Book Snobbery

"Book Reviews" by Merodinoongaku
Diversity in book reviews is normal.

What it is.

Book snobbery is what happens when a reader values one book above another as if such a thing could be objective. That means judging a book without emotion or opinion. Grant it technical aspects of writing can sometimes be judged objectively. But when speaking of the book as a whole? Never.

This happens a lot when comparing literary genres. For example, people love to feel that literary genre is superior to fantasy, horror, romance, young adult, or comics. Book lovers also tend to feel books in general are superior to screenplays for films or TV or stage performances.

Or book lovers tend to strongly dislike particular authors or series due to personal biases, especially in the age of the Internet, where it’s not enough to say, “I didn’t like this book.” The anti-fan might mock the author and fans, destroy the author’s career, or possibly even threaten his or her life.

Most book snobs don’t view themselves as snobs at all, though. They’re more likely to think younger generations are simply not smart enough to appreciate old-fashioned literature because of modern attitudes or digital addictions. Or they’re more likely to think the author they dislike lacks talent. Or they think fans are sheep for flocking to whatever current trend is popular. But while those certainly could be true scenarios, there are no absolutes when it comes to why people like or dislike what they do or don’t. Humanity has always been and will always be diverse when it comes to the arts.

I have read studies that reinforce notions that books are better than visual storytelling because they encourage imagination, that literary genre is better than pulp fiction because of realism. I know that some authors had no training or knowledge of the craft of writing and publishing because their work started as fan fiction that was gobbled up because of topic popularity regardless of professionalism. It is easy to fall into the trap of book snobbery if you love to read or write. But why does this happen, and why is it bad?

Why it happens.

1. It is precisely because human beings are subjective when it comes to the arts that we judge our favourite to be superior over whatever we dislike. I try to keep this in mind when I review anything. If I am aware of my own personal biases before going into a reading, I will try to be fair and give back one star when reviewing if I didn’t like it. I feel very strongly about the differences between a poorly written book and a book that was well-written, but just not my cup of tea. And since the purpose of my review is both to inform the author how I felt about the book and hold the book up to fellow readers to make their own judgments about whether or not they think they would like it, I shouldn’t let my personal bias taint the review with more criticism than the work itself deserves. If I don’t like football, I’m going to assume books about football are boring. But that’s not fair to the author or other readers who might be football fans. My reviews need to reflect this. So, personal bias, I think, is the most common contribution to book snobbery.

2. Type of medium is probably the second biggest contributor to literary prejudices. Books are often viewed as superior to other forms of story-telling because books have a more educational and academic reputation than TV, film, stage productions, games, etc. But there are many ways to tell a story — each with its own limitations and blessings. And, again, how well a story is received is really up to individual taste of the reader.

Some people have a more visual intelligence than others. That means they take in information about the world around them through their eyes. Others are aural-intelligent, so their biggest input comes from being able to hear. Others are kinetic, or touch-intelligent. They need to move and handle things. So, if an aural or kinetic child falls asleep or can’t sit still reading a book, it doesn’t mean they’re being disrespectful of the book. It means they need access to stories in different means. Not lesser means — different means. Audio books, stage performances, films, and games will appeal more to people who are not primarily visual learners. But a well-rounded individual should be able to enjoy story-telling in any format without shame.

There is no shame in preferring to watch Moby-Dick over reading it. The point is to enjoy the story, however you can best receive it. Personally, I thought Moby-Dick was the most god-awful book I ever tried to read … second only to The Life and Diary of David Brainard (both school assignments, by the way). For most of my life I hated Moby-Dick because I could not get into the author’s writing style. But decades later, I watched the film version of it and loved it. Now I believe it’s a fantastic story, and I see why it’s such a classic. But Herman Melville’s writing style put me to sleep! Later, I was astounded in college to be able to take a film-literature class, and to realize that visual story-telling is not lower-class literature. It’s just a different medium. The story-telling can and should still be top-notch. (People must keep this in mind when speaking of derivative works like film adaptations of books.)

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Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab in a 1956 film adaptation of Moby-Dick. The ultimate lesson in letting go of an unhealthy obsession …

3. Level of quality is probably the third offender. Is George Orwell’s 1984 better than J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? If you think the answer to this is yes, you are ignoring the fact that books are written for different genres, about different topics, and for different audiences for a reason. I cannot stress this enough: literature is not a competition between best and worst. Literature is one of the few things in life in which there is something for everyone. Literature is inclusive. You can like 1984 AND Harry Potter. You can like comics AND classics. Some of the best stories around come from children’s literature, while some of the most snore-worthy things ever written have perfect, textbook, college-level prose. Level of quality boils down to level of appreciation. And there are no limits on that.

4. Finally, I mentioned that there are technical, objective areas that matter in arts. And in my opinion this is the only area where it is okay to have a certain amount of expectations. But even there, people can differ in how important or unimportant they think technical aspects are. You would think grammar is essential to being uniform in the literary world … and yet if you study grammar deeply enough, you will see that English grammar rules are a mess. So, there’s a lot of grammar that is up to the author or publisher or reader to decide whether it’s appropriate, and each of them may differ. Ellipses are the perfect example: is there no space before and after the three dots, one space after the three dots, or one space before and after the three dots? The answer will depend on which rule book you consult, what the publisher demands, what kind of composition you’re trying to write, and author’s preference! So the real rule for ellipses is, “Pick one format and be consistent.”

But because we are also talking about literary art forms, we have to acknowledge that many writers intentionally break the rules. Consider E.E. Cummings, who did away with capital letters altogether in his poetry, so that even capitalizing his name feels somehow wrong. You may also notice my own rebellion when it comes to placement of punctuation in regards to quotation marks. The reason American English always place commas within quotations is because of the way typeset printers were built. Same goes for why we spaced twice after periods. Some punctuation keys were smaller and more fragile than others. So, they simplified a grammar rule for the sake of antique technology. Nowadays, the double-space-after-the-period rule is no longer enforced anywhere. And if you look at British English, logic is still applied to how punctuation relates to quotation marks. Rather than simplifying the rules for the sake of machines we no longer use, I prefer to apply logic. If the punctuation in quotations ends a sentence, it goes inside. If not, outside.

In such cases, we have to ask whether works that break rules are “poorly written” or “intentional”. (See what I did there? I’m such a rebel.) 😉 Poorly written work deserves to be called out as poorly written with thoughtful analysis as to how it could be improved. But artistic differences or controversial options (such as Oxford commas), are what they are. And unless they destroy the reader’s ability to comprehend the story, they should be left alone as part of the author’s intentions, for whatever reason.

Why book snobbery is bad.

Book snobbery is something all lovers of stories should try to avoid because in all cases, fostering the love of reading is better than discouraging it. Most human brains are flexible enough to appreciate the nuances of differences for what they are, as long as they are free to enjoy literature as one of life’s little sweetnesses. If someone is badgered into reading materials they don’t like or can’t easily absorb, or if they are shamed into giving up what does interest them because someone else called it inferior, their love of reading may be damaged ever after. And the one thing every scientific and sociological study has in common regarding reading or literature is the fact that stories are good for human development. Literature improves empathy, imagination, communication skills, and critical thinking skills, however we choose to digest it.

If you need some snappier answers on the subject, check out Matt Haig’s blog article, “30 Things to Tell a Book Snob” (http://www.booktrust.org.uk/books/writing/online-writer-in-residence/blog/558/). My favourite is number 17: “Freedom is the process of knocking down walls. Tyranny is the process of building them.” … Very relative to my books … and current events, in many ways.

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My Thoughts on Censorship

This morning, I read The Guardian’s interview with Neil Gaiman. Coraline is absolutely one of my favourite books. And Neil Gaiman remains one of my favourite authors, not just because of his books, but because of his inspiration and example. So, his words on the subject of censorship made me rather reflective on my own experiences, reading and writing. I’ve been wanting to write a blog article on censorship for some time and never could figure out where to start until now.

Thankfully, my parents never censored what I wanted to read, but I had one public school teacher tell me The Hobbit was too difficult for a fifth grader. (I read it anyway, loved it, and it’s the book that inspired me to write stories of my own.) And my churches and private schools often made it known which books, genres, and authors were “evil”. I was admonished not to read Thoreau, for example, because he was too humanist. Scare tactics were openly used to frighten me away from Dungeons and Dragons games and books because of the belief that they were Satanic. And I remember being told in chapel that the entire fantasy genre was evil because it involves authors creating new worlds that usually employ some form of magic; since only God can create worlds and perform magic, when mortals do it we’re playing God. And it’s a sin to want to be like God. So, according to at least one preacher out there, ALL fantasy genre books (indeed, all fiction, if you’re going to look at it from that point of view) should be burned for blasphemous content … but the Bible itself, with all of its rapes and murders and adultery and multitudes of other sins, is okay for even very young children to study in depth and interpret literally.

Creation of Adam
Shame on you, fantasy writers (and artists). Apparently, only God can use magic, build worlds, and create character sheets … and nudes.

And this censorship didn’t apply to just books. Rock music was banned from my church and private school’s campus, and they held bonfires for burning music collections that they encouraged students to join — yes, real-life literature and music burning as a form of censorship. Fahrenheit 451, anyone?

Having experienced that kind of extreme censorship, my take on censorship now is this: books should never be censored. Period. If you don’t like a book, don’t read it. If you finished reading it, but didn’t like it, give an intelligent, articulate review explaining why the book was poorly written (meaning: know your own prejudices and know something about how literature works before grinding an author into the ground for writing something you, personally, did not enjoy). Books that are badly written may or may not be bought by other people, depending on what they like or dislike, but you cannot control other people’s likes and opinions. The purpose of a review is merely to let other readers know what you enjoyed, or did not enjoy, about the book, so they have an idea whether they may, or may not, enjoy it, too. It is not the purpose of a review to steer other readers away from books — that’s bullying and assumes everyone has the same tastes as you. Books that receive mean, screaming, one-star, personally insulting reviews only tell other readers that the reviewer is mean, very opinionated, and probably takes his fiction way too seriously — just like censorship. (Censorship and book shaming are both control issues: participants desire to control the author and readers.) And in my experience, mean-spirited reviews indicate the reader doesn’t recognize his own prejudices or understand how literature works. (That’s not to sound elitist. I am anti-elitist when it comes to arts. I simply mean we have too many readers who think, “I hate it, therefore it’s bad.” And that’s just now how art works.)

I have never been traumatized by anything I’ve read, even the stuff I didn’t enjoy. I’ve read almost every book on those “How Many of These Censored Books Have You Read?” lists that float around the Internet, and I’m thankful for the valuable lessons I learned from them. Because the true danger in books is that they have the potential to either prompt people to think for themselves (against the establishment) or parrot propaganda (favouring the establishment). Discerning readers will develop better critical thinking and empathy skills as a result of reading. But there are people who take what they read to heart, literally and seriously, so that they turn it into a religion, regardless of what topics are presented … even in fiction. So, like any other inanimate thing, information (fact, fiction, conjecture, or opinion) is nothing but a tool. But ANY tool created for good can be turned into a weapon when it falls into the hands of people who have ill intentions.

One of my favourite censored books is Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. I hated that book from beginning to end, but I loved what I learned from it so much that I’ve read it multiple times. If I were to take it literally, I’d say it promotes casual rape and other forms of violence for sport — that it sympathizes too much with violent people. But it’s fiction; it’s not meant to be taken literally. It’s meant to make people think about what it means to have free will and reconsider how we treat the lowest class of citizens in society … prisoners. It’s an extremely difficult book for many reasons, but well worth the read. It uses negative elements to challenge readers to consider how our humanity itself hinges on our freedom to make our own choices … even when they come with bad consequences.

If we wipe the criminal mind to make it docile, are we simultaneously stripping away a prisoner’s humanity? If we alter a person’s mind against his will, isn’t that also a rape? The story challenges the concept that tyrannical peace is a viable option for creating and maintaining a moral society. Is there really such a thing as “good” tyranny? The book reminds us that we cannot sacrifice free will for the sake of a crime-free society, or we will become tyrants. It’s a fine line between lawful good and lawful evil.

This book was a huge influence in my own writing concerning themes of tyrannical peace, but I have yet to hear of anyone blaming Clockwork Orange for inducing him to be a serial rapist. And even if he did, he would have missed the “moral of the story” because of his own inability to comprehend it. Blaming a book for a reader’s lack of wisdom and ethics is preposterous. Blaming the author for saying, “What if this hypothetical situation were true?” and excusing a reader for employing a literal interpretation as some kind of life guide or Bible is just as illogical.

I remember a case in the news years ago where a woman stoned her child to death because she believed God told her to and promised He would resurrect her child as an act of faith. Where do you think she got such an incredible idea? Ummm … the Bible, maybe? The Bible does admonish parents to stone disobedient children. And she was following Abraham’s example with Isaac, after all. Apparently, God just didn’t see fit to reward this woman’s faith with a spare ram, for some reason. But what judge in what court is going to punish her Bible’s publishers because this woman chose to interpret those words literally and murder her own son as an act of faith? Or, if Bibles inspire such crimes, should they be on the ban list, too? Can you imagine the outrage of all those book banners if the Bible were included on that list because of its immoral and violent content?

No book, no matter how immoral, violent, or factually wrong, should be banned. There are better ways to make people aware of the content of a book so that they can judge for themselves whether they wish to support the author by purchasing it, or not. Then, ultimately, the user must take responsibility for what he does with the information, or tool, in his hands. There will always be some people who have trouble discerning fact from fiction due to lack of education or critical thinking skills, or if psychological manipulation or influences are present, such as indoctrination or mental illness. But you cannot help people become better critical thinkers by banning difficult or controversial books. In fact, quite the opposite will happen. Keeping readers away from difficult reading material encourages quick judgment and avoidance, rather than understanding or problem solving, when facing controversy. And you cannot punish all readers, the writer, and the publisher just because some readers might twist the message, or take a twisted message to heart and act upon it.