Lowbrow Books For Highbrow People

"Serious" writer with "serious" glasses.

In the course of internetting regarding mass market books for my last post, I came across several articles that mentioned “Franzenfreude.”  This non-word was created as part of a Twitter campaign waged by mass market faves Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner.  The two were questioning why “chick-lit” books, books that deal with women-centric themes, get ignored by the literary establishment while similar books written by men get considered serious works of fiction.  Men like Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, Freedom, and every other books that “teaches us about ourselves.”  Franzenfreud.

I have some opinions about this matter, namely that JPic and JWein may be dismissively considered “chick-lit” for reasons beyond their women-centric themes.  Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, after all, is a female-centric book that is without question also serious literature.  Sittenfeld has a freakishly magnificent eye for detail and nuance, of course, a quality that is probably lacking from most of JPic’s otherwise entertaining fare.

I don't see your glasses, Picoult.

In any case, the Franzenfreud controversy started me thinking more broadly about the division between highbrow and lowbrow literature and what qualifies as what.  Thinking about this, in turn, has made it clear that despite my best pretentions, much of what I enjoy reading is patently lowbrow.  Lowbrow reading, after all, has the benefit of being as fun as watching television without the disadvantage of rotting your brain.

So, in honor of Franzenfreud, I have decided to recommend five of my favorite lowbrow books.  I considered “lowbrow” reading to be anything popular that does NOT aim to teach us about ourselves and is geared primarily towards being entertaining.  I did consider books outside of the mass market frame because mindless comedy reads are rarely released in this form, but at least one of the following books could comfortably be called “chick-lit.”

I think most of what is below will satisfy even the highbrows among us.

1. I Just Want My Pants Back – David J. Rosen

This is the book that inspired me to write this post.  I’ve recommended it many a time, both to friends with better taste than me and those with worse.  Nobody on either side of the aisle has ever responded with anything but love for this hilarious romp.  Yeah, it’s a romp.  That’s all.

I Just Want My Pants Back is about a 20-something directionless slacker.  Granted the topic holds relevance to the lives of almost every person I know, but the story covers only cliché areas like work and dating.  But it teaches us about the part of the human condition called laughter, okay Franzen?

Several years ago some bigwigs thought they could turn Pant’s hilarity into a TV series, and, predictably, produced a show of shockingly poor quality.  One unfortunate result was that the book now appears to be even lower-brow than before, if that was possible.

So read this book as if no television producer has ever heard of it and let all your pretensions go while you laugh for four hours straight.  It should not take longer than that to read, but if you’re a slow reader be forewarned: It is impossible to put this book down.  Clear your day.

2. Personal Days – Ed Park

Remember when we were all supposed to read Then We Came To The End, by Joshua Ferris because it was witty and cutting and somehow we still felt sad for most of it? (Full disclosure: I LOVED Then We Came To The End.  I read it more than once.  It just made me sad, okay?)

Well Personal Days is the lighter option.  You’ll be reminded of the emptiness that is your life and the insanity that is corporate thinking, but wont have to worry about picking apart the larger meaning regarding human nature and tragedy.  You’ll feel like you spent six hours huddled around a water cooler gossiping in the most satisfying possible way, no emotional rollercoaster and later depression necessary.

3. Girls of Riyadh – Rajaa Alsanea

Did you enjoy reading Sex and the City?  I didn’t.  Some things are better suited to television.

I surprised myself, then, when I picked up a lipstick red edition of Girls of Riyadh at an airport bookstore in the Middle East.  The novel should ostensibly have been just as boring as Sex and the City with the additional annoyance of having footnotes to explain all the weird Saudi references.  It is not particularly well written (or translated) and falls very comfortably into the chick-lit cannon.

BUT (!), this novel is about four girls dressing, dating, and giggling in SAUDI ARABIA.  It was, as expected, a totally mindless read, but it offered the most relevant, interesting, and relatable portrait of Saudi Arabia I have ever been a party to.  There are not many books that give accounts of young life in closed nations.  My knowledge of Saudi Arabia has always been notoriously bereft of people.  I literally had no sense of what everybody there did everyday for most of my life.  This book changed that.

4. That Old Cape Magic – Richard Russo

I just have a soft spot for this read.  I find Richard Russo a little tedious most of the time but this just flew by and made me kind of happy and nostalgic.  I still can’t put my finger on why.

I also understand that most of Russo’s books are considered “real” literature.  Something, however, about the popularity of That Old Cape Magic and its beach-reading style story made me feel like it was okay to include it in this list.

5. This Is Where I Leave You – Jonathan Tropper

Be forewarned: This is a book about death.

Fortunately, it is also a book about hilarity.   It somehow walks this line without being crass, disrespectful, or unduly depressing.

You know how when somebody close to you dies, you suddenly realize how many books, television shows, and movies out there are about death?  And it becomes annoyingly clear that you will be reminded of your own loss every single day by some unsuspecting pop cultural item.

I read the book on a plane on my way back to Los Angeles after dealing with a loss.  I bought it without reading the back because it was prominently displayed (I have a real issue with doing this.  See post above.)   Naturally I was dismayed to discover that I was going to have to re-live the awful month I had just passed in book form.

Somehow after reading Tropper’s account, however, I felt both better and worse and exactly how I wanted to feel.  I’d recommend this book to anybody who is dealing with death or, conversely, not dealing with death at all.  So, like, anybody in general.


Stay tuned for Tania’s picks at some later date!




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