Monday, February 25, 2013

How should we judge books?

I just finished up the Breathless Reads tour and I have to say that some of the questions asked by audience members were really insightful. There’s one I just can’t quite shake. It was asked by a guy in Madison, CT. I’m paraphrasing even though the recording is probably online somewhere, because I had lost half my voice by then and I can’t bear to listen to myself, so correct me if I’m way off. As I remember, he asked this:

Do you think books should be judged on their popularity or their literary merit?

Immediately Beth Revis said “literary merit” and if there is a right answer that’s probably it, especially if we’re talking about being judged for things like NBA awards. (Apologies to the question-asker if that’s what you meant, as I heard it as “How should librarians and teachers and readers decide which books are the “good” books?”)

My immediate thought was “Why do we have to judge books?” So I blurted out, in typical awkward Fiona fashion, that I didn’t think books should be judged at all. Then I panicked that it sounded like I was saying Printz awards were bad or that people shouldn’t write reviews and holy crap what if that got twisted into me saying people shouldn’t criticize my books and then I’d end up as the next big blogger/author/Goodreads scandal and stuff like this was why I should probably just not speak, ever, and let seasoned pros like Beth answer all the questions. [Sidebar: It’s fricking scary to be a new author. You do one dumb thing without thinking (or before you’ve had your second cup of coffee) and someone records it or screen caps it and then all of a sudden people are boycotting you and you're being scorned all over the interwebz and jeez, so what if we’re (kinda) adults who should know better? We’re still human. We try but sometimes we mess up.] Anyway, I backpedaled and sort of adjusted my answer because I appreciate every single one of my reviews and I would never want people to think differently. Trust me, you will never meet anyone more into free speech than I am.

But what I meant was (and yeah, it often takes me a couple of days to figure out how I feel—another reason I’m not the best at Q&A panels), there is no accepted standard of book-worthiness. Even big fancy trade reviews are just one person’s opinion at one point in time, potentially skewed by personal situations or preconceived notions.

My personal opinion (and I know a lot of authors disagree with me) is that “bad” books do not get traditionally published. Getting a book published in today’s market means that several knowledgeable publishing employees loved it, lobbied for it, and spent hours reading and rereading it to make it the best it can be. To hear someone say [insert big popular title] is bad feels like literary ethnocentrism. You don't like it so it's bad? Yeah, okay, there are some books I read and think, “I feel like this could have used more editing” or “the voice/setting/story just doesn't make me want to keep reading,” but that doesn’t mean those books are bad. It just means something didn’t work for me when I tried to read it. Sometimes people want Nine Inch Nails and sometimes they want classical. Sometimes they want milkshakes and sometimes they want prime rib. Is one “better” than the other? I don’t think most books can be easily compared.

In high school I had to read almost exclusively classic books, the kind of books people describe as Dead White Guy books, the kind of books that might have turned me off reading forever had I not been exposed to libraries and bookstores full of a wide variety of stories at an early age.  At several of our school visits, the teachers wanted to know which books we read as a teen and you could just tell they were hoping we’d dutifully recite a list of Steinbeck and Hemingway titles like, “Look, if you pay attention in class and embrace The Grapes of Wrath you, too, can be a published author someday.” Yeah. Not me, sorry. I read Dean Koontz and Sweet Valley High. I read Glamour magazine. I STILL read all those things and I’m not going to apologize for it. If the only thing that holds a reluctant reader’s attention is a magazine then I am all for it, and I say that as an ex-teacher and future professor. Reading almost anything can help kids become better readers and writers, but we need to make sure they have access to the things that interest them.

Obviously, librarians and teachers can’t buy all of the books and they don’t have time to read them all and decide. The easy decision seems to be to select only the books that are both popular and critically acclaimed, but why not shoot for a mix of the literary, the fun and fluffy, and the ‘summer blockbuster’ type of books?**  Rather than just acquiring only award-winning novels, which may or may not be accessible to reluctant readers, why don’t librarians check out what actual teens have to say on Goodreads? Or maybe they could let teens vote and self-select 50% of the new titles. How cool would that be? (I don’t work in a school so I don’t know if this is something that could never happen, but it would rock it if could).

Judging books  as “good” or “bad” seems like a move toward shaming people for what they read. And when we do that, we run the risk of encouraging someone to put down a book and turn on the always universally socially acceptable television. We run the risk of alienating the people who buy our books and keep our industry alive.


PS I usually don't blog stuff like this because I'm afraid someone will make it his/her own personal mission to comb every single tweet and interview I ever did looking for that one moment where I poked fun at a famous title or appeared to contradict myself. To that I say: 1) review above--I'm not perfect. 2) my feelings about books and the publication process have changed a lot in the past 2 years, and this blog is about how I feel now.

**[I fully admit I may be biased since I am a proud reader and writer of fluffy and delicious milkshake books :)]


  1. I totally understand what you are trying to say and I agree. I think people are quick to judge what others are reading especially if it isn't something that's popular. But in reality anyone reading is a win not matter what they what it is, especially when it comes to kids. Tastes are very subjective and when it comes to books, people have very differing opinions, but everyone has a right to there's. So it's really hard to say yes let's "judge" books because what may be one person's absolute favorite thing might turn someone else off to reading. So I think as long as people are finding books they enjoy reading, everyone wins!

  2. At the very tiny deaf school where I used to teach, here's how it would go:

    Kid to admin over library: I heard about these books I think would be good.

    Admin: *makes note*

    (a couple of weeks later)

    Admin to kid: Hey, those books are in!

    It was awesome. And I'm positive the librarian at the very large public junior high where I now teach takes student tastes and requests into account when ordering new books. I'm sure she can't get every book that every kid wants, but I see a full variety of both "serious" and "frothy" reads turning up on the shelves.

    It can be done!


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