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.

Books As An Accessory?

I was reading an article in the Washington Post titled Books Have Become the New “It” Fashion Accessory. Is That Such a Bad Thing? The article discusses the trend of celebrities (generally female) being photographed with a book in hand. It tends to conflate several trends involving celebs and literature. One is the bookish paparazzi shot. Another is the celebrity book club, and another is celebrity book pics on instagram. Let’s look at these separately for a moment.

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Bella and Gigi Hadid carrying books. Pic from Glamour.com

With paparazzi shots, it can be difficult to tell whether they’re staged (unless the shot features the celeb in question doing something hideously embarrassing in which case, chances are it isn’t staged!) but there are places that celebs can expect to encounter a photographer. Think airports in major cities like LA and NYC. What is a popular activity that many people (famous and nonfamous) do on planes? Yep, that’s right. Read. So is there an awareness on the part of celebs that they might well be photographed? Yes. I’d imagine that they take care to look good at the airport for that reason. But if they have a book with them it might just be for reading purposes! More suspicious by far is if a celebrity is photographed emerging from a nightclub with a book. Because no one (to my knowledge) reads in that setting.

Then there’s the celebrity book clubs. Oprah’s is the most famous, but Emma Robert’s Belletrist, Florence Welch’s Between Two Books, Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf, Reese Witherspoon’s RW Book Club, are all on the radar. These clubs have different purposes. But there’s some skepticism expressed in the comments and even in the article:

“These posts make reading look both cozy and chic, an activity best done with polished toes, in a slouchy yet stylish sweater, on a plush piece of furniture, in front of a fireplace and/or in the company of a highly Instagrammable dog. “

But is it fair to accuse these personalities of hopping on the book bandwagon for the sake of image? Reese Witherspoon’s book club highlights books that she enjoys. However her production company frequently options the books for film adaptation. Sometimes she stars in them (Wild, Big Little Lies) and at other times she serves as a producer (Gone Girl). Do you really think she doesn’t read a book before investing time and money on an adaptation? Emma Watson is a vocal feminist in addition to being an actress. Her book club, Our Shared Shelf shares books by and about various female experiences. It encourages discussion. Watson is the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and she has a degree in English Literature from Brown University. She is very capable of both reading books and leading discussions about them.

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from openculture.org photographed by Eve Arnold

But this questioning of female celebrities when they’re open about their love of books isn’t anything new. Recently Christie’s auctioned off Marilyn Monroe’s personal library of over 400 books. Photographers often thought that it was funny to pose the world’s most famous “dumb blonde” with her nose in a thick book, but according to those who knew her she was an avid reader with a curious mind. In 2010 her poems, notes, letters, diary entries, and more were published as Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters. These informal scribbles reveal a thoughtful, sensitive soul who used literature as a lifeline. In spite of this being known about Monroe, she is still sealed in popular imagination as a spacey, somewhat clueless tragic figure.

Logically we know that all actors play parts that may be very different from who they are in their personal life. But we still have trouble when we’re presented with evidence of that. That trouble is elevated when we are discussing female performers. I think the reason for that goes back to why male actors once played all parts or why actresses were once regarded as prostitutes. Something in western culture is deeply suspicious of a woman who has something going on behind the curtains. Our society wants to be able to “see” what a woman is. But if she presents a different face to different audiences, it’s hard to know if you’re seeing the real thing. That’s scary to many people.

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pic from thelitnerds.com

The article then goes on to discuss the #bookstagram phenomenon.

Some bibliophiles take their ink-on-paper fetish a little too far online. “Ladies are draping their bodies across a swath of opened books like some sort of Abrahamic sacrifice to the gods of paper and ink,” Hillary Kelly wrote in Vulture last year, identifying one of the more unsettling bookish fads to sweep Instagram.

I could get into a whole discussion about why this is “too far” and “unsettling” but I won’t. That’s a whole nother topic! But  I find it interesting that in the comments several people questioned the validity of celebrities photographed with books because they were holding physical books rather than ereaders. I think this goes back to the reason that I don’t believe that ebooks will ever completely replace physical books. Physical books have a power as objects that ereaders lack (I discussed that a bit in this post). Books as physical objects are really what ties this article together.

Think about it. When you see someone reading a psychological thriller, or a romance novel or a political biography, you make assumptions about them. You make guesses about what they’re interested in, and why they’re reading that book. Your guesses may not be right, but that’s another story. What a person is reading is a little window that can potentially reveal a lot. I think that aspect of the reveal is part of what makes people uncomfortable. It’s almost similar to people being uncomfortable next to someone in a very revealing outfit. I think that with celebrities we assume the books they hold are performative because we are uncomfortable with the idea of them being so comfortable as to share that. I think that this is really the crux of what seems like a pretty thoughtless opinion piece in the newspaper.