Beach bag spilling with books
Abby Schreck/Daily

To some, the idea of a “beach read” fits the dictionary definition: “A book you can take on holiday, which is good enough to keep you engaged but not so serious it will spoil your holiday.” Romance fanatics like myself have a different definition, one more like The New York Times “American summer novel,” one featuring a whirlwind romantic story in a vacation spot far from a character or reader’s reality. From its conception in 19th century middle-class vacation culture by authors like Louisa May Alcott, the American summer novel genre has been owned by women. While immensely popular with readers and placing at the top of “summer reading lists,” critics soon dismissed the genre as “light reading.”

My “beach reads” contain worlds limited to coastal islands and vacation hotspots. They feature beautiful romances — books like “Beach Read” (Emily Henry) and the many works of Mary Alice Monroe. Complex dramas, often involving small-town or family life and its eccentricities or a troubled past with love, make the novels long, emotional and turbulent — like “Sex and Vanity” (Kevin Kwan) or the iconic body of work by Elin Hilderbrand. While extremely “whirlwind” in their narratives, every beach read must have a happy ending — or at least hint at one. 

Another element of the genre of “beach reads” is its aesthetic and artistic perception — critics and readers (including myself) treat the entire genre as if it were sinful and distasteful, calling the books “guilty pleasures” or “indulgences.” I admit to hiding the books at the bottom of my beach bag, under sand and pent-up shame, only opening the well-worn pages on an empty beach with my toes in the sand.

In unpacking my convoluted views around my reading habits, I looked to the late media critic and activist bell hooks. In her novel, “All About Love”, hooks writes that “Male fantasy is seen as something that can create reality, whereas female fantasy is regarded as pure escape.” Women authors, female protagonists and increasingly feminist themes have begun to dominate the beach read genre. The reader base of all “romantic fiction” is primarily female, with 82% of surveyed romance readers in 2017 identifying as such. hooks continues: “The romance novel remains the only domain in which women speak of love with any degree of authority. However, when men appropriate the romance genre, their work is far more rewarded.” For many women, controlling narratives in love are but a fantasy reserved for fiction writing. In beach reads, a female protagonist often takes control of her love life and finds her truest self through it. 

We degrade women for the media they consume, with anything “feminine” (romantic, optimistic and female-empowering) perceived as “lower art.” People make works featuring feminine themes a genre of its own, with “masculine” books prevailing as the norm. We let this view naturalize until we shame ourselves for the media we love, tossing it aside as “unserious.”

We ridicule ourselves for “light reading.” But why do we shame what is light? In an email interview with The Daily, Literati Bookstore owner Mike Gustafson wrote that “a light read is one that I don’t necessarily have to carry around in my head all the time, books that lift me up, books that I read for the sheer delight of them.” A beach read is a primary example of this “light reading.” As a bookseller, Gustafson described a book “in terms of what a person might need to pack — ‘going to this particular beach will require lots of baggage’ — you can accurately describe the journey for the potential book buyer.” A beach read is very easy to carry. 

Our critical attitudes towards reading habits contain an extreme paradox: We value art that transports or relaxes us, yet simultaneously shame “escapist” reading. We read to find solace in another world. Still, the summer novel, one which transports readers to serene beaches and immerses them in wild dramas and dream-like romances, is shamed (like every time a relative chuckles at my choice book of the week). This shame suggests reading cannot be purely leisure; reading must be a productive use of free time spent enriching the mind and increasing understanding of the world. Yet, there is so much more value apart from “lightness” or “heaviness” found in a book: laughter, tears and the turning of each drama-filled page until the inevitable happy ending. I’ll argue that the experience of the read — the act of turning a page so fast you almost rip it — is equally as important as the story itself.

Critics place beach romances in the “escapist fiction” genre along with fantasy, mystery and thriller. These books are not serious, in the literary sense. These books always have happy (albeit, unrealistic) endings and rarely address the thought-provoking cultural questions of literary fiction. A Huffington Post article on Literary vs. Genre Fiction notes that literary fiction is the opposite of escapist, and “provides a means to better understand the world and delivers real emotional responses.” However, the lightness of a beach novel allows for an emotional connection to the author’s message. It takes the talents of a beach-read author to transport you into a world in which your biggest worry is the romance with the next-door neighbor, or your aunt’s affair with the gardener. That is not to say a beach read cannot be deep. A beach read often inspires us, inspires me, to see a new conception of love and family and to find a sense of humor along the way. 

In a virtual book event with Barnes and Noble, Jennifer Weinera leader in the beach-read genre — emphasized how a beach read, through seemingly surface-level material, can force deep reflection on complex subjects which resonate with readers. Her new novel, “The Summer Place,” is a “Midsummer Night’s Dream” spinoff. The novel, inspired by young couples’ hurried commitment during the pandemic, is about committing to incorrect relationships under a strange “enchantment.” The novel’s escapism should be celebrated rather than dismissed, as it allows readers to truly enjoy the book and connect to its themes on a deeper level than a less readable, “heavier” novel about the pandemic.

The messiness and “whirlwind” nature of a beach read plot makes it more relatable than a typical single-plotline romance. The complex and flawed protagonist leaves her toxic relationship. She falls in love. She becomes empowered. When the protagonist reaches her goals, she brings readers along. Relatability turns into hope for a happy ending, but only if the protagonist is representative of the reader. Jennifer Weiner, for example, is celebrated for her multifaceted perspective. Her stories often focus on body inclusivity, older women, senior populations and mixed families. 

Though bookstores attempt to increase diverse author visibility, the wider romance genre continues to falter in the representation of underrepresented groups. The Ripped Bodice, a famed LA romance-only bookstore, in their 2020 State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report, found that 12 of every 100 novels from leading publishers were written by people of Color. While readers celebrate and value romances of people of Color, the Queer community and people of all ages and backgrounds, work from underrepresented groups is mainly absent from the romance genre. 

In an interview on diversity in romance, The Ripped Bodice owner Leah Koch told The New York Times , “Readers want books that reflect the world they live in, and they won’t settle for a book about a small town where every single person is white.” Literati co-owner Hillary Gustafson wrote in a digital interview with The Michigan Daily that “diversity and representation” in escapist/genre fiction genres “has expanded the voices and the readership of these categories.” Many of the Ripped Bodice’s best-selling novels are written by people of color, showing a lag in the publishing industry’s acceptance and inclusion of diverse stories compared to booksellers’ and readers’ valuation. 

Hillary has found an increase in the popularity of genre fiction with the rise in narrative diversity and an increasingly fraught readership searching for an escape. “Especially during the last few years with the pandemic, I think people have been looking to genre fiction as a way to escape our current reality,” Hillary said. This facet of escapist fiction makes it not just enjoyable and valuable but vital and deeply human.

Every reader may share the desire to read “lightweight” novels, though some hide it under layers of pretension. When I walked into Beach Bound Books in the small shore town of Avalon, New Jersey, a summery warmth enveloped me. I immediately noticed a massive wall of “beach-reads” covered in photographs of oceans, beach towels and Cape Cod-style cottages. The small store was unpretentious: bright, cozy and welcoming — it felt like the pages of a well-read book shared by many. The few women in the shop, from all ages and backgrounds, all bonded over a love for “summer reading.” 

The coastal location of Beach Bound makes beach reads the perfect focal point for the shop. Philip Hensher, who recently won The Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize for setting, finds that “the spirit of place in a novel is not just an inert backdrop … it is part of the humanity at the centre of the endeavour.” The spirit of small coastal towns runs through every page of a beach read. In the winter, I long for the escape I can only seem to find with my toes in the sand or nose in the pages of a summer read. Yet, by limiting my favorite genre to a single season, I eliminate the possibility of finding coastal peace in the cold winter.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Beach Bound bookseller Janet Drumm said the “stereotypical” beach reads are just the books that sell best in the summer. She and her daughter, Deanna Wilson, the shop owner, display these beachy novels at the front of the shop. To Drumm, a beach read is “anything you enjoy … anything that is a treat to the reader.” To me, a summer romance is the best treat of all. But I will never call it a guilty pleasure again. I will take it from the bottom of my beach bag and read it through every season.

Statement Correspondent Kaya Ginsky can be reached at