Does it matter what you read? As long as, that is, you read at all. In this case, we’re considering reading fiction and reading for pleasure – or for leisure, rather than explicitly for educational purposes.
We’re probably all aware of the phenomenon of the book snob, generally describing those who not only scorn ‘popular’ genres for themselves, but also would sneer at people who enjoy mainstream fiction.
Personally, I look at reading and fiction as a sort of wardrobe of options. Just as there are different clothing items to suit different seasons, weathers, moods, and occasions, so it is the same with books. I am happy to read through a variety of literary, middle-brow, and popular fiction at various times according to my varying disposition. I think many others are the same.
In any case, a distinction between popular and literary fiction is arguably false and something of a publishers’ marketing exercise. And a relatively recent marketing tactic at that. How does one even create definitions? Literary fiction has been described as, variously, character-driven, realistic, complex, more likely to engage the mind, and, most unhelpfully of all, ‘serious’ – whatever that means. Popular or genre fiction, then, gets described as plot-driven, simplistic, less likely to engage or enhance the mind, trivial… Some of these descriptions work. Sort of. Sometimes. But they are clearly limited. We know, of course, there are plot-heavy literary novels, hard issues addressed in certain popular works, and so on.
In response to book snobbery, novelist and journalist Matt Haig noted the universality and importance of story-telling, that ‘The greatest stories appeal to our deepest selves, the parts of us snobbery can’t reach… Stories, at their essence, are enemies of snobbery. And a book snob is the enemy of the book.’ If you need a response to anyone disparaging your choice of fiction, you can find Haig’s full, much shared, post 30 things to tell a book snob post at this link.
There are even, some may say, different categories of book snobs. This article by Rachel John in The Print identifies five of them, summarised below.
– The ‘print version is better than the ebook’ elitist.
– The book fetishist, who gets their kicks from the smell, look, and feel of books.
– Those judging people who buy from (ahem) major online stores rather than local bookshops.
– Those readers who deem only classic and critically acclaimed works to be worth perusing.
It is important to say at this point that your personal reading likes and dislikes do not make you a book snob. In terms of my own tastes, for instance, I can be a bit of a book fetishist, and there are certain genres I just won’t try – a case of so many books, too little time, as they say.
So go ahead and indulge in the worthies, the classics, the books reviewed in the heavy Sunday supplements; be particular about any standards you’ve set for yourself; eschew the summer read and the supermarket best-seller. Consider yourself a connoisseur, if you must. Refuse the e-reader for a more sensual experience. Absolutely fine. We all have our preferences. However, I would add, just don’t get superior or dismissive about other people’s choices in reading.
One more point to note relates to cognitive benefit. A study published early last year (linked here) found that reading for pleasure has benefits of improved language skills regardless of your choice of reading matter – Zadie Smith or Wilbur, Anthony Trollop or Joanna. The main thing is to read, to enjoy it, to identify as ‘a reader’.
No one’s identity as a reader should be harmed, nor their pleasure in reading be spoiled by others. No one should be put off reading because of another person’s condescension.