I am guilty, my friends, of book genre snobbery. I like to think I’m an open minded reader, but there are still underlying prejudices that have been instilled into me through years of secondary, further, and higher education. Literature with a capital L is one thing, commercial fiction enjoyed by the masses is another. Or so the story goes.
Every time I realise I’m getting sucked into yet another young-adult fantasy there is a little bit of my brain that says ‘oh it’s quite good, considering it’s YA‘ which is an awful knee-jerk reaction to have, but it’s inbuilt at this point. Sometimes I feel like I have to justify or apologise for reading YA. Sometimes I don’t even own up to my recent reading including mostly YA fantasy. And it’s because of previous book genre snobbery that’s built up over time. I still feel the need to make a joke or a slight nod to the fact that I’m a 23-year old literature graduate who studied Early modern literature, spent months writing a dissertation about humoral theory, body criticism, and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, and yet has also read and enjoyed, without irony, Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy and Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices trilogy.
I experienced this again recently when I was reading, and thoroughly enjoying, Mhairi McFarlane’s It’s Not Me, It’s You. Marketed largely as women’s fiction (or chick lit, to use the more contentious term) Mhairi McFarlane’s novel is wonderfully funny and relatable and I found myself almost taken aback by how much I felt like I’d got out of it at the end considering the tone of its blurb. Sure, I wasn’t annotating poignant quotes left, right, and centre. I wasn’t having to have a dictionary alongside whilst reading or Google open to search for some historical figure’s bio. But, the point still stands, that I got something out of the reading experience – and, as it happens, I did highlight many a poignant section that “spoke to me”, to use the slightly pretentious phrasing. After all, as is said in Alan Bennet’s The History Boys:
The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.
And isn’t that what reading is about? A successful author can make any reader empathise and sympathise with a character, even if their experiences are very different from your own. Sure, some characters are designed to be hated – there are novels whose entire purpose is to present a cast of truly reprehensible, complex characters that is mainly an exploration of characterisation and the truth of complex human behaviour. But, essentially, the book must still strike some kind of chord in its reader – there must be an impetus to turn over the next page and read on. Having a cast of engaging (or interesting, if flawed) characters is a relatively obvious way to do this. Couple it with masterful writing and you are onto a winner.
Which is why I really ought to make more of a concerted effort to break down some of those inbuilt book genre snobbery knee-jerk reactions. I shouldn’t be subconsciously prevaricating every time I give a five-star rating to a young-adult fantasy. I shouldn’t be having to have a moment of taken aback reflection when I realise how much I enjoyed a book that is marketed as “chick lit” or “women’s fiction”.
It shouldn’t exist but always has, and probably always will, because the line between “genre fiction” and “literary fiction” seems to be drawn so as to categorise what is consumable and commercial and marketable, the “fly off the shelf” type of paperback, the “page turner” and so on and so forth. Literary fiction meanwhile is something to be savoured, to be slowly consumed, to be nominated for fancy awards and be proclaimed by “those in the know” to be An Important Book.
And I’m part of that potentially snobby system – I went to university to study Literature with a capital L and I cast judgement over the alleged “classics” and “modern classics” that have been deemed worthy and stood the test of time. Meanwhile the consumable, commercial titles of the day could very well be one and the same, but they could also very well be lost and largely unknown to us because no one Important deemed them An Important Book. I could diverge into a discussion of what makes classics classic or who gets to decide that, but I think that’s complicated enough for a post, or two, or three, on that subject alone.
It’s never easy to unpack the inbuilt systemic hierarchies and prejudices that exist – or to try to train yourself out of thinking in them when you realise you actually really bloody enjoyed that book and you will not apologise for that just because it’s an “easy”, “chick lit” book. So, Mhairi McFarlane’s It’s Not Me, It’s You, this is me saying that I really enjoyed you, thank you for cheering up an otherwise dreary day, and thank you immensely for not only entertaining me but also “speaking to me” through the character of Delia. It’s just a shame that inbuilt genre snobbery will probably prevent a lot of readers from ever even considering picking you up.
Author’s Note: If you care to realise more of your inbuilt prejudices and start breaking them down I highly suggest the wonderful, hilarious, and intelligent Leena‘s Booktube channel. I’d recommend starting here with the video that inspired these thoughts of mine.