Belittling Readers and Judging Books By Their Covers

I recently finished reading Johannes Cabal, the Necromancer, because, well, I judged a book by its cover. The cover art looked appealing, and the storyline intrigued me, and I got sucked in. The basic plotline of the book revolves around a necromancer who has lost his soul, and strikes a bargain with the Devil to get it back: If he can collect 100 souls as replacements within a year, the Devil will return his soul to him. In return, the Devil offers to help out a bit by giving him a cursed carnival to use over the course of the year.

This book is the sort that I would characterise as a romp. It’s fun and silly, and an excellent way to blow a few cobwebs out of your brain. If you are looking for deep literature, incisive thought, and brilliant word usage, this book is probably not for you. If you like books with some silliness and a whiff of brimstone, you will possibly enjoy it. It’s inventive. It’s frothy. It has neat artwork. The characters, although all rather evil, are also all fetching, in their own way, although I could do without yet another vampire with a moralistic streak, just between you and me.

I write about this book because I think there’s a perception that people like me spend all their time reading theory and serious literature, which I kind of tried to break down a bit in my post about reading romance novels, but bears further exploration. There are a lot of elitist attitudes about who reads what and how people interact with literature and I think sometimes that I am ashamed on some level of the books I read, and thus think that I shouldn’t talk about them. If I can’t, for example, find some kind of social justice angle to bring into a book review, it’s not worth wasting anyone’s time, and I will be betraying the club or something.

The fact is that I do interact with all things with a critical eye, even the things I read for fun, but sometimes I just don’t have a lot of say, critically, about a piece, for a variety of reasons. That’s the case with Johannes Cabal. I enjoyed it, it brought up some interesting ideas about good and evil and exploitation, and I want to read the next book featuring the same character, because I’m interested to see where they take him. The end.

I could talk, I suppose, about feeling faintly guilty about the fact that this book very much falls into a distinct genre; humorous books with a supernatural flair, a male lead, and basically nonexistent or one dimensional women. I could talk about the fact that I would love to read more books like this with women as the title character, and with interesting supportive women characters rather than an endless parade of dudes, some of whom have a distinct Nice Guy tendency about them.

And I could talk about how the media we engage with shapes the way we think and there’s a reason this genre is so popular, and about how this genre reinforces certain attitudes I am not a big fan of. Books in this vein tend to be very heterocentrist, for example, and they often feature characters doing things I think would be of questionable morality in real life while we are supposed to view them as heroes.

But, the thing is, I know that. And you know that. We are all grownups here. We know exactly what we are getting with books like this, and sometimes, that’s ok. If I was only consuming books in this genre, I think I might have a problem, but I don’t. I consume lots of different kinds of books, featuring lots of different kinds of characters, and I think I have the capacity to evaluate them honestly.

Which is one of the reasons it bothers me to see people slagging on the readers of particular genres of books. There’s an underlying assumption that they are taking those books at face value and not reading them critically and thus they are being injured in some way by their reading material. I even see it implied that we should keep ‘impressionable’ people away from certain kinds of books because they will internalise harmful messages.

This is a grave disservice to the reader, suggesting that reading certain kinds of books means you are incapable of critical thinking and that you only read books in those genres. Some of the most well-read romance readers I know read far, far more than romance novels, and in fact are far more broadly read than most people I know who are well-read in subjects like theory. They read widely because they enjoy reading, because they enjoy exploring a variety of topics, and sometimes because they like to be entertained.

Books can indeed be dangerous and fraught objects, but we are imbuing them with entirely too much power if we think that readers can be ruined forever by a single book, or a collective genre of books. Yes, books can and do reinforce harmful social messages, but those messages are being internalised even by the people who aren’t reading those books. I wasn’t a teen when Twilight was around, for example, but I fantasized about a lot of the same things teen readers of that series do today. This suggests that rather than creating or even reinforcing a phenomenon, the books simply gave it voice. There’s a reason the books became so popular, and it’s because they spoke to something experienced by a lot of its readers. To dismiss them and their readers as ‘trash’ is to deny very real lived experiences.

I know a lot of Twilight readers and many of them are thoughtful, critical readers. They are well aware of what’s going on with these books and with the attitudes embedded in them, and they are fully capable of reading the books and judging for themselves. Some of them even write extensively and interestingly on the series and the embedded messages. They critique, dare I say, because they care.

Thus, I tend to look askance on sweeping generalisations about entire groups of readers; they’re patronising, and they’re often wrong.