Can We Criticise Books Without Bashing Their Readers?

Literary criticism is as old as books themselves; the first thing many people want to do when they finish a book is to start talking about it with other people who’ve read it. They want to pick it apart to see what worked and what didn’t, they want to discuss the narrative, they want to talk about which characters they loved and hated, and why. For some, this turns into a more formalised career as a critic, penning commentary and editorials for the media, and these will in turn also be widely read and discussed, spawning criticism of the criticism and so on.

There is an important distinction, though, between talking critically about books, which is a valuable thing to do, and bashing their readers, which is not very productive. A balance needs to be struck between talking about the content of books, and paying particular attention to content which raises concerns, and acting like readers are the books they read, or that you can infer something about someone purely on the basis of books that person has or hasn’t read. Knowing that I’ve read Twilight tells you nothing about me other than the fact that I’ve read the book; you don’t know about the context in which I read it, how I responded to it, or anything else. You just know that I read it.

There is an inescapable sexism in the judging of readers by their books, which is something I’ve discussed here before. There’s the obnoxious tendency to slot books about women into the ‘chick lit‘ category, insisting that their readers are vapid and silly, and you can see similar prejudices with other genres, like cozy mysteries and of course romance. Hard, serious literature is for men, and women who want to be taken seriously, while fluff is for women, and the women who read it (whether they enjoy it or not, for whatever reason that they’re reading it) are clearly subpar, intellectually speaking.

This goes double for young adult literature, which is not only written for children but also appeals to girls—evidently there are no male YA readers, which is going to come as rather a shock to rather a lot of boys in the world. Teen girls are worthless and unimportant, so of course so are their books, and by extension, anyone other than teen girls who reads those books is also worthless; those adult women reading YA, what are they thinking? Why are they consuming such trashy literature when they could be reading actual books? Clearly they’re longing for lost childhood or some such, clinging to times long past.

I don’t suggest that we shouldn’t talk about what people are reading. Just the contrary. Talking about literary trends is critical and it’s an important part of legitimate literary criticism and larger discussions about society and how people are interacting with the world. But it is in fact possible to do this without trashing readers, and without betraying ridiculous levels of ignorance about individual genres with which people are often not well acquainted. It doesn’t escape my notice that many of the people harshing on particular literary genres and their readers haven’t actually read in that genre, sometimes at all.

They base their statements on what they’ve heard, rather than actual thoughtful consideration of the texts for themselves, or they’ve read a single representative of a given genre and think that gives them some kind of authority. You see this in particular with YA ‘trend’ pieces written by people who clearly haven’t read any YA but read some reviews once and maybe talked to someone about it, and think this gives them enough authority to have opinions on the matter. It comes up with other genres too, though, the sneering disdain for readers of a given family of books without any familiarity with those books, and the underlying sexist, judgmental attitudes, because these kinds of discussions tend to centre around what women and girls are reading.

These readers are not necessarily ignorant, they don’t necessarily miss the concerning themes in the books they read, and they definitely aren’t necessarily uncritical. To suggest otherwise is to utterly erase their experiences as readers. Calling entire genres of books ‘trashy’ with a sweeping gesture says more about the speaker than it does about the genre, for it suggests an urgent desire to be intellectually superior, not just to a particular class of books but also to a particular (perceived) class of reader. People think it’s possible to make judgments on the basis of what people are reading and they boldly, fearlessly provide their commentary on the matter for the delectation of the public, but what they miss, here, is that books are more than their readers, and readers are more than their books.

And a good critical discussion that thinks about books and readers seriously is far more interesting than one in which sweeping generalisations are made with the attempt of shutting down any kind of conversation at all. Rather than saying ‘teen girls are ridiculous because they read paranormal romance,’ one should rather read rather a lot of paranormal romance, identify common themes and threads, get to know major authors in the genre, and then ask what it is in these books that seems to be appealing to teen readers. Perhaps even by interacting directly with those readers to talk to them about what they’re getting out of these texts, and to discuss how they’re interacting with them. I can assure you that they aren’t ill-informed, and they know that you’re judging them.

The same goes for other readers and other genres. A limited view of readers based solely on what they read without any other context isn’t a reasonable or fair way to assess literary trends.