Monday, 14 May 2012

Never Judge an Unread Book... Forget About the Covers

Book snobbery is not a new phenomena, but the fact that it's been around for so long doesn't make it any less pointless.

Traditionally, a lot of snobbery was levelled at the so called genre fiction- a relatively new type of fiction in the grand scheme of things, although in the 19th Century the realist novel was considered far superior to the trashy gothic.  In fact, the idea of reading novels at all was considered somewhat frivolous- just think of Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey.  So the idea of there being 'serious' writing and 'trash' writing is not new.

As humans, our impulse is always to categorise and know our world so that we can control it.  Isn't making this kind of judgement but another way to do this?

A lecturer once told me a story about two young women waiting in line for their Centrelink payments.  One was a student, the other, a prostitute.  Each was reading a copy of Tolstoy.  The student, seeing that the prostitute was reading the same book, promptly threw hers in the bin.

So.  We sort books and we sort the people who read them.  Yet maybe we should be making connections through our reading rather than separating ourselves.  What if the student had approached the prostitute and asked for her opinion on the book?  Maybe she was missing out on a unique perspective.

I'm not going to waste my breath (errr... fingers?) advocating that we stop sorting, but perhaps it's something to think about.  And just maybe, if we do have to sort our reading, there's another way to go about it.

What lies beneath a good book is an artistic impulse.  A writer can be motivated by a powerful message or a story that will just not let go.  A reader can sense this message, kind of the way animals sense fear, even if they can't articulate how the connection is being made.  This impulse pulls them in and keeps them turning pages.  (Talent helps too.)  Traditionally, these authors have been the ones starving in garrets, although some did quite well for themselves.

What lies beneath a shallow book is money.  The market.  The artistic impulse is manufactured in an artificial way, bypassing the great passion for words and storytelling, and leaving us with a great steaming pile of the author's greed.  As a reader, I sense this motive too.  And I resent it.  It is why I would never read a book called Zombie Jane Eyre (and please do not even get me started on this new mutation of fan fiction).

But I would never tell you Zombie Jane Eyre was shit if I hadn't read it.  I wouldn't dislike you if you liked it.  

It would be hypocritical of me to tell you what to read.  I believe that as writers and lovers of books and words, that it's great to strive towards reading everything.  And if Vampire Robinson Crusoe is what it takes to get that sad sliver of the population who don't like to read, reading, then that book is okay by me, so long as I don't have to read it.

We should all remember that one reader's 'trash' is another reader's 'treasure.'

We should also try not to judge books by their genres, as genres are fairly unfixed beasts.  Every now and then, a really entertaining book will rise out of the mire and surprise me.  Some of the most entertaining reads I've had this year have been recommendations of books from genres I avoid, given to me by people I love and respect.  So thank you to History Boy for getting me to read The Hunger Games, I loved seeing how much you enjoyed reading that almost as much as I enjoyed the book.  And thank you to Jen of for giving me Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver for my 21st birthday, I've just finished the trilogy and I was so caught up in the story that I have emerged bleary eyed with the tips of my fingers blue with cold as if I too had been in Boundary Woods with the wolves.


You may ask me why I would rather spend my Sunday languishing in the colourful prose of novels about Werewolves and Shadowhunters, and my answer for now will be this.

If all I ever read was The Unbearable Lightness of Being and its ilk, perhaps I would be a smarter, more political, more cynical person.  But the act of reading itself would become a weighty task of self reflection and self knowledge.  Reading serves many purposes.  The joy of reading to escape is in the dichotomy to be found when I read to ground myself in the real world.  I would lose the pleasure of analysis if I weren't also under the influence of its flighty, escapist twin.


  1. When I think of "what I read", I like to take 'read' in the broadest sense of the term. To interpret, or to understand or seek meaning in something. I cound watching a movie or TV show as reading fiction. To me, comics are just as valid as novels. They just leave their impact in a different way.

    On the same token as judging a book by its cover, I'm starting to adopt the principle of never judging a film by its trailer. Things can get misrepresented, or targeted at a demographic that doesn't quite fit, or is too broad or narrow, or that it's trying to be something it's not.

    I just like to read things. I like my readings to be entertaning. And there are so many ways to do that. So many ways, it's ridiculous.

    I'm glad you mentioned the gothic, and its tendency to be marginalised, because that's exactly what it's about. I'm a genre guy, myself, but I like my genre with a touch of gothic. That traditional sense of gothic, with the destruction of knowledge and order, the fear of the unknown, the supernatural, and the psychological.

    I love the idea of this sort of fiction existing on the fringes, and I've got a tutor who's always going on about how "the best ideas come from the fringes", and I can pretty much guarantee I won't find it in the pages of a Mills & Boon, or a Snooki biography/sticker book. But really, that sort of stuff can come from anywhere.

  2. Mmm the idea of viewing an entire series as being an act of reading is an interesting one. Series' are certainly texts but I think that this interpretation ignores the way that when you read a book, you have to make the visual world yourself, whereas when you watch something, it's made for you. It's actually kind of the same with comics though, and yet I still see that as reading... although in that case, the inflections of the speech and that are still able to be read in a multitude of ways. Wow, I've never truly thought about this before but if all three are texts perhaps we truly are reading all three. However, this wasn't the kind of thing I was talking about...

    The only distinction that matters to me at the moment is entertaining and not entertaining. I'm trying not to think of myself as a genre girl or otherwise. Especially considering I just wrote a huge essay on Genre Fiction and it nearly killed me.


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