On policing reading choices

Books are amazing, and so are the people who read them — no matter who they are, and no matter what they’re reading. I confess that not every book is to my taste, but that’s all right, because they have plenty of readers who love them just fine. And I don’t believe that my dislike of a book means that its readers are somehow bad people who are doing it wrong and failing at life. Would that the rest of the world shared this approach. However, sadly, that’s not the case — judging people for what they read is practically an Olympic sport.

Here’s the thing. People read books for many different reasons. They want to be entertained. They want to read about people like them. They want to study critical theory. They want to learn more about developments in their field. They want to broaden their depth of knowledge and understanding. Maybe that means picking up a reader on infectious diseases, or delving into the latest Science, or perusing the middle grade shelves at the bookstore. I don’t interrogate people when it comes to why they are picking up reading material — I’m just glad they’re doing it, and that they have the tools to do so, and I feel really passionately about literacy programmes that work hard to ensure that everyone has reading skills, and that those reading skills are developed so they can engage with the written world and develop critical thinking and participate fully in a society that is heavily rooted in reading and writing.

I also don’t judge what people read, because it’s really not my business. If people want suggestions and recommendations I’m happy to offer them — if they’re within the scope of my purview, that is, physicists probably don’t want to ask me for advice on the latest texts — but I’m not going to offer up unsolicited commentary. As a society, especially in liberal settings, people seem to be coming to the gradual understanding that offering advice that no one asked for is rude, and that people are entitled to express their irritation via any reasonable means in response. However, there are places where people lose all perspective on the subject of not telling people what to do, and reading is one of them.

I see this particularly in the context of two arenas:

  1. Young adult
  2. Romance

The term ‘young adult’ often gets thrown around as a genre, and that’s not really fair, because it’s really a modifier. There are lots of genres within the young adult umbrella, which encompasses books written for precocious children and teens (as contrasted with middle grade, chapter books, first readers, picture books, board books, etc). But for our purposes, we’ll treat it as a broad category. Oddly enough, teens themselves are shamed for reading YA even though the genre is, er, written for them, and presumably they should be trying out books that were expressly created with them in mind, but I guess not.

Many people sneer at young adult and think that teens who are reading it should be reading ‘literary fiction’ by which they mean grownup books by middle-aged white men about middle-aged white man things for the most part. As for adults who read YA, well, we’re just traitors to the entire world of reading and literacy, and we have base, pathetic literary tastes. We are singlehandedly responsible for the fall of the publishing industry and we should be reading literary fiction (see above) or at least classics. Should we upgrade to adult SFF or other ‘genre fiction,’ that’s pretty sneerworthy too, because we should be reading Serious Books, not things about princesses and dragons or whatever. This isn’t Game of Thrones, people.

The vitriol aimed at teens is part of a larger framework of treating young adults like garbage for being young adults, and I really don’t like it and won’t stand for it. Teens are awesome. Teens who are reading are fantastic and I’m excited to see a generation of youth who is genuinely super excited about books, because books are great. Whether they come to that through reading YA or skipping right to literary fiction or delving into adult SFF or subscribing to the Wall Street Journal, I don’t care. I’m happy that books are getting into their hot little hands.

As for people who want to trash adults for reading YA, well, whatever, I can take it.

When it comes to romance, people roll their eyes at teens who read ‘naive love stories’ but also of course at adults who read (and write) in the romance category. This despite, I would note, the fact that romance has been the most consistent performer in the publishing industry for decades. People are always reading it, and there’s always a high demand for it. People love romance! Because romance is great, and there’s tons of fantastic stuff happening in the genre! Most of the people who are snobs about romance have never picked up a single romance book, have no idea how hard it is to write, edit, and bring a book to publication in the first place, and actively get off on peeing in everyone’s cheerios (p.s. there’s probably a romance novel for that fyi).

Look. Do I find Westerns not really my taste? Yeah. I can’t really explain why, I’m just not that into them. I’ve read some, but not enough to talk about the genre with any real authority, and there are definitely some issues and trends I can tentatively identify — like the glorification of the West without a critical engagement with its colonial legacy — but I really don’t have a lot to say about it because I would need to dig in and read a huge number of Westerns to do so. And even if I had read enough to be deeply critical, to have a lot of thoughts and questions about the genre, I still wouldn’t trash its readers. Some people like Westerns. So they read them. I don’t. It’s all good.

Every time people police a group of readers, they’re further alienating them — and making it really hard to have tough, important conversations about legitimate issues, like, say, criticisms of trends within given genres. You can’t talk about the rape-romance if you’re too busy trashing romance readers. You can’t ask where disabled characters are in SFF without reading some and treating its readers with respect. And you sure as hell can’t talk with teens about YA if you’re too busy mocking them for reading it.

Image: gorgeous reader, Lena Vasiljeva, Flickr