep and dark fiction can be broken down to simple basic themes. To have a story where things happen in a way that makes sense and satisfies a reader, you need a viewpoint. If what the characters are struggling for (be it to find true love or save their local rec center) doesn't matter, then the story is boring, so to make your work of fiction compelling you have to convince your reader that those things matter. You have to say something about WHY they matter, otherwise, it's meaningless and there's no investment for the reader.
I also very much think we get out of a story what we bring into it.
Some time ago I watched the Rob Reiner romantic dramedy (yes, I'm calling it that. Portmanteaus are fun), The Story of Us, in which Michelle Pfeiffer's character gives the following talking head monologue: When I was in college, I had to write this paper....it was for some philosophy class I was taking, on any book that we thought best depicted the way that we viewed the world...and I can remember some people picking books by the great thinkers...Kierkegaard and Plato...some kids chose the Bible...I wrote my paper on Harold and the Purple Crayon...it's a small book, about a little boy who draws the world the way he wants it to be with his magic crayon, and I just loved that book because it was about everything that I wasn't.
If you've ever had or taken care of small children, there's a good chance you know this book. It was a favorite for both my daughters up until preschool. It's not a deep story. It doesn't hand you a message, but to Pfeiffer's character it was aspirational. She wanted to be someone who could take charge and make their reality, and having read it at least triple digit times, I think you could make a good argument that it IS a story about making the life you want with the resources left to you … or it's just a tale about an imaginative little boy who draws on the walls a lot.
Was the author's intent to give that message? Or was the author just trying to make something that would entertain a four year old? Or both? And does meaning have more ...well … meaning if it is intentional instead of being something we bring to the table ourselves and the book helps us put it together. I don't know.
Yes. No. Maybe.
The thing is, even with complicated, deep fiction people often disagree as to the meaning and the message. I think the main difference between light and deep fiction is while consuming light fiction you are very rarely forced to stop and ask, “But what does it mean” … because either the meaning is right there on the surface and easily ingested (Friendship is good. True love conquers all. Never give up! Never surrender!) or it's so subtle that you ingest it like a gummy vitamin in the shape of a dinosaur and don't even think about what it might be planting in your mind and soul (which is way harmful lessons in these sorts of fiction, once discovered, can feel like even more of a betrayal. It's the urban legend of the poisoned trick or treat candy. Something sweet and harmless that ends up doing harm).
But isn't deep fiction good, too? Are you saying dark and gritty themes are bad?
No. None of what I said in defense of light fiction takes away from the need for heavier fiction. Part of the problem is we live in a world that is more divided than that car the Mythbusters shot a rocket sled at (I don't think they ever managed to break that thing clear in half, did they? I need to look up those clips). We feel we need to label some forms of entertainment as good and others as bad … or at the very least be able to say with certainty that one is “better.” Admittedly, I think both sides of this debate encourage this divide. Lovers of dark fiction may sit on their high seats and claim lovers of light fiction are only feeding themselves candy when they should be eating meat … but I've also seen lovers of light, cozy fiction chiding lovers of dark and difficult fiction by claiming the dark will get in their brains and make them in turn bad people … sort of a garbage in, garbage out debate on both sides, with each side assuming that the other side is garbage … both sides forgetting that it's not what goes into a man, but what comes out of him that matters in the long haul.
I might argue that only ingesting one particular thing, dark or light, makes you that weird kid who lives down the street and only eats mayonnaise on saltines.
I think maybe the take away I want to get (and as Weird Al would say, I guess this was a roundabout way of saying this), before you dismiss something someone else likes or apologize for liking something you like, consider the why of the matter, what is driving you to express your opinion in a negative way, what you hope to get out of making the judgment call … and yeah, it's fine to not like a thing for any number of reasons. I'm not saying you should go out and force yourself to watch My Little Ponies and cute cat videos until your brain has given in and you have been assimilated into the fluffy collective (though we do have cookies …). I'm just saying there's nothing wrong with letting the sunshine in every so often.