That’s all we’ve got

(Note: I got myself stuck between two arguments here, but even though I’m not too happy with how the piece ended up, I’m posting it anyway. I’m figuring out how to balance my ruthless self-criticism and low self-esteem with the necessary self-critique I need to become a better writer. The former has kept me from writing for too long, though, so I’ll need to err on the wrong side of being crap while I adjust and learn. Bear with me!)

Four days of blogging now. It’s been a while since I used WordPress, and I appreciatethe social features they’ve added since last time I used the interface. For instance, though I haven’t made any real effort yet to search out blogs I like, I’ve still had a few bloggers and readers pop by with likes and comments. I’m green enough that I don’t know much about how these lovely people found their way to my embryonic site, but it’s humbling and lovely to see them go out of their way to interact with my stuff out of the blue.

Among these kind bloggers was one of the proprietors of the rather swanky-looking group blog Thrice Read. While acquainting myself with their archive, the post “‘Fake Readers’” by Jenn caught my eye. In it, she discusses a debate that arose recently in the wake of a video by youtuber and critic Steve Donoghue.

The video was the latest in a series were Donoghue gives his perspective on the last week’s goings on of Booktube, the community of book vloggers and other makers of reading-related videos on YT. What begins as a snarky, but not totally unfounded critique of vloggers who let themselves be co-opted into marketing tools for major publishers, abruptly shifts into a broadside against what Donoghue describes as “fake readers”. His claim is that this subset of Booktube, with their professional-level photography and editing (and wearing-of-make-up) “do not read. They don’t feel at all the same thing about books that [a] normal reader feels”. Though not anywhere close to being the worst or most hostile version of this argument I’ve seen, it’s still depressingly familiar.

Smarter people than myself – like Jenn, or Josephine Knight of Josie’s Book Corner, or editor legend Jay Rachel Edidin – have argued against the notion of Fake Readers or Fake Geek Girls better than I ever could. So I won’t go too deep on this, but I will say that no matter how well-intentioned Donoghue’s argument was, it matters little when he presents it in a way that puts down and dismisses people for having other aesthetical preferences, tastes (or genitals) than his own.

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Now, yesterday I started reading the next finalist for the Hugo 2016 novel category, N.K. Jemisin‘s The Fifth Season, which quickly prompted thoughts like these: “Now this is what I’m talking about! Prose with resistance! A book for grown-ups! The kind that belongs in an awards category”. And so on. In case you’re wondering, those are my prejudices talking (what Terry Pratchett would call my “first thoughts”). I’d like to think myself capable of swatting them down when they rear their pesky little heads, but as you see, they’re still ugly. Which made me think of Jenn’s post. Didn’t my first thoughts sound a lot like Donoghue’s?

Yes, the idea that there is a “real” literature — and that such literature should always have difficult, more-or-less-modernist prose — is deeply ingrained in me. Ever since those ideas took root, I’ve felt a need to internally justify reading and enjoying books that don’t fit that criterion. I’ve more or less gotten over my shame about reading genre literature (because everything is genre), but on some level, I still feel that books which don’t make me work are somehow lesser. There’s not a doubt in my mind that Naomi Novik’s Uprooted is an amazing piece of craft (along with being rollicking entertainment). But… it’s just that… it’s so easy to read. A quality deeply unnerving to my inner snob.

The key is in that word, though: craft. Craft is what makes a book worthy of awards, of wider recognition. The clear-cut (G.O.A.T.) storytelling practised by Austen or Dickens didn’t suddenly become invalid because Woolf and Joyce happened to come along in the interim. It was kept alive and honed by generations of genre writers. Conversely, the Hugo controversies of the last two years have made clear (among other, more serious issues) that those of us who love and champion straight-forward storytelling need to remember that the existence and prominence of more challenging work isn’t a threat to us and “our” books. Avant garde and entertainment co-exist, informing and complementing each other, because that what culture does and have always done. We should be wary of using our preferences for the one or the other to form hierarchies and barriers against other people.

Like Jenn says:

“Throughout my experience in the bookish social media world I have found the community to be welcoming, caring, and engaging. I have grown to see the community as a great collaboration of people of all races, genders, sexuality, nationalities, and social classes discussing a common interest. I believe this is why Donoghue’s words struck such a cord in the community. We are better than this. The diversity of the bookish community is what makes it amazing. It is also a great way to become exposed to literature one may otherwise never read.”

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