You Should Never Be Embarrassed (or Shamed) for Reading Books

| Friday, August 30, 2013

I recently saw this Book Riot post on the ten books people are "most embarrassed" to admit they've read. At the end, the editor asked if there were "any surprises here."

Very sadly, I could honestly say no, there were no surprises. It was of no surprise to me that eight of these top ten "most embarrassing" reads were written by and about girls and women (assuming "romance novels" refers to the bulk of its readers and writers, which I'm sure it does). I remain unsurprised that readers are embarrassed to admit that they read, or even enjoy, "girl books."

Why am I not surprised? Because this is the same attitude we see displayed all too often. When men write a shitty book, it's just a shitty book. Oh well, on to the next one. It's not often viewed as an *embarrassment*.

I have my doubts about why Dan Brown made this list, and they're primarily rooted in the sheer popularity of that particular novel, as well as the controversy surrounding it, part of which ended up being plagiarism accusations and criticism of un-cited research. Notice people said they were embarrassed to read The Da Vinci Code, specifically, rather than Dan Brown's Robert Langdon series as a whole. However, 50 Shades/Twilight/Sookie Stackhouse/The Hunger Games/romance novels are lumped together. One could make that argument for the popularity of the other books on this list as well (they were mega-popular), but there's still a notable lack of other popular books written by men (like Patterson, perhaps, or maybe Sparks).

Oh no, I read a commercial bestseller. I must be flogged.

Before I really get going, I want to be clear that I'm not chastising Book Riot for publishing this, but rather being critical of the attitudes it illustrates.

There are a few things I'd like to explore here.

1.) Reading a "bad" book is embarrassing and you should be ashamed. I'm putting "bad" in scare quotes because it's subjective, but also because there's some intellectual/academic literary shame going on here. Pleasure reads aren't supposed to be ENJOYED, they're supposed to be sneered at. If you do read them and actually kind of like them, they're "guilty pleasures" instead of just "books you like." If you LIKE them, it means that you don't know what "good" literature is, which means you're a dumb dummy. LOGIC!

2.) Romance is stupid and you should feel stupid for reading it. It's not a coincidence that most of this list involves romance or erotica in some form. This is because we're told, and continue to be told, that love/relationship/sex books written by/for women are frivolous, silly, shameful little things. Sex and relationships written by men? Well, they understand the human condition. Women just like to feel *tingly* and swoon over their fake boyfriends. There's no value there! None at all!

3.) Books for young people are childish and simple and adults should be ashamed for reading them. Oh my gooooosh, Twilight wins by a huge landslide! No way! People think Twilight sucks? I HAD NO IDEA! But there's The Hunger Games, too, which is a little weird. But not that weird because it was written about a teenage girl and there's some kissing and everyone knows that's worthless. Also, V.C. Andrews! Like, ew!

4.) But seriously, let's talk about how this list is like 85% women. I'm not arguing that women don't write shitty books. Sure they do, as do their male counterparts. What I'm pointing out is that people are so much more likely to be EMBARRASSED for reading a bestselling book by a lady than one by a man. If you wasted your time reading a "bad" book by a woman, you should FEEL BAD ABOUT IT. You could have read a shitty male-authored book instead, you fool!

5.) Why are these books embarrassing, anyway? Is it because woman-centric romance and sex is shameful? Because books by women are useless wastes of time? Because they're not academically impressive enough? Because other people curl their lip at it for being drivel? Help me out here. I mean, I'd like to believe that participants are embarrassed by the blatant misogyny/racism/classism/etc. present in some of these books, but I doubt it. It's easier to be embarrassed because IT JUST SUX!!!!!

6.) Maybe we think people should be ashamed of succumbing to hype. Just throwing this out there. This list is mostly comprised of modern bestsellers, yeah? And people sure do hate to think they might be one of the masses. Because other people are sheep, right? YOU ARE A WOLF, NOT A SHEEP! But you still bought the book to see what it was all about, and now other people who managed to avoid it are giving you shit for being one of the "sheep." So you feel ashamed.

7.) Or maybe people feel embarrassed because other people think they should. Fancy that.

8.) Basically the only person I think might deserve to be on this list is Ayn Rand, because UGH. However, I don't think people should be *embarrassed* because they read the book. Never be embarrassed because you READ A BOOK! I read Anthem and I'm not embarrassed about it. I didn't like it and didn't understand why people were into her, but it wasn't EMBARRASSING. If you bought into her gross philosophy, though? Yeah, you can be embarrassed about that.

There's another linked list there featuring the 25 Most Hated Books, and there's a definite upswing in books written by men. Twilight and 50 Shades still take two of the top three spots, though. People apparently hate Twilight infinitely more than books featuring epic levels of racism and misogyny. Not that Twilight was a bastion of intersectional equality by any means, but still. Think about that for a while.

Another interesting correlation on that list, for me, is that the most hated books seem split between classics, mostly written by men, and a handful of modern releases... mostly written by women. Hm. To me, the classics seem obviously skewed because these are all the books we're forced to read in school, and of course those books skew toward the old white dudes. The modern picks, though... there's Dan Brown again for Da Vinci Code, and apparently Yann Martel got some heat as well, but otherwise the modern selections are bestselling ladies, two of whom are right at the tippy-top of the hate pile. Hmmm.

I just want to make it clear that I am not arguing that women who write problematic or poorly-crafted novels shouldn't receive criticism. They should. But instances like this continue to illustrate that lady writers see a hugely disproportionate level of embarrassment and hate directed at their work, and it's not just linked to sales numbers. Twilight received 315 embarrassed votes, while Da Vinci Code received 34 -- nearly ten times fewer. Why aren't 315 people "embarrassed" to have read The Da Vinci Code, though it sold 80 million copies as a single title (200 million total for the Robert Langdon series, btw), as opposed to Twilight's 116 million copies as a four-book series (plus a novella)? It's food for thought.

TL;DR -- Don't ever be embarrassed because you read a book. You certainly don't have to like every book you read, but they shouldn't cause you shame. Especially not because some snobby butthead is trying to make you feel that way. Also, maybe think about why you can read another crappy crime novel and not bat an eye, but when you read a romance novel, you feel all embarrassed about it.


{ tackdriver56 } at: August 30, 2013 at 8:36 AM said...

LOL the only books I'm really embarrassed to have read were poorly written paperback porn.

Perhaps the question we should all be asking about ALL of our entertainment is this:
"Did you learn anything from it, or was it a waste of your precious time on Earth?"

{ prerna pickett } at: August 30, 2013 at 9:04 AM said...

love your argument and agree wholeheartedly. We need to stop judging each other for differences in taste. People get way too heated about this subject, and most of them, I feel, aren't really readers but rather people who just like put down others.

{ fairyhedgehog } at: August 30, 2013 at 9:08 AM said...

I'm currently reading my way through Deborah Geary's Witch books.

Are they great literature? No.

Are they easy to read and fun? Yes.

She actually writes very well but her stories are all wish-fulfilment and full of and improbable number of kind and loving people. They seep into my day and make the world seem a more colourful place.

I'm not going to be embarrassed about liking some light relief! It's much harder to write confidently and coherently and produce a decent plot and interesting characters than most people seem to think.

{ Yahong Chi } at: August 30, 2013 at 9:27 AM said...

Yep, yep, yep. It's like we're trained to see these types of books--books by women, romance novels, popular books--as guilty pleasures, and appropriately (or not appropriately, if you think about it) feel guilty about them. On the flip side, I guess people like to feel superior about their literary intake (it's basically the whole hipster movement, heh), so the perpetuation of one basically enforces the other. :/

{ krystal jane } at: August 30, 2013 at 11:13 AM said...

I'm not embarrassed by anything I've read. I don't even know where that comes from. I've seen people defending their decision to read YA. I feel like the fact they feel the need to defend it means they should be reading something else. I'm a proud Harry Potter fan. Anyone who has anything bad to say to me about it hasn't read them. I still read pictures books sometimes. It's like comfort food. ^_^

Putting 50 Shades on the same hate list as Great Expectations and Pride & Prejudice kind of negates the list.

{ Catherine } at: September 3, 2013 at 10:21 AM said...

I love this post. Being a teenager and being subjected to teenager-type criticism, I've had many people judge me by my reading choices. I can't count the amount of times boys in my class (boys with whom I had previously been having intelligent conversations concerning our favorite science fiction, action adventure novels) judged me for reading the occasional paranormal or romance book. The only reason I found myself embarrassed for reading these books was because they made me feel like I should have been, and that novels with swoon-worthy "book-boyfriends" and girlier themes weren't socially acceptable.

{ Stephanie Ingrid Sarah Kristan } at: September 5, 2013 at 11:52 AM said...

We're a little late to this party, but... *applause*

{ Stephanie Ingrid Sarah Kristan } at: September 5, 2013 at 11:57 AM said...

Oh, just one thing to add: It's worth noting that the sample size of the poll is (a) not that large, and (b) self-selected, since it is presumably only BookRiot readers. It might be interesting to see what a larger, more generalize population of people are embarrassed to admit they have read... but on the other hand, we'd rather not encourage them to think they should be embarrassed about any of it!

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