The young woman with blonde ringlets has a question: where did Jodi get her green-velvet hair scrunchie? Jodi, who has wavy red hair not unlike the blonde's, admits she stole it from her teenage daughter, then says she'll write down the name of the Web site where the blonde can order it. It's a not an unusual interaction between two sisters in frizzy-haired solidarity. Except it takes place not in a salon, but on a stage before a standing-room-only crowd, and the redhead writes the Web address below her signature, on the title page of her 16th book, "Handle With Care." Jodi is bestselling author Jodi Picoult, but to her predominantly young, female fan base, she is just Jodi, and she is a goddess. For nearly two hours, Picoult effortlessly makes a connection with almost every one of the more than 300 readers in attendance, cooing over a photo of someone's dog,claiming to recognize many readers from previous years' events. A woman in rhinestone-studded glasses confesses that she never read a book more than once, until she read "Sister's Keeper," Picoult's 11th novel, three times. "I'm not really a big reader," Natalie Delpratt, a 19-year-old student says, echoing the woman in the glasses. "But I'm addicted to Jodi Picoult."
That Picoult can pack a house with fans who might not be reading at all would seem to be good news for anyone who cares about the future of books. "I call her a one-woman stimulus plan," says Picoult's publicist, Camille McDuffie, pointing out the number of fans at the reading who are buying six or seven hardback copies of "Handle With Care." But commercial writers such as Picoult are a thorny subject for the self-appointed literature police. A recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts showed that fiction reading is on the rise, especially among 18- to 24-year-olds. But the news was reported by literary blogs and arts journals with throat-clearing about what kinds of books these young adults are reading, the implication being that popular novels such as the "Twilight" and "Harry Potter" series will lead readers to seek more challenging material. All books are good for you, the assumption goes. Some are just better than others.
This is the "gateway drug" theory of literature—that once introduced to the pleasures of reading, a child will work her way through increasingly difficult and, presumably, increasingly more edifying texts, culminating in perhaps "Ulysses," or the complete works of William Gaddis. Implicit in this theory is the idea that at some point reading should stop being a pleasurable diversion, and start being work. Writers such as Andrew Solomon and Zadie Smith have argued that reading should not be a passive experience like watching television. A book is not a thing to be opened lightly. You can't help thinking that Smith has someone much like Picoult's scrunchie-coveting fans in mind when she writes that "readers fail when they allow themselves to believe that fiction is the thing you relate to and writers the amenable people you seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced."
Smith's argument has its merits, but it leaves little room for the flashlightunder-the-covers, stay-up-till-dawn-to-find-out-what-happens thrill of reading. For some, this type of reading may lead to engagement with less cozy types of literature. For others, it may exist alongside more strenuous reading. And for yet others, it may be the only type of reading they choose to do.
Picoult says "Gone With the Wind" made her want to write, and cites Alice Hoffman, another Lifetime-friendly novelist, as her favorite author. She knows that her popularity, as well as her accessible writing style, means she'll never win a Pulitzer Prize. It was a choice she made early on. "When I was at Princeton, there was this guy there, a great writer," Picoult says, naming a New York author who has since published several sardonic, offbeat novels that have been well reviewed but sold nowhere near Picoult's 14 million copies in print. "He used to walk around in this black trench coat like this"—she strikes a brooding, hand-to-brow pose—"and I was like, 'What's wrong with me?' I just can't do that."
There is a formula to a Picoult book: each takes a controversial ethical issue—"designer babies," high-school shootings, child abuse, the death penalty—and pits sympathetic characters, often family members or best friends, on either side of the debate. "Handle With Care" concerns a family whose daughter was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle-bone syndrome. The mother learns she can sue her obstetrician for "wrongful birth" because the condition was diagnosable in utero, but that will mean swearing under oath that she would have aborted the fetus had she known about the disease. Picoult, who has visited operating rooms, prisons and an Alaskan Eskimo home researching her novels, sneaks in quite a bit of information about her topics. On her Web site, a fan in remission from leukemia wrote that she learned a lot more about her disease reading "My Sister's Keeper" than the doctors ever told her.
But it's reductive to lump Picoult in with all bestselling commercial writers. Her prose is smooth and never gets in its own way. Stephen King recently singled her out as an example of a popular fiction writer who can actually write. Picoult sees herself more in the school of so-called literary writers such as Sue Miller, who also writes about domestic topics despite frequent downmarket comparisons, especially to "Twilight" author Stephenie Meyer. "In terms of the literary content of the 'Twilight' books, they're totally escapist. I think technically I am maybe a cut above," she says. Picoult, who has a master's in education from Harvard, is grateful to Meyer for getting kids to read at all, and she says many of her fans come to her through the "Twilight" series. "Stephenie Meyer has gotten people hooked on books," Picoult says, "and that's good for all of us."
Yet in subscribing to this notion that all reading is inherently good for you—and that reading "bad" books leads to reading less-bad books—Picoult is complicit in her own ghettoization. If we remove the assumption that reading is virtuous (a Picoult novel is better for you than a reality TV show), then the good/better hierarchy (Virginia Woolf is better for you than Jodi Picoult) collapses, and books are left to stand on their own merits, not their implied nutritional value. In last year's "The Solitary Vice: Against Reading," writer Mikita Brottman challenges the accepted wisdom that reading is inherently uplifting, arguing that it turns us into antisocial misanthropes who would do better to be out in the world than home with a book. It's an intentionally provocative argument, but equating reading—all reading, from the classics to the tabloids—with pleasure feels radical in this age of government-subsidized municipal book clubs. Maybe if reading wasn't so "good" for us, we'd do more of it.