Airplane Books, Junk Literature, and the Western Canon

All Novels Are Lies, Some Lies Are Better

by Kelly Roberts

3 September 2009

Mort de Francesca de Rimini et de Paolo Malatesta, by
Alexandre Cabanel [c.1870] 

Madame Bovary is Dead, Long Live Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary is Dead, Long Live Madame Bovary

After trying to marry, dream, spend, sleep, and pray her way out of the crushing ordinariness of her existence, Emma Bovary finally runs out of money and decides to end it all in the most excruciating manner possible—by swallowing arsenic. If only she hadn’t clung so desperately to the expectation that her life was going to turn out like the popular novels she’d been devouring since childhood:

They were concerned only with affairs of the heart, with lovers and their lasses, with persecuted damsels for ever swooning in solitary pavilions, with outriders meeting a violent death on every journey, and horses foundering on every page, with dark forests and agonies of sentiment, with vows, sobs, tears and kisses, with moonlit gondolas, with groves and nightingales, with cavaliers who were always brave as lions, gentle as lambs, and virtuous as real men never are, always elegantly dressed and given to weeping with the copious fluency of stone fountains.

Gustav Flaubert’s masterpiece, a bestseller upon publication, Madame Bovary is a novel about the danger of novels (and fictions in general), all of which are lies, as Plato had it—and what’s worse, lies meant to ensnare. The author is well aware of the irony of his project. To escape the banality of his real life of flesh and blood, Flaubert wrote a novel about a woman who reads novels to escape the banality of her real life, a novel that was written for and is read by an audience seeking (consciously or not) a temporary escape from real life. Although there’s a larger point about the ultimate futility of art, Flaubert was obsessed with creating an exactingly realistic portrait of the middle class (for whom novels had always been written), and is very clear about the effect on Emma of the three-penny fare that seeps into her character from the beginning: If it’s not exactly the root of her shallow, dull, and overly susceptible behavior, it’s the water that makes it grow. 

I’m not suggesting that novels of whatever kind (or video games, or TV, or music) can drive a person to idiocy or suicide, or that escapism is inherently bad for the character—I don’t believe either. Whether you’re reading Gustav Flaubert or Nora Roberts, you’re taking a break from day-to-day obligations and personal woes, and presumably you’re enjoying yourself doing it, since free time is not something most of us devote to making ourselves miserable. Some get that enjoyment from what they consider to be easy or fun reads (phrases that arise, interestingly, with the concept of literary fiction); others find it in what they consider to be challenging texts; others enjoy both extremes and everything in between. As Peter Swirski sums up, “Our continued interest in junk fictions… derives from the same source as does our interest in the canon: exercising our faculties for processing narratives, making emotive discriminations, and forming moral judgments.” Avid readers, whatever their preferred genre(s), find a solace and a security, an emotional and intellectual payoff, in the always imaginative act of reading itself. 

Photo by Sarolta Gyoker

Photo by Sarolta Gyoker, (from

Card is right that readers expect different themes, characters, and paces from different genres, and that they’re able to make keen judgments on the quality of the writing involved, but do the principles of good storytelling and compelling characterization really change from one genre to the next? I don’t think so. And just because all literature is equally valuable to its discerning readers, that doesn’t mean that all novels are equal, as writers and readers themselves will attest. Robert Heinlein aficionados are much more likely to give The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress higher marks than I Will Fear No Evil, just as William Thackeray fans are likelier to rate Vanity Fair higher than Pendennis. And I’d bet that fans of both authors—I’m one of them—would come to the very same conclusions.

So, while all novels are lies, some lies are better told than others, and some might even be so well told as to “enrich mind or spirit or personality,” bringing to light truths previously obscured. Emma Bovary’s compulsive retreats into fantasyland and the tragic fate that results is exaggerated to bring Flaubert’s denouncement of the bourgeoisie into focus. He lied to get closer to the truth, much like, say, Mary Shelley lied when she created a monster who resurrected a man who became a monster, or like Stephen King lied when he resurrected a devastated father’s dead son, with hellish consequences. King and Shelley work the same ground, so to speak, but there is no universe in which Pet Sematary is a better novel than Frankenstein, as I’ll argue a little later. On the other hand, isn’t it possible that 50 years from now, King’s sci-fi-western-horror Dark Tower series will be taken more seriously—by discriminating readers and academics alike—than Cormac McCarthy’s Western-gothic Border Trilogy?

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