Readers, we need to talk about how we talk about books. I love talking about books. I’m guessing you do, too. But there are some words we’ve been using that we should not be using. There are some phrases ingrained in our book vocabularies that it is time to excise. I promise we can have fun, thoughtful, critical, mind-expanding, interesting conversations about books without falling into the traps these terms are trying to ensnare us in. I promise we can have the kinds of conversations we all want to be having about representation, tropes, genre, characters, and more without using words like “unlikeable”(what does it mean?!) and “diverse” (spoiler: it doesn’t mean what you think it means).
I spoke with some of my fellow Rioters and came up with this list of book terms we hate. For starters. It is not comprehensive. But it does contain most of the heavy-hitters — the words and phrases I am most eager to see disappear (not from the world, I do adore words, just from the book discourse). Publishers, publicists, reviewers, book industry people: you’re going to want to listen to this, too. Let’s help each other out and do better.
I hate this word so much that I wrote a whole piece about it. It’s become so ubiquitous that it has, in my opinion, lost all meaning. Sometimes it’s used to describe a book that is legitimately racist or sexist or homophobic. And sometimes it’s used to describe a book in which a character (usually a character from a marginalized community) does something that that reader simply does not like. Look, I want us all to talk about and criticize books that uphold stereotypes. I want us all to point out the ways in which authors, consciously or unconsciously, do harm. But I promise we can do this without ever uttering the word “problematic”. Are you angry about a book you just read where the author uses unnecessary racial slurs? You should be! Tell it like it is: that book is racist. Are you currently fuming over a novel which clumsily and poorly executes the “queer person dies so straight person can learn a lesson” trope? I hate it, too, so let’s talk about homophobia and how it functions in literature! Specificity is a good thing.
Clean Romance (Or “Clean” In Reference To Any Book)
The book industry has used the word “clean” to describe romance without explicit sex on the page for years. And now this infuriating descriptor has spilled over into other types of books — it’s not uncommon these days to see YA without sex or swearing described as “clean”. So, let’s clear a few things up. Don’t like swearing in your books? No problem! Love a character who says “fuck” every other word? Great! Enjoy reading explicit sex scenes? Me too! Enjoy romance without explicit sex scenes? Me too!
Dishes can be dirty. I promise you my dog can be very dirty, especially during mud season. My clothes are often dirty. Sex, however, is not dirty. Swear words are not dirty. Here are some neutral phrases to try out: fade-to-black or closed-door romance, or hey, here’s a truly radical one: books that don’t contain swearing. This is so easy to fix it makes my head spin.
Likable and Unlikable Characters
I honestly don’t even know where to start with this one. It’s such a mess. When it comes to women characters especially, “unlikable” is often code for “has opinions and shares them.” I’ve also noticed a trend in reviews where people use “unlikable” to talk about characters who…make mistakes? Are 17 and make a bad choice? Are doing the best they can despite systemic injustice and fuck ups? Has anyone ever heard of this thing, it’s called being a human? And then there’s “unlikable” as it’s used to describe serial killers and perpetrators of sexual violence. Are we talking about “unlikable” people, or are we talking about people who are doing grievous bodily harm to others?
And what does “likable” even mean? I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but I am fairly sure there are some humans in the world who are, you know, not monsters, or evil, or anything bad, but whom I do not like. I guarantee there are people in the world who do not like me. We do not all have to like each other, in fiction or in real life! Characters (hopefully) have personality traits that are far more interesting and relevant than whether or not they are likable. Let’s talk about those.
Comics readers, have you noticed this totally bizarre and obviously racist trend in publishing in which “manga-inspired” is used as a descriptor in book blurbs about U.S.-published comics? What does it mean? Patricia Thang explains exactly what it means in her brilliant take-down of this abhorrent phrase, namely: it doesn’t mean anything real or substantive expect that the marketers/publishers want you to think the book they are publishing is “exotic” or “unusual” or insert another racist-coded word here. Manga, as Patricia explains, is just the Japanese word for comics, and the “common use of it has evolved to be shorthand for comics produced in Japan.” “Manga-inspired” is not a thing. Stop it.
I admit this is one I’m guilty of using, because I read and write about so many queer books. It’s not the subject or the idea that bothers me, but the phrase itself. “Queer suffering” is actually not queer suffering at all — it’s suffering caused by homophobia, transphobia, heterosexism, etc. Queer people, in books and in real life, do not suffer because we are queer. We suffer because society still teaches us that it is wrong to be queer. We suffer because of systemic oppression that denies us human rights. By all means, let’s talk about this as it unfolds in books. Let’s have nuanced conversations about queerness and homophobia in literature. But, please, can we call it something else?
Sadly, I don’t think I’m going to be able to expel this one from the book world, but if I could, I would send it far, far away, into another galaxy. What does it mean? Nothing! It literally has no meaning. Or, more accurately, it means different things to different people, and all of these meanings contradict each other. To some people, it means serious fiction with “literary merit” (what is it?), and to others, it means stuffy, dense, boring books. To some people it means books with a certain kind of prose. To others it means books they were forced to read in school, or books that aren’t genre books, or books that deal with enduring, complicated themes.
Are you getting the problem? What is the difference between literary and contemporary fiction? Who decides what kind of prose is literary and what kind isn’t? Who decides which books are serious and therefore have value? And why are we so intent on upholding this useless binary? Literary fiction gatekeeps in every possible direction. Some readers avoid books they might love because they think the literary fiction label means “hard” or “boring” or “not about people like me.” Other readers avoid books they might love because they think anything that isn’t literary fiction is going to have “dull prose” or be “too simple.”
Enough is enough. Literary fiction is not real. Let’s all move on.
I obviously do not have a problem with books about women written by women (one definition of women’s fiction). I love many books that fall into this nebulous category — i.e. books that center issues that many women face. I do have a big problem with the categorization of these books as “women’s fiction”. What does it mean? Books that all women will like? Because all women like the same things? Books that only women will like? Because people who are not women couldn’t possibly be interested in books about women? Hold on, there’s a word for all this…oh yeah, it’s called sexism. No thank you.
“Black Struggle” Stories
Let’s start with the obvious: Black authors can and do write literally every kind of story that exists, from harrowing historical fiction about enslaved people to beautiful, heartfelt memoirs to fluffy romance to absurdist space operas. And everything in between. The publishing industry’s obsession with stories of Black pain and Black suffering is its own problem (and it’s a major one). But the way that some reviewers toss around the term “Black struggle” is indicative of this wider issue. Rioter Erika Hardison pointed out that people are quick to label any book with a Black main character who encounters challenges as a “Black struggle” story. This is, unfortunately, common in publishing, this demand that every book written by or about someone from a marginalized community be labeled as an “identity + struggle” story. Of course there are Black struggle (and joy!) stories, and of course there are stories that are distinctly queer, or disabled, or Asian, etc. But these are specific kinds of books! My fellow readers, the equation of Black main character + obstacle to be faced (i.e. the thing that drives most fiction?) does not equal “Black struggle” story. Take a note.
“Honest” in Reference to Critical Reviews
Critical reviews are good for books. I am in favor of critical reviews. Not everyone likes the same books, and thoughtful critical reviews often teach me as much or more about books I’ve read as positive reviews. But here is a thing that makes me scream into my phone: I’m scrolling through Bookstagram and I come across a critical review. Scanning the comments, I find dozens of iterations of: “Thanks so much for this honest review!” and “I really appreciate your honesty!” and “Loved reading your honest feelings about this!”
Is there some kind of plague of people writing dishonest glowing reviews that I am unaware of? Do you think that when I say that I loved a book, I am lying? When I shout about books I adore (one of my favorite things to do with my voice) do you think I’ve actually made a secret deal with the publishing gods and I’m just acting as their mouthpiece? Please, I’m begging you, stop thanking people for their honest reviews. Critical reviews are not more honest than reviews that rave.
Once upon a time, in a different universe, this word may have meant something. Now it’s as vague and meaningless as “problematic.” Readers are quick to slap the “diverse” label on nearly any book that is not written by or about a straight white man. I hate it, and so does rioter Jamie Canavés, who says, “I don’t like when it’s just like, ‘Here’s a book by a diverse author or this book has a diverse character.’ Instead of: ‘Here’s a book by a Black author, or the main character is an immigrant.’ I even prefer people saying marginalized characters if they’re worried about remembering the wrong ethnicity, etc.” Labeling books by and about people of different genders, abilities, races, sexualities, ethnicities, etc. this way collapses them into one, as if “diverse” is some kind of universal experience instead of a word that means, basically, “a group of unlike things.”
This list is just the beginning. I also hate “good rep” and “bad rep,” which simplify complicated characters into little tick-able boxes. And what’s up with “unputdownable”? How many times in your life have you been physically unable to put down a book? I could go on and on.
If you, like me, are fascinated by how we talk about books, you might be interested in this piece about how BookTok has changed the conversation, or this list of new book genres and sub-genres — because sometimes the way we talk about books is really cool!