Stop Telling Me What to Read!
By Sarah Moon on April 10, 2012
In a blatant (and successful) attempt at link-baiting, the New York Times published an opinion piece on their website last week about how adults shouldn't be reading young adult fiction.
Cue the eye rolls.
(No, I won't link to the article, you can find it if you Google "Joel Stein is a Sexist Ass.")
I'm not going to add to the commentary about how this is an absurd assertion, because loads of people have already done that extremely well, but I am going to ask another question,
"Why the HELL do we even care what people do or do not read?"
Seriously. Why is this important to so many people? It seems that at least once a month, there's some new article (50 percent of which feature Jonathan Franzen bloviating about his supposed superiority) asserting that we should read X, that we should not read Y and that "serious readers*" would most definitely should not read Z.
If you've been reading Clear Eyes, Full Shelves, you have probably figured out that my reading tastes are all over the place. But, I have a particular enjoyment of the following:
- Contemporary, realistic YA;
- Urban crime fiction;
- Post-apocalyptic/dystopian (adult or YA)
- Books involving prank wars;
- Smart contemporary romance (a la Julie James and Shannon Stacey);
- Novels involving zombies;
- Novels involving werewolves;
- Middle Eastern women's fiction;
- Graphic novel/fiction with visual elements;
- Funny memoirs;
- Sweet and fun contemporary YA (a la Stephanie Perkins);
- Books involving heists and/or capers; and
- Books that don't suck (to me).
I generally do not like the following:
- Books featuring jerky men;
- Books featuring dumb women;
- Books with rape-ish elements framed as "seduction;"
- Fae books;
- Books with storylines focused on infertility or pregnancy;
- Graphic violence;
- Books set in historical England;
- Epic, battle-filled tomes;
- Vampires (with the exception of the camptastic Night Huntress series by Jeaniene Frost);
- Historical romance;
- Books with extremely wealthy characters;
- Intricate science fiction;
- High fantasy; and
- Books that suck (to me).
However, it would never in a million years occur to me to tell people that liked books that appear on the second list that they should not like what they like. Just a few weeks ago, I was talking to someone who loved The Iron Duke. Loved it. Now, this is a book that I could not finish, and wanted to punch in the face, if books had faces, that is. But, just because that's how I feel, doesn't make the book unworthy of existing. And, I'd never tell anyone that they should not be reading that book.
Yet, apparently there are a lot of folks--at least those with access to newspaper opinion columns--who think that they do get to tell people what they should and should not be reading.
Well, I call shenanigans on that malarky.
What you read does not define you.
One of the things often insinuated by the Arbiters of All That is Worth Reading (AATWR) is that as readers, we must read High Quality Literature™, that it's supposedly unhealthy to read escapist fiction, to read for fun. Remember the woman last year who wrote that women shouldn't read romance novels because they can't tell the difference between fact and fiction and will develop "unrealistic expectations" in their relationships with men? (Excuse me while my head explodes over the insinuation that women shouldn't have high expectations of the way they're treated by their partners.) Apparently, genre readers are not reading books to escape, to relax, to unwind; instead, they're reading books because they actually believe they are living these books, that they become models for how to live our lives.
If we are to follow the logic of the AATWR, that means that if you like to read spy novels, you are extremely likely to start believing you're in the CIA. If you're an adult who enjoys young adult fiction, you're going to start behaving like a sixteen year old. And if you're a Hunger Games superfan, you're highly inclined to wear your hair in a side braid and fight your neighbors to the death in the backyard.
What you read does not make you smarter than everyone else.
Just as how the books you read don't define who you are as a human, the books you choose to read likewise do not make you more or less intelligent than the next person. Little aggravates me more than the assumption that people read genre fiction or YA novels because they are not intelligent enough or educated enough to comprehend highbrow literary fiction.
I am very well educated, with a graduate degree focused on somewhat obscure women's literature from the early 1900s. I know a hell of a lot about literature and history as a result. I'm the child of an English teacher, so I've read the classics, the "great" poems, et al. I also own my own business that's focused on writing and digital communications. And, yet, I choose to read genre fiction and a lot of YA novels. That doesn't mean that I don't appreciate the occasional work of literary fiction (Eugenides' Middlesex is one of my favorite books, and I'm currently reading The Sharp Time, which is litfic featuring a teen main character erroneously marketed as YA), but at this point in my life genre fiction and YA offer me more of what I want: a good story.
Furthermore, both genre fiction and YA feature far more characters with whom I can identify. There are far more female characters in genre fiction and YA than in litfic, and there's less angst about The Human Condition™, there are more ass kicking women (which I can definitely relate to) and there's a hell of a lot more humor (I unashamedly love to laugh).
And, to be quite honest, a lot of genre fiction is challenging. I struggle with high fantasy because it's so complex--the same with a lot of science fiction. A lot of historical romance is meticulously researched, right down to the details of shoe buckles and colloquialisms (which is one of the reasons I don't enjoy that subgenre). It takes a lot of brain power to follow some of these stories, and I can only assume that the people who throw them under the proverbial bus haven't ever given these genres a try, or believe that only Great Works™ reference-laden writing is worthy of their Highly Superior Brainpower™.**
The future of civilization is not contingent on people reading Twilight. Or Freedom. Or The Hunger Games. Or The Marriage Plot.
It's nearly impossible to read about Twilight or The Hunger Games without some sanctimonious ass leaving a comment along the lines of,
"The popularity of these books makes me scared for the future of civilization."
What the hell kind of statement is that?
I'll be the first to admit that I don't understand the popularity of some books (ie, 50 Shades of Grey), and I do find myself shaking my head at the quality of writing in some of these books (ie, 50 Shades of Grey***). However, it would be 100 percent ridiculous to proclaim that people reading that book is a sign of the downfall of civilization.
If nothing else discussion of these books can be good for us. For example, I have serious issues with the gender roles in Twilight. However, I also know some really smart women who love those books. The dialog about that can be a good thing, you know?
Besides, I'm pretty certain that the four horsemen of the apocalypse won't be wielding pseudo-BDSM Twilight fanfic.****
(Also, has anyone else noticed that the only books that signify the downfall of civilization are those made popular by female readers? Discuss.)
People read for different reasons--and that's completely okay.
I read to unwind. Some read to escape. Others read to learn something new. And others still read because they have to consume and enjoy words. Those, and all the other diverse reasons people enjoy books, are all completely reasonable and justifiable.
There was another (blatantly link-baiting, so I'll link to the excellent Random Buzzers piece about this subject) column awhile back that proclaimed that kids should only read classics, and that reading should only serve to "elevate."
Let that sink in.
The only reason we should ever read should be in an attempt to elevate ourselves out of our poor, pathetic lives?!
When people dictate what should be read, they often do so from a position of privilege.
When you look at who's making these proclamations, they are rooted in a specific place--a place of privilege rooted in the academic world in which what is meritorious is extraordinarily narrowly defined.
Look at Franzen stating the Serious Readers™ don't use e-readers, or Jennifer Egan's (Women can be TAAWRs too!) ridiculous proclamation that women writers need to "aim higher" than writing YA or "chick lit." (In that interview, Egan seems more concerned with women writing YA and chick lit than she does with plagiarism. For real.) Or the aforementioned commentator who insists that young minority children in the inner city should only read Great Literature (written by white, dead, men) so that these children can "elevate" themselves out of their worlds and be more like these dead white men, wholly negating the transformative power of seeing a semblance of oneself and one's own world in literature.
Clearly, viewpoints such as these come from a place wildly different from many people's realities. I know talk of privilege makes people mighty uncomfortable, but it's important, dammit.
Ultimately, I know that the gadflies are going to keep at it. Broad brush statements telling us what is and is not appropriate for us to read feeds the arrogance of these folks, drives web traffic, which in turns helps sell ads on the websites of the publications that give them a soapbox upon which to stand. But, I'm taking my own extremely controversial stand,
Books are good for you, so who cares what anyone else is reading?
*Uhhhhh... and what the hell is a "serious reader?" I read 150+ books a year, but according to some folks, because I won't read Freedom, appreciate my ereader and DNFed A Visit from the Goon Squad, I am not a "serious reader."
**Or maybe, just maybe, they just don't like it, yet feel the need to be superior in their literary appreciation, rather than acknowledging that these other genres simply don't appeal to them.
***Go read the Dear Author review of that book, featuring some lengthy excerpts--that told me all I need to know.
****I will be extremely pissed off if I'm wrong on this one.
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