Call The Reading Police

Yesterday morning I tweeted a handful of insomnia-fueled things related to some discussions that have been floating around in the ether this week:

But then I realized I wanted to unpack some of this a little more and make an auxiliary point or two, as you do. So rambly post, it is.

After I made these tweets, I skimmed the post that touched off this latest round of discussion about Heinlein and whether someone has to read the SF classic canon to be a fan of the genre or a contributing member of the field, and also went and read Scalzi's reaction to it (which I very much agree with).

Even having been around the field as long as I have, I don't really feel like I understand fandom very well, so I'm not going to talk about that much.

What I mainly want to do is throw out a few ideas about reading.

So, first tweet, my Heinlein policy: I'm only half-joking here. Ask most YA authors or professionals who've attended SFF conventions and they'll confirm that at most of them, whether it be chatting in a hallway or on a panel, someone will ask you about the Heinlein juveniles or express their regret that they don't make books like that anymore and this new-fangled YA stuff has just taken over or tell you about what they want the next trend to be (note: Heinlein-y stuff!*).

It does get tiresome–especially because YA science fiction and fantasy has been in the midst of a new golden age for more than a decade, as far as I'm concerned, and if people want to write it (as many of the people who say the stuff above do), then they should be reading current YA. Which isn't to say you can't read old stuff or classic works can't inform us now. They absolutely can. But to assume that the progression of excellent fiction and exciting worlds and ideas and work stopped decades ago, when you were a kid reading the stuff, well… I just have to go to the bar. Be right back.

Also, you all know one of the things I hate most is when people have Strong Opinions about a genre or subgenre or type of book and have read zero to a number of examples that can be counted on one hand of that genre or subgenre or type of book and decided that they then understand the entirety of offerings under the umbrella. (Extra hate if they're writing about it in the Wall Street Journal or similar and pearl-clutching about the children, the children.)

Being really well-read in one genre or in all sorts of genres is a beautiful thing. Most of my favorite people on earth are. But to the second point I made yesterday morning, I have zero patience for reader shaming or for making people feel lesser or unwelcome or clueless because they haven't read the same things you have from some inevitably problematic canon checklist. 

For kicks, here's a little excerpt of some thoughts I posted about my issues with The Canon as a thing at the Nervous Breakdown several years ago during a censorship controversy: 

I don’t want to lay all this at the foot of The Canon, certainly not. But, hear me out, I do think that the elitist desire to rank fiction–when the rankers always, always have an agenda, be it a clear-cut one or not–ends up contributing to certain crazy ideas people hold about literature, especially people who don’t get out enough. And by get out enough, I mean who don’t read contemporary fiction, because it hasn’t been stamped by the mighty passage of time. Do I believe that history sorts out good books from the pack? Sometimes. Do I believe excellent fiction gets swallowed up as the years pass? Sure. Do I believe that the only healthy approach to reading involves throwing some newer stuff into the mix? With all my brain.

(Always nice when you still agree with yourself after time goes by.)

And yet, despite that, I'm actually not bugged by the Heinlein juvenile rhapsodizers not being current on modern YA–if it's not their thing, it's not their thing. What I'm bugged by is the casual dismissal of a body of work they're not familiar with, a determined averting of the eyes from it with their explicit or implicit insistence that the old classics are somehow innately better than books they haven't read.

Back to what I said yesterday morning: Never feel bad about your reading history–it's yours. And we're all still living our reading lives, which means if you encounter a blind spot and are interested in filling it in or giving something new a try, then you can do that.

I certainly have. When I decided to go to Vermont, one of the major reasons was because I didn't feel like I had enough context to fully understand children's literature and YA. Sure, I'd read plenty of current YA and I was writing it. But I hadn't read many of the classics of that field and I wanted a better grounding. My very first residency had a survey course, for which I read something like 70 books ranging from picture books to middle grade to YA, both older and newer, and then for the next two years, I read along that spectrum nonstop.

I like sinking into a new genre's worth of reading, picking up techniques and an idea of how different fields and genres and subgenres have evolved and continue to. But I absolutely don't expect everyone else to do this. I love recommending books, but I'm never offended if people pass on the recommendations.

If there's something you aren't interested in or haven't been interested in yet–or that you tried and didn't like–hey, fine. Your reading life is your own.

Re: point the third that our reading helps define who we are. I think we all know this, right? Books become a part of us. Everything we read enough of or react to strongly does. A reader is a person books are important to.

And so attempts to claim people don't belong or have the right frame of reference if they haven't read this or that is basically a complaint that people are trying to come to your party who aren't exactly like you. It does strike me as a variation on the "fake geek" argument, an attempt to put a sign on the old clubhouse that says No Admittance, not getting into this party without the stamp of approval.

But isn't it a way more fun party if new people show up, people who don't care whether you approve of them or not?

Which brings me to the real reason I wanted to do a post, because there's something I didn't touch on that I think is important.

While your reading history–past, present, and future–is your own, I do recommend giving some periodic thought to it. If, for instance, when asked to come up with a list of your ten favorite books every one of them is, say, written by a man or there are no authors of color included, then you might want to notice that and think about why it might be. Same if the last ten books you read can be described that way. But your reading is your own, ultimately, and while I suspect it would be richer if you got out more and mixed things up (and while such lists make me crazy), if it's a list of favorites, then your favorites are your favorites.

The problem comes when that list somehow gets mentally shifted from a personal favorites list–a this-is-what-Ilike-best–to an empirical** best list–a this-is-the-highest-quality-example-of-book-type. And it's even more problematic if you're writing for a media outlet, or making a list to share in the real world, or nominating for awards, or writing reviews, or choosing what's important enough to be reviewed, or putting together an anthology, etc., and that difference isn't clear to you and something you correct for thoughtfully if need be.

When people point that kind of omission out or the attitudes that lead to it, that is not policing reading. That's inviting more people to the party.

*Nothing necessarily wrong with that, just no vacuum-sealed, as if it was gently lifted from a time-capsule stuff, please.

**Same problem as canon. Reasonable people can try to agree, but there will always be issues.

12 thoughts on “Call The Reading Police”

  1. Really good post. I like the distinction you made between a personal list and a list of recommendations. I think it’s an important point. Everyone has their own favorites and is free to share them, but when you cross the line into recommending as an expert (real or perceived) you have to be more careful. One thing I’ve learned from working on the Cybils is to look beyond what I like, and judge a book in relationship to its audience and the larger body of work, rather than my personal preference. I’ve discovered some great books that way that I wouldn’t have read otherwise, and also some that I didn’t particularly care for due to personal preference but that I thought were deserving of recognition.
    I’m an old SF reader from way back; I read Heinlein, Asimov, and many others from about 4th grade. I loved those books, too, and still love them, but they aren’t the only books out there, and I’ve seen lists of recommendations that don’t seem to notice that any SF good books have been published in the last 30 years.
    Sheila Ruth

  2. YES.
    I have never read Heinlein or really much “classic” science fiction at all. I have read the first twenty or thirty Oz books, every Baby-Sitters Club book before Mary Ann’s house burned down, and every issue of X-Men (and most related spin-offs) published between 1977 and 1991. These days I read more contemporary “literary” fiction than anything else; I remain slightly weak on YA considering that’s what I write, and I’ve read many “classics” but probably not as many as anyone who actually paid attention during school. I only made it halfway through Middlemarch because I got sick of hauling it around but I’ll probably finish it someday. I’ve read The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome but not The Age of Innocence. I’ve never read a single Sweet Valley High, Christopher Pike or V.C. Andrews book. A bad experience with Shannara in 1991 soured me on fantasy for about ten years until I came back around to it, which means that although I am very enthusiastic about the genre I’m still catching up. I don’t speak Elvish or Klingon but I can sing Like a Prayer in French.
    So what does all that make me? Who knows– perhaps I will always remain too shabbily-attired to sit at the cool table and too much a dilettante to enter the kingdom of the geeks. Regardless, I DO think that my extremely particular and somewhat eclectic taste is very much reflected in my writing. Furthermore, I believe that’s a strength rather than a weakness. (Those who disagree with this self-assessment may register a formal complaint with my assistant.)
    Yes, there’s a lot to be said for having a working knowledge of the the realm in which one chooses to pitch one’s tent. I wouldn’t trust a romance novelist who had never read a single romance. But I believe that a certain amount of ignorance can sometimes lead a writer to stumble onto new ideas and that a certain amount of ignorance can unburden a writer of the (sometimes overwhelming!) weight of everything that’s already been done. It can lead a writer to take risks without even realizing it. Meanwhile, obsequious devotion to canon and convention– and the attendant obsession with taxonomizing everything down to the finest grain– seems to me to be a great way for a genre to become stagnant and calcified.
    And finally: I’m all for subculture pride, but when people start trying to to bar the door to the Nerd Club from the inside I kind of have to laugh at the irony. Luckily I was called a nerd enough times between 1990 and 1994 to feel permanently secure in that identity.
    FYI: the Pansy Club is still welcoming new members with open arms– no entrance exam required.

  3. *wild applause*
    Idiosyncratic tastes are the ideal, aren’t they? Because that’s the only kind of tastes there are, truly. And perhaps especially for writers, since reading is part of our stylistic DNA. The more and more varied influences the better. I came to “genre” mostly through Latin American fantastic fiction and miscellanea/political essayists like Eduardo Galeano as a teenager, all of which was just starting to be widely available here in the ’90s and people like Jeanette Winterson, and books like Geek Love, and through comics, after a childhood fascination with any number of genre stories by Poe or collected in random Hitchcock branded anthologies. And all sorts of lit stuff. But, yeah, I also loved Judy Blume and Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley, but especially Christopher freaking Pike and Francesca Lia Block (who I discovered via Sassy).
    Most of my classic SF education–such as it is–happened because of getting to know so many SF writers who handed me stuff, and being at Wiscon and blown away by a Carol Emshwiller reading or wanting to investigate Tiptree, and later because I was proofing specialty editions of stuff.
    I agree that sometimes ignorance of conventions can be freeing. Though it can also be stunting. (Mostly, only for the kind of authors who would boast about not having read a certain type of book and so obviously they are sui generis…which I have heard far too many times when that is simply not the case.) It just depends on the writer and the work. Completely agreed on collapsing under the weight being an issue for some.
    The people trying to shut the door are really just closing it on themselves, like that vampire-infested place in From Dusk Till Dawn. (Now that’s a reference I never thought I’d make. I was feeling PERIOD.)
    Pansy Club = yes, as long as it’s not like Fight Club, because MESSY. 😉

  4. Excellent post, I have nothing to add, except a quibble: You wrote “decades hence” when you meant “decades ago.” “Hence” means “in the future.” Feel free to delete this comment!

  5. And now the truth comes out, that I write these posts super-fast without really editing them! (Thank you. Although, maybe I’m a TIME TRAVELER. Nope, still wrong. 🙂

  6. This was a great post. I read a lot of different categories (mostly fiction) and I have learned that there are lots of great books when you open your mind. I love to read a book that someone is excited about whether is is a 5th grader telling me to read The Giver or a co-worker that wants my opinion on something they have read. Many of my favorite books I would never have read if I wasn’t willing to try something. I learned to branch out when my romance customers were giving me a hard time because I would try reading a romance. I let them pick out a few and read them. I found out they weren’t what my brain was trying to think they were (mush and bilge water)and that they are really a great way to learn stuff.

  7. Cheryl, you just described my favorite kind of reader, and the kind I aspire to be too — I’ll read anything that’s good, if someone recommends it to me who I trust or even makes it sound interesting. Like you, when I started to read romance, it was such an opening up and really was the moment when I realized that a lot of the preconceptions people sell about different genres aren’t based in fact at all.

  8. A really great discussion here. The people who look down on YA literature or any literature of today for the matter and say “they don’t write fiction like they used to” are victims of what I call era-centricity. Era-centricity is like what ethnocentricity is: judging something outside of one’s group based on one’s group and therefore not taking the perspective of the other group. In this case, the people we’re talking about are people who judge the works of today by their own era’s and so their own generation’s standards. People who don’t have an appreciation for today’s fiction are one’s who probably really haven’t read a lot of it and stick with the fiction of their own era or “golden” age. Some day people of our generation are probably going to do the same thing with the next generation’s reading list and look down on that, but you can count me out because I’m always on the look out for what’s new out there while reading older works as well.

  9. Well put; totally agree. Knowing the limitations of your own preferences is important, (and especially if you’re, say, an editor or a critic).

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