Contemporary Penny Dreadfuls



WORDS | Blake Antrobus

It’s to my relative embarrassment, or my relative relief, choose whichever you seem fit, that I haven’t yet read the widely regarded abhorrence, more commonly known as the Twilight series. Call it an error of judgement on my part, but with the self-masturbatory tween fandom running rampant around the bookstores, I can hardly be blamed for shunning the bandwagon.

It isn’t simply out of spite. As if to prove that current fads and trends are just ‘too mainstream,’ I enact similar sentiments to How I Met Your Mother, business-trade chai tea, and SIDS (reasons unrelated). It’s more so because the very idea of trampling all over dedicated fans seems the same as holding candy just out of the reach of a sleep deprived three-year-old. Much to my sadistic delight, and the derivative anger of the child, it begins to look just plain dumb after a while.

This act of sadistic bait and switch overshadows part of my career as a writer, if not all of it. After all, there’s now the ‘expectation’ (note ‘expectation,’ not ‘leisure,’ or ‘right’) that people in the profession are to be widely read. And from that, possessing the ability to discern good fiction from bad, if ever history provided a case. So my love of Orwell, Austen, Tolkien, and Proust are marred by the very instance of all of them being in storage and inevitably unreadable. This leaves only enough room for Jack Daniels and a copy of Writer’s Forum on my desk.

Shaming other writing has never been above the professionals. Stephen King famously compared the works of J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer, concluding that the latter “couldn’t write worth a darn.” Swelling, tears, and heartache from the mob ensues, and King is cornered by his own accusations. It makes me wonder how both of them would wash up, had Hollywood not jumped the shark and approached them for filming rights; millions, and literally, millions, are still being made from the publishing rights alone. Cut the profits, cut to the chase, and we might have ourselves two people sitting at their desks, waiting for the cash to arrive in the mail.

As depressing as it seems, this may well be the lived reality for many writers who never made it out of the gate. Strip a hardcover down to its barebones, and you’ll find the tedious allocation of pennies to the publisher, agent or bookstore, and eventually, the mind behind the masterpiece. All that’s left, at the end of the day, are pennies necessary to run an empire. Rarely will you find someone in the likes of Ian McEwan or Martin Amis, who have been heralded as literary legends with a paycheck to boot.

Quite often I’ve heard the argument put forward, that some of the novels are considered ‘literary abominations’ (i.e. Twilight, Fifty Shades, and virtually all internet fan fiction). They act as popular encouragement to entice people to read again. An almost novelistic opiate, so to speak. We should have a greater respect for their position in the bookstores, drawing people away from virtual and digital reality and into a far more valuable pastime. I suppose it is true. However, the same can be said for any other novel that has encouraged people to keep reading. Novels are hardly an issue of black or white. Even John Green, credited with Looking for Alaska and The Faults in our Stars, can be slid alongside the ranks of Meyer in terms of ‘popcorn-crunching crowds’. I genuinely enjoyed Looking for Alaska, for its humane characters and tale of teenage love and sacrifice, even though it looks and presents itself like a melodrama. Although, if we’re going to get people into reading, we need a better plan, not tossing them hardened fantasy or sci-fi and a good cup of tea. Penny dreadfuls may exist to draw the non-readers into the sunlight, and then a firmer anchor to keep them attached, whetting their appetite for the books that have transformed history.

About the Author

Otherwise known by his pseudonym ‘The Ant’, Blake Antrobus is an Australian writer and poet. He is the author of The Escapist Set Free and Natsukage. His debut novel Chasing Summer is slated for a 2014 release. He lives in Sydney.

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