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.

The Virtues of YA

My head is killing me and my eyeballs are about to bleed, but I’ve made over 10,000 word cuts to The Atheling so far. My tactic for downsizing the story while keeping every scene is working, so far. I’m under my goals every chapter, if not every scene, and I have 5 chapters left in the fourth revision. My goal was to revise a chapter a day, so I have not taken any days off since the beginning of May, but … ganbarimasuyo!  (I’m working hard and giving it my best!) I will have this book done by July if it kills me. Apologies again for the late deadline in order to do a fifth revision.

What’s been keeping me going since I have no time for weekends? Korean dramas, raamen, and lots of coffee. It takes me about an hour to edit one scene. Then I try to accomplish one task around the house. Then I watch one episode of a drama, then go back to work on the next scene. I start around six in the morning … end around midnight. It’s been a long month. But if the story turns out better, it’s worth it. 🙂

Most of the dramas I’ve been watching have been YA lately. YA has gotten a bad rap in recent years, yet it remains one of the biggest selling genres on the market. When I was a kid, there was no YA genre. There was only children’s literature, juvenile literature, and adult fiction. I enjoyed reading all three. When I first started writing, I wanted to write for teens because I was a teen myself, and I appreciated writers out there who created teen protagonists for readers. Though my first novel series is not currently marketed as YA, I’m still sometimes introduced by friends or family as a YA writer. My books have many elements that could qualify it as YA, so one of the reasons I’ve been revisiting visual YA through the dramas is to help me make up my mind whether my books qualify as YA or not … and whether I should switch marketing, or not.

What is YA, and what are its virtues?

The only difference between the “Young Adult” genre and ordinary adult fiction genres is that it contains a “coming of age” theme in at least one of its plots.

There is usually at least one character in his teens, late teens, or early 20’s. And that character must endure some kind of “first” as a plot trial that forces him to step away from childhood dependency, make a mature and independent decision, and face the consequences of that adult responsibility. Like with all characters from any genre, sometimes it takes these characters more than one try to resolve their problems.

I like YA characters because since they’re starting without experience, they have enormous potential for growth throughout the story. It’s not that adult characters can’t be dynamic, it’s just that they already have baggage from decades of experience. The other reason I like YA characters is they tend to be more resilient for that same reason.

YA Is Too Dark

I’ve heard lots of people complain that YA of recent years is too dark … what with all the focus on vampires, werewolves, magic, depression, love triangles, and general Dystopian atmosphere. This is simply not true. In fact I started watching YA again because I needed something fun to make me laugh and wake me up away from the computer briefly.

Look again at that list of literary elements and tell me none of that is present in adult fiction. Dark elements are present in fiction because dark elements exist in reality. Whatever forms the monsters and crucibles take is secondary to the lessons we learn from them. Fiction is truth within lies because it’s easier to digest a fantasy than to look in a mirror. YA is far from being the only genre that does this. All fiction does this in one way or another.

The other issue going on with this complaint is the lack of understanding that YA has subgenres. If you want to read a coming of age story with a young protagonist, reach for YA first. Then choose as you would any other fictional genre. Do you like romance, historical, sci-fi, fantasy, comedy, horror, adventure, or  paranormal? YA has it. You’ll just see it through the eyes of a less experienced protagonist.

YA Is Too Light

Just like people complain that YA is too heavy and dark, there are people who complain that YA isn’t heavy enough. I admit I tend to lump YA into the “shallow” category frequently, but I don’t mean it in a bad way. Perhaps I should switch my use of the term “shallow” to “light”. The problem with comedies and “light” reading is that no one takes it seriously. More awards are given to stories that depict tragedy and trauma than those that make us laugh. But laughter is good, too. Again, this is true of all genres. YA is not the squeaky nail sticking out from the rest.

Although some reader and writer elitists would say otherwise, light literature is not bad. There is value in a story just being a story that can entertain you. It doesn’t have to have layers upon layers of depth to do that. If you need something to help you laugh, and it has you laughing out loud, it accomplished what the author intended. But who says light literature can’t have depth?

Lots of times when people complain about literature being shallow, it’s because they’re looking at the pop culture packaging, rather than truly analyzing the story. And, yes, it takes critical thinking skills to analyze light reading, just as with heavy reading. So, instead of dissing a light work because it’s marketed as pulp fiction, trying digging a little deeper. You might be surprised at what lurks beneath the surface.

I just watched a drama called Shut Up Flower Boy Band about a group of high school boys from a poor neighborhood who wanted to become famous rock stars. I know many people that would roll their eyes at a title like that. But before the story was done I had found three major themes that were surprisingly deep: a reality check on what it takes to succeed in the entertainment industry, a reality check on what happens when dreams fall apart, and the sad truth that when friends grow up, they often grow apart. Believe it or not, the story reminded me of the classic YA book The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, but with a modern, musical twist.

And one of my favourite examples of teen pop culture covering up an incredibly deep plot is Final Fantasy X (yes, the Playstation game). On the surface, it looks like a bunch of young adults heading out to fight the monster that destroys their homes every 10 years. Underneath is a story of a man who thought he was protecting his home, but his desire for revenge ended up destroying everything. It’s a story of necromancy and hypocritical leadership that betrays the trust of its civilians. It’s about a cycle of martyrdom that ends up feeding the destruction again and again and again, simply because no one has the courage to challenge the corrupt authority and make the changes required to end it.

The next time you consider a story “shallow”, I challenge you to look again.

Why Do So Many Adults Read or Watch YA?

Adults face the same challenges as teens, but in a different environment. Everything experienced in youth continues into adulthood under different guises.

The “mean girls” from high school now exist in the PTA. The bullies or rich brats might now be your co-workers, or bosses. Cliques still exist in communities based on interests and familiarity. The feelings of running in the hamster wheel, but not getting anywhere in life no longer apply to mounds of homework and tests, but take on the form of dirty dishes and laundry, lawns that need to stay trimmed, budgets, bills, business reports, and client management. And in the case of divorce, a child leaving home, a move, a marriage, a job promotion, continuing education, etc. … sometimes, you have to start over doing something you’ve never done before. Suddenly you’re the new kid on the block again … the freshman entering high school on the first day of classes.

Themes like rejection and relationship issues, dependency, depression and suicide, crime and violence, poverty, worries about the future, and wanting to make life better but not knowing where to begin exist throughout a lifetime because they’re part of the human condition. Youth just isn’t as numb to it as a way of life yet. First experiences are more profound than routines.

The awkwardness of crushes, insecurities, and inexperience can seem nostalgic. Who wouldn’t prefer worrying about a math test to worrying about debts? Boyfriend troubles pale in comparison to the personal and financial price of divorce. … That’s not to trivialize anything experienced during the teen years. Most adults, even if they wish they were younger, would rather die than repeat high school because growing into adulthood is tough!  🙂 But looking back on that stage of life can serve as a refresher course for the challenges that lie ahead because resilience is necessary in reality no matter what age we are.

In other words, YA virtues are the same as the virtues of any other kind of fiction. There is just as much substance in YA literature as there is in any other kind of fiction. It’s just seen through a young protagonist’s perspective. And with all literature, it is the reader’s responsibility to understand what he’s reading or viewing and how to appreciate it for what it is, so he can get the most out of it.