Have you ever that thing that when you think about a certain topic, it will pop up everywhere? I get that all the time and in the past few weeks, I have been thinking about who decides that a book is worthy to be read. Are the high-powered readers gatekeepers and only willing to let those in that read the books that are high-brow?
It will come as a surprise that I don’t just wreck my brain about Brexit, but that I actually think about a lot of other stuff too. Mainly reading. Luckily thanks to youtube and starting my own Any Book Bookclub, I am now surrounded by readers both virtual and actual and that has been mighty fine, but the thing that got me pondering started a few weeks ago.
At the local slimming club (yep, I know, yet, trust me in this, it is the most culturally diverse group I belong to), a friend and I were talking about books and a lady chimed in and said that she tried to join a bookclub once and she was made to feel that she was stupid because she did not read literary fiction (or as she referred to them “high and mighty books”) and then she never went again. We were obviously sad about this, but at first I thought, that she would be an isolated case. So I asked some friends, who are readers as to why they don’t attend a bookclub, every single one stated the same reason. Now, I am not saying this is the perfect sample size or anything, but it certainly got me thinking.
Then someone on twitter mused if literary snobbism is something that puts people of reading full stop. And then Dr. Sami Schalk posted this which opened this even wider for me.
“Can I instead write an article about how the concept of guilty pleasures in based in classism, racism, & sexism instead? Because “low brow” often means poor/working class, racialized or feminized things? How bout that article?”
And suddenly all started to make sense to me. If you want to be part of an educated elite you cannot read for entertainment, you must read for advancement and by the sheer act of choosing to read a romance novel, you somehow out yourself as someone who is a bit silly and cannot be taken serious. Nonsense naturally, but still deeply ingrained in society.
My grandmother read voraciously, she and her friends in our village exchanged reading material and had an elaborate system of initials to mark the reading so the bags full of stuff went around the village in the right order. Trust some middle-aged/older ladies to organise the shit out of reading, they loved it and the exchange of reading material always meant chats and random meet ups for a cup of coffee.
Does it matter that the reading material was what we call in Germany “Groschenromane”.
I don’t think so. My grandmother and her friends had all survived the war, most of them were displaced from various Eastern territories, now, we would talk about Post-Traumatic shock but back then we did not. I know now that my grandmother suffered from depression, as a middle aged woman I have the language to describe what was the matter while I was growing up and I firmly believe that those little novelettes gave her respite from whatever was going on in her head. (She also had arthritis in her hands, so hardbacks were never an option, but the ableism in the reading community is a completely different topic.)
My daughter started secondary school last autumn and so far, I really like how the school handles the whole “reading challenge” thing. They got a challenge book which they can fill out and the expectation is to read 12 books throughout the year in various categories with one set book for all of them to read since the author will visit the school in the summer term. But as for what those books are it does not matter. If you want to read Bone as a classic, you can as long as you can make a case why you fit it into the category. Zero judgement. My daughter read a manga for historical fiction. The school librarian told her that that was an inspired choice. I felt like sending flowers to the librarian.
I think it is no accident that women’s fiction is a “genre” and every time I see someone use it in a way that makes it feel like the put down of a whole sex and women pointing out that they don’t read women’s fiction because they don’t have time for that, I feel like getting my soapbox out and lecturing everyone on how this is a form of oppression and how clever that is because most of us buy into it, shamefully at times picking a title up that is deemed to be light and just right for those silly little women. I have turned it around. I am proud to read fiction written by women – which is all what women’s fiction really is – about women’s lives. Barbary Pym wrote women’s fiction, Jane Austen did, too. There is nothing wrong about reading whatever type of author as long as you enjoy the book.
Naturally, some readers read for personal advancement, they are keen to learn something from the books, they love structure and wordplay but surely, they can enjoy that and discuss that without having to look down on readers who may not get the same kick out of that.
I always like to cite my daughter’s hate of aubergine and courgette, it’s just not her thing as much as that saddens me, I have come around to just appreciate that she eats sooo many vegetables with gusto. I wish the same would be said for readers and reading, which is mainly why I started the Any Book Bookclub. I hope that people will keep coming talking about whatever book they enjoy, whether that is a footballer’s biography, the latest Mills&Boon or a ManBooker winner, because instead of lamenting of what people don’t read, we should celebrate that they do in fact read.