It is commonly accepted wisdom that controversy sells books. Many people believe that negative reviews can sell books. But what we talk about less is how whether and what the effect might be of this controversial discourse on the genre itself, especially in cases where a lot of the controversy is propelled by those who have not read the books in question.
When I was relatively new to the Romance community, several debates popped up on the AAR boards over what were then controversial books – Her Secret, His Child by Paula Detmer Riggs, and Public Displays of Affection by Susan Donovan. The Riggs book contained a controversial, possible date-rape scene, followed by a secret baby, and Donovan’s book featured an anonymous sex scene between the heroine and a stranger, which occurred while the virgin heroine was on her way to pick up her then-boyfriend from the airport. I haven’t read the Riggs book (although I bought it when the controversy was going on ;D), but I was surprised by the number of shunning comments both got from readers who had not actually read either book.
The heroine in the Donovan book was called a “slut” and the book derided as promoting cheating and loose morals. Ironically, the scene in question occurred between the hero and the heroine of the book. The heroine did go on to marry her then-boyfriend but he died unexpectedly before the main action of the book begins. A young widow with two sons, Charlotte Tasker had led an exemplary, selfless life, with the exception of that side-of-the-road insanity, which she indulged in out of fear that she would never be able to experience thrilling, take-no-prisoners sex with the man she knew was getting ready to propose to her. And, as it turned out, she was correct.
The controversy over the Donovan book was interesting, in part because the book went out of its way to make Charlotte the most giving, upright, self-sacrificing wife and mother possible. She has no idea that the handsome, mysterious man who moves in next door is the guy from the side of the road (but he definitely remembers her). But by making him the hero of the novel, one could argue that the novel is actually containing promoting a more conservative sexual value by containing Charlotte’s sexuality within a second marriage to her first sexual partner. Regardless, there is an interesting ambiguity there that gets missed when you can’t even get past the back and forth of dismissive charges of immorality and sluttish infidelity and fannish defenses of the author, often by those who can’t actually engage the details of the book because they haven’t read it.
As readers, we make judgment calls like this all the time, and we often use reviews and comments by friends and other readers to do it. It is part of the book selection process for many of us, and in a time when readers feel bombarded by author promotion and books from all corners of the writing and publishing marketplace, perhaps it has become an even more common coping mechanism for under-impressed and over-marketed readers. I do feel that there has been a general increase in reader intolerance since self-publishing started to accelerate, in tandem with a diminished tendency to give an iffy sounding book the benefit of the doubt. I struggle with this myself. In fact, I’ve actually had to stop reading samples and excerpts, because some of the books I’ve enjoyed most would have been a no-go had I just decided based on a short, disembodied stretch of text. Sometimes pre-judgment means that we’re going to miss a book we’d actually enjoy, but other times the negative verdict will be justly made.
Let me also say as clearly as possible that I absolutely do not think readers should refrain from positively or negatively commenting on books they have not read. I do not think readers in general have an obligation to read a book before judging it. Nor do we have an obligation to authors to understand books the way they intended to write them. Reading creates a relationship between text and reader that may be wholly different from the relationship the author has with her book – which is part of the alchemical magic of reading and one of the reasons we can endlessly discuss any particular book.
But I do think there’s an increased tendency to reject or dismiss books out of hand these days. And I think it’s especially common when we’re focused on certain types, trends, and patterns in the genre. I recently read a piece written by an author whose books I’ve quite enjoyed, and her argument was based in part on a book she freely admitted she hadn’t read. And I strongly disagreed with the judgment she was making about the book, which in turn affected the way I approached her larger assertions. We ended up having a great discussion about her general argument, but it was in spite of and not because of the example of that unread book. I’m not going to link to the post, because I don’t want to put the author on the spot; as I said, I think we all engage in this behavior to some extent, and I don’t think it’s wrong.
Still, this tendency to judge books without reading them is an aspect of the genre community I’ve always been uncomfortable with, especially because so often the judgment is based on an issue that has political or social importance beyond a single-book portrayal. Take the Donovan book, for example, which implicated the boundaries and “rules” for female sexuality and the double standards men and women face in so-called standards of morality. These are issues we return to again and again in the genre, and they are an important part of our book-based discussions, because Romance is about love and sex and what constitutes a “good” relationship.
The Romance genre is built on all sorts of ethical, moral, social, and political values, which, as readers and authors, we are always in dialogue with. And when we bring books into the shared space of critical discussion, we have the opportunity to reflect on these values – to think about their utility and their appropriateness, their desirability and their limits. And it is often the most complex, important, and troubling issues that require the most careful, detailed, and mindful discussion.
All of which is part of why I wonder what impact these kinds of judgments we sometimes make about books without actually engaging their content have on the very issues we find to be the most vexing.
As we’ve seen over and over, overzealous positive reaction to an author or a book can shut down thoughtful discussion with frighteningly impressive speed. But so can dismissal of a book without actually engaging it. First, it is virtually impossible to talk about a book with someone who hasn’t read it and is convinced it’s a certain way. And second, if the issue is one of great importance to the person making the judgment, there is no real opportunity to ground discussion of that critical issue in textual examples that would a) allow for informed discussion and understanding, and b) create an opportunity for mindful contemplation of that issue’s importance as it is represented in actual books. And the more comfortable we become with judging books without actually engaging them, the further we may fall away from the types of discussions we need more, not less, of.
I don’t have clear answers here. But I do believe strongly that critical debate and analysis is essential to the way the genre shifts and evolves. Not only are so many Romance readers also authors – and active within the community – but I think critical discourse can uncover those otherwise unexamined corners of the collective consciousness in a way that allows us to think about some of our most commonly held and reiterated perceptions about How The World Works and What People Do, and Who We Are, and What We Want To Be, and How Love Works, and How Women and Men Think, etc. Examining these issues in context allows for the kind of deep, specific examination that can challenge assumptions, provoke new insights, and lead to new ways of seeing — and new ways of writing and representing.
Still, I get that we don’t owe it to any book to read it, let alone talk in a shared public space about it. I can also see a version of the boycott argument being made here: that is, we’re not going to read books that are insulting to who we are or what we believe. I will defend that as a reader’s prerogative.
But at some level I wonder how much we can criticize a genre for not being more sensitive to certain issues if we refuse to engage the actual books.
In other words, are we contributing to the very problems we see in the genre by refusing to read the books we judge guilty of perpetuating them?
ETA: Comments have made me realize that I did a very poor job distinguishing between levels and types of judgment in my post.
What I’d call a more passive level of pre-judgment is more along the lines of a tragedy of the commons to me. And it’s more analogous to the example of creating new law I made in my response to hapax:
One of the biggest issues in US law right now is the lack of new law being made from legal issues being tried in the courts. In addition to legislators making law, trials set precedents that themselves become a form of law, often a very important one (think about copyright law, for example, and how outdated it is to our current circumstances). This lack of new law being made is partially a result of 99%+ of cases being settled before they even go to trial. Now, should every plaintiff carry their case to trial for the sake of legal precedent? Of course not! People routinely make the decisions that they perceive to be the best for them. However, our individual choices do have costs associated with them, and that’s what I’m trying to get at here — what are the costs at the general level, are we aware of them or even thinking about them, are they, in fact, working against what we perceive to be our individual interests, and are they ultimately worth it to us?
Then there is a more active level of judgment, where those who haven’t read the book make those judgments publicly, often in forums where the book is being discussed. This is the kind of judgment that I was referring to with my Donovan example and in the first paragraph of my post where I talked about controversy over a book driven in part by people who haven’t read it. That kind of judgment can interfere with critical discussion,depending on the circumstances, as I noted in my post and my reply to Ridley.
In both cases, these judgments may be validated by actually reading a book, or they may be challenged. Not everyone reads the same book the same way, which is one of the reasons I think critical debate about specific books is so important. And as I said a number of times in the post, I don’t think any of these judgments or even the comments are wrong (after all, choice itself is an act of judgment, and we all do it). At the same time, judgments are not without cost, and that’s really what I’m interested in unpacking here. What are the costs, and are we aware we’re paying them, and are they worth it to us?