Bookish Snobbery: A Defense of Guilty Pleasures Across Time

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Sarah Rahman

Staff Writer

As a recent college graduate who studied English just so she could read more books, Sarah spends most of her time devouring whatever catches her fancy, from classics to young adult reads. She aspires to write a novel someday. When not reading or talking about books, she can be found hiking in the woods or dancing alone in her room. Now, for that cup of tea she was making . . .

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there comes a time in a reader’s life when they are criticized for the books they love. If you’re a fan of YA, romance, or graphic novels, chances are this happens more than once. This criticism can come from other readers, or sometimes from within. Some books we readers love are hidden away shamefully or only alluded to as “guilty pleasures”.

I love reading YA books, but I first fell in love with the category back in high school. I devoured the Night World series by L.J. Smith, and quickly moved on to other authors such as Kelley Armstrong and Cassandra Clare. I would not be the reader I am today without a solid foundation of books that convinced me that reading was an absolute pleasure, and I owe that knowledge to all the YA books I came across as a teenager.

I remember my mother being confused by my reading taste, although it never stopped her from indulging me. “Another vampire book?” she’d ask, and shake her head fondly when I said yes. Others were less receptive.

A friend equated my reading tastes to garbage, and for a while, I did too. I loved my books, but a part of me believed that they weren’t good, simply because they didn’t win public approval. Once I started dipping my toes in other genres, I would always tell people I used to read YA — as though it was a bad phase I went through, rather than a choice that brought happiness.

The main criticism that I received was that YA, fantasy, and romance books were for readers who were immature, or in short, that these books lacked substance or intellect. It wasn’t until much later that I learned to move past these criticisms.

Anyone who has read a good deal of YA and fantasy can tell you they are often tools of sharp social commentary. Romance books also tackle social issues. For example, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas deals with issues of identity and police brutality, while The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang breaks stereotypes about people with autism spectrum disorder.

This is, of course, barring the fact that it is a gross generalization to assume that all books in a genre must be bad simply because they don’t suit a person’s taste. It takes a great lack of intellect, and a great leap of sheer narcissism, to throw entire genres of books under the proverbial bus because they aren’t enjoyable to some. Regardless of my previous ignorance, I find myself incapable of such leaps now.

What I found interesting is that we’re far from being the first generation to be plagued by reading elitism, or as I like to call it, bookish snobbery. Even our much-lauded classic authors fell prey to it. In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen writes an explicit defense for novels, which were treated with the same stigma that fan fiction is these days.

Photo of a Jane Austen book https://unsplash.com/photos/WmzeEeHnfW4

“Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world,” writes Austen, “no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers…there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.”

leaves of grass cover

I would even go as far as to say that the very readers are sometimes the foes, through their secret reading habits. It isn’t only genre fiction that takes a bashing. People can discriminate between books through publication format. While traditional publishing avenues have brought us jewels, it is not to say that self-publishing isn’t as legitimate a format. Leaves of Grass was self-published, as was Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. Books that have only been published as ebooks aren’t safe from scrutiny either.

What I found funny about Austen’s defense was how time had changed roles. Austen describes the works which had approved the public stamp of approval in her time as “so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.”

milk and honey cover

This statement struck me as ironic because of how often classics are described in the same way in our time. To think that Austen’s novels, which were looked down upon, had survived the test of time to become part of that collection of works which we now proudly display on shelves is a wonderful twist of fate. The downside is that Austen would be horrified to know that her works are sometimes classed as stuffy, difficult, or boring (I told you, didn’t I? No one is safe).

It makes me wonder about what future generations will think of our reading habits. What books will stay on, and which ones will be forgotten?

Regardless of how long it takes the rest of the world to catch up, there’s no need to stop reading whatever you feel like reading. One of my fellow writers here wrote a great article about why we should read mediocre books. She mentioned how we readers feel the need to validate the books we read. Here is a simple solution: self-validation.

If you enjoy whatever you’re reading, it is good enough. After all, it was enough for Austen, who called a novel “only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a TBR pile to tackle. This time, guilt-free.