If I’ve gained any wisdom in my time on earth, it may be my comfort in contradiction. Having a deep understanding of anything, books included, requires people to see nuance. Ideas that seem to contradict at first glance often have to be teased out to find the strands of truth in each. While making bold statements, for example, “romance is an inherently feminist genre” or “romance is an inherently anti-feminist genre,” might goad people into turning on the discourse machine, that machine is often a treadmill that doesn’t get anyone anywhere.
Naturally, it’s tricky to write nuanced opinions on anything about books. People seek out opinions that make them cheer or boo and rarely want the ones that say, let’s think about this book more deeply, shall we? Let’s not come to the conclusion that something is definitively great or terrible, which are ineffable and subjective qualities anyway. We can come at books — and opinions about books — with good faith and curiosity intact, seeking not to judge but to understand.
To that end, I want to identify some of the contradicting ideas readers ought to get comfortable with. Being able to wrestle with these difficult concepts is worth the effort; you’ll be a better thinker and reader for it.
Conflict Number One: Readers are Capable of Separating Fiction From Reality, AND Books Can Have Profound Effects On Real Life.
I put this conflict first because I truly think it’s the hardest one to deal with. Talk to anyone who loves reading, and they can probably tell you a book that changed their worldview. That change can manifest in real life. People vote differently, love differently, worship differently, eat differently because of books. I’ve written about how books affected my own journey with religion, and I could write any number of essays about different ways specific books have changed me as a person.
At the same time, I believe people can separate themselves from what they read. I’ve written about how celebrity romances are a weakness of mine, and I have to extend the same grace to other readers. When people wring their hands about what books are doing to impressionable minds, we have to remember that books can be a safe place to chase dark or titillating ideas. Those ideas don’t necessarily have to solidify into values, let alone actions.
The key here is to be able to take a step back and engage with curiosity. Suppose you have a teen daughter who is obsessed with Colleen Hoover books, and you’re worried it might mean she’s susceptible to violence in her intimate relationships. First of all, of course she is. Not to be a fearmonger, but how can anyone guarantee anyone’s safety across a lifetime of relationships? Better than forbidding the books is discussing them. Find out what she’s getting out of these books and how she thinks about power dynamics in relationships. You may be surprised to find she’s a more astute reader than you gave her credit for.
Conflict Number Two: Books Can Have Problematic Content That Needs To Be Addressed, AND It’s Not Always Wrong To Enjoy Books With Problematic Content.
This conflict flows neatly from the first one. It’s important to point out content in books, whether it’s specific language, character stereotypes, or plot tropes that uphold harmful ideas. Because people are affected by the media they consume, pernicious stereotypes can affect how people are treated in the real world. Think of stereotypes of certain groups of people as lazy or other groups of people as oversexed. Those stereotypes affect actual events, like job interviews and romantic encounters. Any hope for justice requires us to break down all of that garbage.
That said, no one is perfect, and no book is perfect. It’s simply true that books can potentially harm while also providing enjoyment to readers. Sometimes people enjoy books even if there is content they personally find harmful! For example, it sucks that Anne of Green Gables has a ton of unchecked fatphobia, but I still deeply love it, and I suspect I always will.
Where the nuance comes in is what we do with that knowledge. You don’t have to put money into the pockets of living authors who are continuing to be problems. Nor do you have to recommend books you know are problematic. You can point out problems where you find them. And you don’t have to rush to the defense of problematic books you love. You really don’t! Listen to people upset by books you hold dear. You might learn something. If that new knowledge “ruins” a favorite book of yours, so be it. There’s a wide world out there; find a new fave.
Conflict Number Three: Books That Rely On Genre Tropes Can Be Derivative, AND Formulaic Books Can Deliver Deep Insight.
People who deride romance for having predictable stories are very different readers than me. While yes, the happy ending in a romance is predictable, the path to that ending is different every single time. And the realizations characters make along the way can be profound. The themes within a romance can be every bit as thought-provoking as a literary novel with intricate prose; it’s all in the execution. Readers who rely overmuch on how the ending lands to determine a book’s merits need to rein that instinct in, I think.
Relatedly, I roll my eyes whenever someone calls a book “badly written” because the phrase is so vague as to be meaningless. That said, are there books that are warmed-over versions of a story that’s already been told a thousand times, books that don’t seem to add anything to the culture at large, written with clumsy and ineffective prose? Sure, and some of them I might even enjoy as a breezy read by the beach. Others make me mad at everyone involved in the book’s production.
All this is to say the genre of a book does not dictate its quality. Of course, quality means different things to different people, and that’s okay. But anyone who looks down on entire genres of books because of preconceived notions of quality or a hangup with originality is missing out.
Conflict Number Four: Classic Literature is Garbage, AND Classic Literature is Great.
It really bugs me how few books written this millennium are read by students from kindergarten through college. Having been a public school teacher, I am acutely aware of the difficulty in acquiring class sets of books, and I sympathize with teachers who have no choice but to go back to the same well time and again. If we’re interested in creating readers out of students, why does so much education make it seem like books are relics of the past? Why is our view on 19th and 20th century life so filtered through the narrow range of books that persist? Why do we have to always look past egregious content in so-called classics, providing meager excuses like “it’s a product of its time” and “this was the way most people thought”?
I can steadfastly believe everything I wrote in the above paragraph and still hold a deep love for classic literature. Moby-Dick is my all-time favorite book. I don’t care that everyone thinks Dickens is overly wordy. His words are great! I don’t find most classic literature boring, and I think there’s so much to learn from it. We are different from people of the past, but books often show how much we are the same.
To me, these conflicting points can live in harmony by starting more readers on books that are contemporary to them and then delving into the classics based on their interests. I see the same tendencies in parenting and education both: traditional and/or beloved reading material must be passed down. If we could loosen our grip on some of these old books, they might still slide into younger generations’ hands. Or not. Some cultural artifacts are eventually only interesting to the deeply curious and research-oriented, and that’s simply the way of it.
How comfortable are you with these ideas? If you joined me on this tightrope walk over the crowd of books, I hope you got a great view. My truest advice to people who want to be canny readers is to be thoughtful with what you read. Be intentional in how you talk about it. And let yourself sit in uncomfortable feelings if you really want to grow as a reader.