The Rosie Project provides a perfect opportunity to examine the difference between popular fiction and literary fiction. The previous book I read and reviewed, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), epitomizes literary fiction. Wallace’s prose style is erudite, dense and complex. Infinite Jest’s plot is multilayered, the characters motives are influenced by their often dark psyches and the narrative explores humanity’s struggle with deep existential issues, both in a personal and cultural context. The Rosie Project has a straightforward plot, simple themes, the characters motivations are easy to understand and it is written in a simple unpretentious style. Does this difference make one novel better or more important than the other?
If The Rosie Project were a movie then it would be a romantic comedy. The principle protagonist is Don Tillman, a geneticist and academic who knows many things about the world but is unaware that he has many of the characteristics of Aspergers. Don is frustrated that his efforts with women never get beyond the first date, so he devises a questionnaire designed to find the perfect woman who displays all of the attributes he believes will make his life complete. Rosie Jarman, is, of course, the complete opposite to everything Don desires in a mate. When Rosie seeks Don’s help to find her real father all manner of situations arise that both pull them apart and bring them together. The ending of the novel is inevitable given the demands of its genre.
The Rosie Project does indeed display many of the hallmarks of its genre, but avoids popular fiction’s tendency to be mediocre. The novel is well written, with a tight fast paced plot that doesn’t allow the reader much time to ponder about its lack of psychological depth. Don and Rosie sparkle when they are on the page together; like any good romantic comedy the chemistry between the two leads can make or break the narrative and in this case it makes it. The Rosie Project is also very funny. Don’s Aspergers-like characteristics allow for some fine deadpan humour and this alone makes the novel infinitely better than the excruciating The Finkler Question that I had to read for the book club a few years ago (I obviously still haven't gotten over it, and rightly so).
The Rosie Project also has some decent themes to explore; rationality vs emotionality, tolerance of difference and the moral obligations attached to decision making. These themes are dealt with in the context of a fast moving romantic comedy and are therefore not explored in any great depth. The fact that the novel has no pretensions towards being a literary masterpiece means that such superficiality is perhaps of no great importance, but if this is the case then just what is the value of popular fiction?
Are the differences between popular fiction and literary fiction meaningful? Why do we read fiction? Is it for enjoyment or for something more important? Literary fiction can challenge in an artistic sense, it can raise important issues and explore them deeply and it can make us think about what it is to be human. These issue are all valuable and do make make literary fiction important culturally. However it is also beneficial to read for enjoyment and relaxation, and that’s where popular fiction comes into its own. Popular fiction can be psychologically comforting, whilst literary fiction can often be the opposite (but not always, of course). If popular fiction’s aim is to comfort and entertain then that certainly has value.What Infinite Jest and The Rosie Project have in common is that they both achieve what they set out to do within the context of their own genres. I would not have read The Rosie Project if it hadn’t been chosen by my book club members, but I’m pleased that I did because it has reminded me that well written popular fiction does have its place and can be well worth reading.