I read with great interest a blog post on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books earlier this week about a phenomenon I’ve experienced for years but had no name for: reader shaming. Don’t know what that means? Your e-reader likely does.
According to a recent article in The Guardian, genre fiction — i.e. romance, fantasy, Westerns, vampire porn — accounts for the majority of e-book purchases. Why? According to the author, Antonia Senior,
Bibliophiles are furtive beasts. Their shelves still boast classics and Booker winners. But inside that [e-reader’s] plastic case, other things lurk. Sci-fi and self-help. Even paranormal romance, where vampires seduce virgins and elves bonk trolls.The ebook world is driven by so-called genre fiction, categories such as horror or romance. It’s not future classics that push digital sales, but more downmarket fare. No cliche is left unturned, no adjective underplayed…In digital, dross rises.
No wonder blogger SB Sarah at SBTB took umbrage enough at Senior’s article to respond with a blog post titled “Reader Shaming.” Attitudes like Senior’s drive the very trend she reports on — we’re “shamed” into going underground to read anything but best-sellers, award winners, or safely respectable books.
Reader shaming is territory I know well. It all began with a box of Silhoutte and Harlequin romances left behind in a house my family bought when I was a young teenager.
The only reason the box hadn’t been discarded completely was that it was too heavy for my mother to carry and my father kept forgetting to haul it away. My mother, who read Danielle Steel, Jackie Collins and Anne Rivers Siddons, never gave the books a second look; the awful late 1980s-early 1990s covers on the books were all she needed to see. Besides, my mother shunned category romances. One of her sisters, a prodigious reader of category romances, had shelves and shelves full of these books, and my mother would always roll her eyes and say, “I don’t know why she reads that trash, much less why she keeps them.”
One interminably boring weekend, having already read the books I’d brought with me, I started digging through this box of books. Of course I dug furtively; I would have been mortified, had my mother, my father, or worse yet, my brother, caught me even considering reading a Harlequin. I squirreled away about ten or fifteen books that seemed promising, and hid them in a duffel bag. I read them only behind the locked door of my bedroom.
I stayed up all night that night reading Anne Stuart’s Break the Night. I found out later that Break the Night — and Anne Stuart — were anything but typical for category romances, but I was hooked nevertheless. Having read this book, I couldn’t understand what my mother, and so many others, held against romance novels. Even the less-entralling ones that I plucked out of the box were better written than any Danielle Steel novel, and the better ones, such as those by Anne Stuart, Judith Duncan and Ruth Wind, made much of the “women’s fiction” that my mother read seem amateurish.
Still yet, I hid my stash of romances away. Nor did I become bolder as I grew older; if anything, I was even more ashamed to admit that I liked romance novels as an adult. I found it impossible to reconcile my degree in English with my love of a genre that could produce something called The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable Girl (click the link if you don’t believe me) in earnest. And so began my ridiculous cycle of hiding my romance novels under beds, dragging them out to read only when I was sure I was alone. I was allowing myself to be reader shamed.
If what Antonia Senior claims is true, that every e-reader in the world is hiding romance and other genre books, then why do I feel embarrassed about allowing myself to be reader shamed? Why, if everyone else is doing it, do I feel like I’m doing a disservice to the romance genre because I refuse to carry around a vintage Anne Stuart or Laura Kinsale paperback, but rarely leave home without my e-reader loaded with their books?
I put part of the blame on romance publishers. For years, romance publishers have marginalized their own product by publishing them with covers that most rational people would find hideous. Even if the covers do not feature scantily clad heroes or heroines, the flowery script and panting book descriptions are enough to make many of us embarrassed to be seen with them. Case in point, the first and a later printing of Laura Kinsale’s Flowers From the Storm:
No one would assume, from looking at either cover, that Kinsale’s writing is more accomplished than that of most mainstream novelists, or that the book addresses such themes as mental illness and religion. The Fabio-esque hero on the older cover leads you to expect purple prose; the newer one is just boring.
It’s also hard to negotiate respect for romance novels when publishers continue to publish umpteen Playboy/Sheikh/Cowboy/Virgin/Rake titles every month. It’s not the repetitive nature of the titles that’s the problem — it’s the fact that publishers evidently feel that we, as readers, will accept poor quality writing as long as it’s in a recognizable package. So they perpetuate the prejudices against their books by releasing as many cliched and rehashed titles as they do well-written books. The end result is, of course, that even if you’ve managed to find an awesome Playboy Sheikh novel, you don’t really want to read it in public, knowing that you will have to defend your choice of book.
But I place the majority of the blame for my reader shaming on myself. There’s still a part of me that feels guilty for enjoying romance novels, that feels as though I’m wasting my education by reading these books. This despite the fact that many of the romance novels that I read reference history, classical literature or mythology that requires education to appreciate!
Writers like Antonia Senior who refer to genre fiction as downmarket dross only exacerbate our own reader shaming behaviors by validating for us the prejudices we perceive against the books that we love. They force us farther into the underground territory of our e-book readers, and reinforce to publishers that genre fiction is not worth the type of care that goes into selecting covers and weeding out the foolishness that is standard for mainstream literature.
As for Senior, she, too, is a victim of her own prejudices — the only genre fiction she’ll admit to reading is “male-oriented historical fiction… Swords and sails stuff.” I’m not saying that Senior’s prevaricating, but I wonder if she’d have easily admitted a predilection for bodice-rippers or futuristic romance?
Senior may be snarky, but she’s far from brave. After all, she’s “keeping shelf space for books that proclaim my cleverness.” Brave is my aunt, who used the shallow shelves she built herself that lined the stairways in her home, to proudly display her mid-to-late 1970s and early 1980s Harlequins, Silhouettes, Candlelights and Avons. While I wish I were that brave, I would like to add that the covers on my aunt’s collection of books were much less hideous.