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I’ll Read Genre (As Long as It’s Foreign): A Story of Snobbery

Kit Steinkellner

Staff Writer

Kit Steinkellner is a playwright, screenwriter, and creative writing teacher. She also writes about books and reading  at Books Are My Boyfriends. Follow her onTwitter: @BooksAreMyBFs

I recently paid a visit to Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Virginia, where I purchased the South Korean literary mystery Please Look After Mom  by Kyung-sook Shin on the recommendation of the bookstore’s owner, Kelly Justice. While I was in the store, Kelly also recommended the Japanese crime novel The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashi, which I quickly added to my “I’m Allowed to Buy This Book Once I Finish the Twenty Books Waiting to be Read on my Nightstand” list. I’m so excited about reading these books in a way I am rarely (if ever) excited about reading literary mysteries and crime novels. And then it hit me. The operative phrases aren’t “mystery” and “crime,” they’re “Japanese” and “South Korean.”

I’m a little bit of a snob and I’m okay with the internet at large knowing this. In bookstores, as I pass by romance, mysteries, thrillers, chick lit, dick lit, and YA, I tilt my head, narrow my eyes, and open my mouth ever so slightly, the international facial  expression of mean girls everywhere. I judge these genres and I judge them hard. I remind you that this is a two way street here, and I welcome you to judge me back. I read literary fiction, narrative non-fiction with sociological leanings, essays and poetry. I’m the no-fun English major library mouse who read in my dorm study lounge while everyone else got drunk at frat house jungle-themed parties and made out on rooftops under the stars and jumped the fence of the university pool and went swimming  in their underwear and all the other fun things I imagine everyone else was doing while I was reading in my dorm study lounge.

I judge genre UNTIL it becomes foreign genre and then all of a sudden I’m like “BOOM! Bring on the Dutch Chick Lit. Ka-pow! Bam, bam, yes, ma’am, I am ALL ABOUT South African YA. A bodice-ripping romance novel from Bolivia? Lock and load, it’s go time.” Note that I basically just made up these sub-genres. But if they exist, I am so much more likely to read them than their “Born in the USA” counterparts.

I can try to give  myself the benefit of the doubt. If a foreign genre book makes it into American translation, if enough readers over there made publishers think enough readers would want to read that book over here,  it’s got to have some kind of literary superpowers to make it across continents and oceans. This argument quickly falls apart, though, as I  think of all the bestselling American commercial fiction I DON’T want to read. This isn’t a numbers game. This is a nose-in-the-air-stick-up-my-you-know-what-snob-snob-snobbery game between me, my credit card, and the publishing industry. The foreign factor gives these genres something my reading sensibilities feel is lacking. I’m not saying these genres ARE lacking. Keep your pants on, people. I’m saying they’re lacking for me.

There is a silver lining to my snot-nosed ways and that’s this: I wouldn’t read genre AT ALL if I wasn’t reading imports. What made Girl with the Dragon Tattoo an enjoyable read for me wasn’t the mystery, it was how f—ing Swedish those books are. I listened to them on audiobook, which was a bonus treat, as I could not get enough of the narrator saying “Blomkvist” and “Wennerstrom,” that ish was like ear candy for me. I’m a bit of a girl adventurer; my caked-with-sweat-and-dirt-and-who-knows-what-else backpacker’s backpack sits in the corner of my closet, always waiting to be packed. A foreign book feels like an almost-trip to whatever country it was written in. An almost-adventure, if you will. And an almost-adventure, well that transcends both genre and my iron-clad snobbery. And I’m more than okay with that.