Let’s Not Judge People Based on Literary Taste

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From The New York Times

Once again I’m responding to an opinion piece in a newspaper about reading (see my last response here). This time, I’m looking at a New York Times piece by author Jennifer Weiner titled “‘What’s Your Favorite Book’ Is Not A Trick Question.” In it, she discusses the response to the fact that Georgia politician Stacey Abrams writes romance novels under the pen name Selena Montgomery.  Recently she appeared on Stephen Colbert’s show where he read excerpts from her work:

As Weiner says:

 With salacious glee, and with a visibly uncomfortable Ms. Abrams beside him, Mr. Colbert read a sex scene from her novel “Reckless” on TV. She writes bodice rippers, was the joke, which played into layer upon layer of prejudice against women writers, women readers, women’s pleasure and women’s stories, especially when those stories are by, and about, women of color. Ha ha, sex! And also, lady-trash!

This plays into society’s misogynistic bias against the romance genre, which I discussed a bit in this post.

Firstly, it’s difficult diminish Abrams based on the fact that she writes romance. She has a Masters in Public Affairs from the University of Texas at Austin and a JD from Yale Law. She is a former Deputy Attorney General for the city of Atlanta, and served as the Minority Leader of the Georgia House of Representatives for six years. In 2018 she was the Democratic nominee for Georgia’s gubernatorial election, making her the first black female nominee from a major party in US history. In 2019 she also became the first African American woman to deliver a response to the State of the Union address. In addition to her work as Selena Montgomery, Abrams has published articles under her own name on issues of public policy, taxation, and nonprofit organizations. She also wrote Lead from the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change under her own name. The fact that she writes romance doesn’t negate any of those achievements.

Secondly, Abrams’ work as Selena Montgomery is quite popular. Her books have sold more than 100,000 copies and she is the winner of the Reviewer’s Choice Award and the Reader’s Favorite Award from Romance In Color for Best New Author, and was featured as a Rising Star. I haven’t read any of her work, but according to Weiner, Reckless, the novel that Colbert mocked “is an especially challenging journey to happily ever after, given that its star-crossed African-American lovers were lawyer and the cop who pulls her over.” In other words, it seems that Abrams is a good novelist and people enjoy her work. So why the mockery?

Weiner contrasts this mockery to the response to  Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend Indiana, who shared his list of ten books he’d like to bring to a desert island. Buttigieg put James Joyce’s Ulysses on the list.

Clearly, Mr. Buttigieg wants us to know that he is smart. “Ulysses” is a great book, a book that is firmly ensconced in the canon, but probably doesn’t end up in a lot of beach bags. I am ready to concede that Mr. Buttigieg is an outlier, a man who truly enjoys “Ulysses” and expects that other readers will dig it, but it is not a book that many people read for fun.

First of all, there could be many reasons that Buttigieg has this book on his list. He might be showing off. Maybe he’s never been able to get through it, so he would bring it to a desert island where he’d have the time to attempt it. Or maybe it’s something he didn’t appreciate when he read it but is familiar with its reputation and wants to tackle it again. Or maybe it’s his #1 favorite book of all time, and he just can’t get enough. There’s no way to know for sure. But aside from a bit of eye rolling, there was no mockery of Buttigieg’s presumed love of Joyce.

The contrast between Abrams and Buttigieg isn’t exact because Abrams is a writer of several romance novels whereas Buttigieg is a reader of another writer’s work. Also the same people aren’t doing the mocking: in Abrams case it’s a late night television comedian, and in Buttigieg’s it’s a vague “Some people rolled their eyes at this; the literati swiftly leapt to his defense, some saying they’d rather reread Joyce than attempt a graphic novel.” Um, why? I’m not criticizing anyone who wants to read Joyce, but what’s wrong with attempting a graphic novel? Yes there are bad graphic novels and trashy graphic novels. But there are also graphic novels that are groundbreaking and literary and artistic. Should we dismiss Maus or Peresoplis because of their format?

I take Weiner’s point: that Abrams is a WOC and Buttigieg is a white man. Her writing career is mocked because of genre whereas what he reads is praised for being literary. I think that she’s conflating two things. One is the tendency to praise white men for well, just about anything, but to hold others to a much higher standard. The other is the tendency to place reading literary fiction above writing genre fiction.

The comment about graphic novels shows that it isn’t just about romance.  Recent comments from Ian McEwan about sci-fi also show that there is a general dismissal of genre fiction from mainstream media and literati. Yet most people who read fiction, read genre fiction.

What qualifies as literary changes as the world changes. Once upon a time, Shakespeare was considered lowbrow populist entertainment. Today his work is considered quite possibly the high point of the English language. Novels as a literary form were once dismissed (prompting Jane Austen’s famous defense of the novel). Obviously things have changed. A hundred years from now, no one knows what we’ll consider great. So let’s reserve judgment.

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7 thoughts on “Let’s Not Judge People Based on Literary Taste

  1. I agree that it isn’t constructive to judge others on what they read; they are reading, and that is important. I also believe that we should judge authors by the quality of their work, not the genre they write in. There are romance novels with great writing, horror novels with great writing, and other genre novels, comics, and graphic novels that contain incredible storytelling. People shouldn’t dislike a book because of its genre; they should dislike a book because it failed to entertain them or to deliver on the promise of its story in content or execution. The basic definition of literature is storytelling in the written form; to try and belittle or deny types of writing we happen to dislike more than others by classifying them as any thing but is a slippery slope to snobbery and cynicism. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fabulous post! It’s funny cos I was just having a conversation with a friend about how bad it is that people denigrate certain genres aimed at women- when the same isn’t done to “trashy” genres aimed at men. Also it seems almost laughable to mock Abrams for being incredibly successful! And yeah I don’t get why people dismiss graphic novel either- not just cos of books like Maus and Persepolis (which I loved and thought were important works) but also looking at the fact that the biggest movies in Hollywood at the moment right now (superhero movies) are all based on graphic novels. I know this won’t be a compelling argument to snobby movie goers, but I think it counts for something 😉 And yeah unfortunately there’s always genre snobbery among the literati (joke’s on them cos that’s where a lot of the sales are). Love your point about Shakespeare and Austen!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think a lot of the criticism about the romance genre has to do with the fact that it primarily targets and appeals to women. I mean thrillers and spy stories can be just as formulaic and unrealistic but they’re not mocked in the same way. And you’re right about the fact that people tend to LIKE genre fiction. I don’t think that should be underestimated because what people read has a huge impact on what they do and what they think, which in turn can shape the world.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah that’s what I think as well to be honest. I just don’t see them getting the same level (or type) of criticism. And I really agree- I think people underestimate that at their own peril, cos those kind of books have the real staying power.

        Liked by 1 person

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