Rich Kids of Instagram, the novel based on the popular Tumblr of the same name, isn’t a good book. It’s filled with horrible, vapid characters that make the characters on Gossip Girl seem like scholars, who have names like Desdemona Goldberg, along with a butler named Balthazar, and people who still say things like, “What the fuck do I know about Brooklyn? I don’t do Brooklyn.” It contains lines like, “Here I was in a fully loaded penthouse with no parental guidance and plenty of sexual frustration. I could have been the poster child for needy rich-girl slut who confuses fucking with affection. I was a masturbation fantasy and somehow my boyfriend had not noticed.” It’s tough to take any of this seriously, and even harder to believe people so terrible could exist (even though we know they actually do), but the thing about Rich Kids of Instagram is that it’s so insanely bad, it’s actually really enjoyable.
I know what you’re thinking: “Here’s the part where he brings up Sontag’s ‘Notes on Camp’ or references a John Waters film, or where he says something like, ‘You’re concentrating too hard on the writing; there’s a lot of truth, a lot of deeper meaning about society and humanity beneath the surface.'” But no: Rich Kids of Instagram is terrible. It is, in fact, garbage — it’s a garbage book, and I sorta love that. It’s a dumbed-down (if you can imagine this) Less Than Zero with a sort of Great Gatsby wealth obsession and an elusive billionaire who throws a party.
The book has hardly any literary value, and that’s what is so wonderful about it: instead of being some great work of fiction or commentary on something, it features people who are “about to get ass-raped by the society page,” and others who let us know that, “I never ate bark, or lived in a yurt, for that matter.” It’s the kind of book that would make any Raymond Carver-clutching MFA student retch — until they realize that the book’s co-author (along with the elusive and nameless “Creator of Rich Kids of Instagram”), Maya Sloan, has not one, but two MFAs of her own, and has probably done very well indeed between this and ghostwriting Kendall and Kylie Jenner’s YA sci-fi book. The book is entertaining, and it’s also a pretty massive piss-take when you think about it, because it’s written by a writer trained by the literary establishment — but most of all, I didn’t have to put much thought into reading it. Rich Kids of Instagram is the sort of book you read when you just want something you don’t have to invest yourself in, and it is trash reading at its finest.
Since Ruth Graham’s Slate piece, “Against YA,” there’s been a lot of discussion about what people should and shouldn’t read. What do we consider “Good” books and “Bad” books, on a purely surface level? And what do we read simply because it’s easier than, say, the sometimes three-to-five-page sentences of “the contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse,” László Krasznahorkai? What sort of books do readerly readers read when they don’t want to be challenged? When they want to decompress? Do they go for something lower than Fifty Shades of Grey? Or are they looking for something else?
I posed the question on Twitter, citing a television show like True Blood as an example of a cultural product that is widely consumed despite a viewership that generally agrees on its ridiculousness. I asked if there’s anything people read that they’d consider mindless, just so they have something to pass the time. The answers I got varied, from David Sedaris to Douglas Adams. Cutting Teeth author Julia Fierro replied, “True crime nonfiction on audiobook”; Friendship author Emily Gould mentioned Ruth Reichl memoirs, while author Mike Edison suggested “PG Wodehouse, Raymond Chandler [and] Peter Bagge comics” as “not mindless, but comfort reading.” Two people on Twitter named Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books, and several others mentioned Ian Fleming. Someone pointed generally toward “murder mysteries and true crime novels.”
Some people find humorous literature or film adaptation-ready stories with detectives or secret agents the easiest to digest, but I can happily sit down with Rich Kids of Instagram. These are the books that readers pick up because they just aren’t all that interested in Karl Ove Knausgård’s life story. And while I wouldn’t dare call Wodehouse or Chandler garbage literature by any stretch, it’s vital to find and know that line between what we as individuals read because we care about great literature, and what we read because we want to just have something to read. You have your Jeeves, I have my Rich Kids of Instagram.
Books like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which has had to deflect criticism that it’s a not-so-great book masquerading as great literature, despite winning big awards and selling millions of copies, like many of the authors and books people mentioned to me on Twitter, show this to be the case. More easily digestible works might not be Proust, but they certainly aren’t totally without merit or importance. That’s why books like Rich Kids of Instagram are so great: they aren’t important, they have hardly any literary merit, and you don’t have to stretch your brain out one bit. It’s so terrible that it’s good, and sometimes that’s all you want.