Mailbag: Dessert Can Be Good For You

Time to reach into the old Action Force mailbag and answer another question.  As always, you can reach me on Twitter (@aleemartinez), on Facebook (A. Lee Martinez), or through good ol’ fashioned e-mail ( if you have a question or comment you’d like to share.  I can’t guarantee I’ll respond, but I can guarantee I will read it.  And isn’t having a vaguely famous person reading an e-mail almost like being vaguely famous yourself?

No, not really.  But we all take what we can get, right?

Today’s question:

I’m reading Helen & Troy’s Epic Road Quest and, as a junior member of the A. Lee Martinez Action Force wanted to spread the good word.  I started describing the book but stopped abruptly when I was going to use the term Beach Read.  It felt like a dirty word.  What I wanted to convey was that when listening to the story (yay audible) I wished I was on a beach – the book really captures that post-high school, magical summertime vibe.  I briefly considered pausing the book until I could be on a beach to listen to it.  When I say beach read I mean “this book feels like it is meant to be enjoyed at leisure on a perfect day by the waves.”  Like a cocktail with an umbrella in it.

There has been much to-do about rethinking of the word escapism as a wonderful, necessary, healing thing.  Can beach read be reclaimed from meaning “fluffy pot boiler you won’t mind getting sunscreen all over?”


This is a dilemma I often face myself when describing my books.  The problem, as you so rightly pointed out is that escapism is a complicated thing.  I’ve actually grown uncomfortable with the label myself, and not just talking about my own work, but other people’s work in general.  Pacific Rim is escapist science fiction cinema, but it’s also a heck of a great film with a lot of heart and soul to it.  Galaxy Quest is a comedic send up of dozens of Star Trek cliches, but it is also a genuinely engaging and intelligent film.  Heck, it’s a better Trek movie than Into Darkness at this point.  And so it is that a lot of things I write (and a lot of things I simply admire) are shuffled into the category of “beach read” or “escapism” or “fluff”, and that’s not changing anytime soon.

I have never been able to figure out if this is a failing of human psychology or language itself.  Do we diminish stories we enjoy because we overvalue the negative and dark?  Or does language itself instill in us a black-and-white dichotomy.  Something is either “light” or “dark”, “comedy” or “tragedy”, “silly” or “serious”.  It is certainly in our nature to quantify things and stick them into neat little boxes and a lot of those boxes make sense.  I don’t usually go to a monster movie looking for romance.  I don’t usually read a comedic novel to feel bad about life.  I don’t go to a Superman movie to walk out of the theater feeling depressed.  (Reflexive Man of Steel jab there.  Sorry.)

Much as I hate the labels, I also understand where they come from.  It doesn’t mean I won’t occasionally fight against them or attempt to broaden appeal rather than shrink it.  Not just for my own work, but for the works of others.  I will rail against anyone who chooses to dismiss Pacific Rim as simply a giant monster movie or calls The Incredibles merely a cartoon.

As for my own work, that’s a bit trickier.  It’s hard to defend your own work without sounding pretentious and a little full of yourself.  I believe my stories are more than just fluff, certainly, and I work hard to give them more depth than you might get at a first glance.  Despite the subject matter, despite the absurd nature of stories about robots and vampires, I write my stories with human beings in mind and I like to think I have something worthwhile to say about the human experience, even as I write about robots and monsters.

But, yes, I do also write to entertain, and I make no apologies for that.  My goal is to write enjoyable stories and if attempting to write accessibly is somehow a sign of a less talented artist, well, there’s just not a whole lot I can do about that.  As I’ve mentioned before, writing fiction is a weird gig because if you do it well, people tend to diminish your achievement.  The line so often between genre and literature is less about subject matter and more about how difficult a story is to get through.  It’s like eating your vegetables.  You don’t do it because you like it.  You do it because you’re supposed to.

That’s the basic dilemma I face every time I write.  I know that if I create a story someone likes to read, that they eagerly devour, it will come across as dessert.  Satisfying, enjoyable, but also assumed to be low nutrient and full of empty calories.  Meanwhile, a story that is a chore is viewed as metaphorical vegetables, difficult to consume but good for you.

But writing isn’t cooking, and reading doesn’t have to be difficult to be rewarding.  There are definitely difficult stories that need to be told, that have enriched our culture.  But there are also enjoyable stories that have done the same.  And just because something is hard to digest, it doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

Labels are almost always arbitrary, and once I accepted that, I found I had a lot less trouble with the labels I’ve been saddled with.  Ultimately, if they’re meant as compliments, I take them as such.  I can’t tell you the best way to get your friends interested in my books because I don’t know them and what might give them that push.  That’s up to you.

I will say that what always works for me is when someone says the books are enjoyable, fun, original, and with more depth than you might expect.  I like to think of them as dessert that’s good for you, and if that isn’t enough to convince someone, I’m not sure what else you can say.  And I’m not sure the term “beach read” will ever be reclaimed from your rather on-the-nose summary.  At a certain point, I stop worrying about it, and just believe, “This is a good book” should be enough.

About the only way to really counter the “fluff” assumption is to actually talk about the depths of the story.  A lot of people won’t agree with you, but if you convince even one person there are hidden depths, you’ve taken a step toward breaking that stereotype.  So feel free to call Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest a beach read, but while you’re at it, go ahead and mention some deeper characterization, some theme (intentional or not) that the story made you ponder.  It’s the best way to show that something is more than fluff, even if it is enjoyable.

It’s why when I talk about The Incredibles, I don’t just talk about the giant robot fights, but the smaller moments that ring true emotionally.  And while I love watching a kaiju getting a rocket punch to the face, I also love the quiet moments when characters relate to each other or when a frightened little girl who has just had her world end looks up into the face of the man who becomes the embodiment of hope for a better tomorrow and he sees the same thing in her.

So feel free to talk about your emotional investment in the fluffiest of stories.  You’ll be glad you did, and it just might show the world that even the most shallow stories might have more to offer than we’ve been taught to expect.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,



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One Comment

  1. Posted July 25, 2013 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    I don’t think “beach read” is a pejorative term. There are summer movies and winter movies, and summer movies are generally deemed more fun, more explosion-y, less of a thinker — but can still be great.

    I suppose people think winter movies have more intellectual heft, but that doesn’t mean that people think they are better — just different. It’s like going to the amusement park instead of a play: both are pursuits, but one is more likely to involve cotton candy.

    I do agree that people who dismiss things that are fun to read as not having any lasting meaning or thought=provoking content are missing the point.

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