Is literature elitist? By Shelley Carter

Our taste in books is often a very personal and very unique aspect of our personality. Not only do the types of books we read depend on what stories we personally enjoy consuming, it can also depend on the access we have to those books. It is an immense privilege, financially and otherwise, to have the ability to buy books.

I have actively been part of the online book community for around four years now, and it has opened up a world of bookish possibilities. Books and genres I have never even heard of now have pride of place on my shelves, or live on my never-ending Goodreads TBR. However, I have noticed that there is a divide between what is considered ‘proper literature’ and just books for entertainment. I have to admit, I often struggle to read classics or award-winning books. I just don’t seem to get along with the writing style or stories presented, and I used to have a sense of shame when I had to confess that I hadn’t read something widely beloved.

I also struggle with poetry. Sometimes I just don’t ‘get it’. Former Underground Writers editor Dylan gave me this wise advice when it comes to reading poetry, but I think it can apply to any form of literature. He said something along the lines of, “as long as it makes you feel something, it doesn’t matter if it’s ‘good’, or if you understand it.”

My workplace now sells second hand books, and I have had a few interactions that have indicated the spectrum of readers in my local area. I recall one occasion a few years ago when an older woman came in asking if we sold books, and when I politely told her we didn’t, she remarked, “Of course you don’t, people your age don’t even read books anymore.” This was after her not-so-subtle bragging about being an author herself.

On the other hand, I just sold the entire Fifty Shades of Grey series to a woman in her 80s. I warned her that they were “a little naughty”, just in case the erotica was a bit too racy for her liking and made her feel uncomfortable. Instead, she laughed and with a wink quipped that E.L. James might teach her something new.

Gone are the days when romance books are simply the mass market Mills and Boon on your grandmother’s bedside table. We have inclusive, diverse, emotional romance stories that are brilliantly written and endlessly entertaining. They address taboo topics and sexual preferences, and are just plain fun! I used to be embarrassed to read romance, especially the erotic kind. There’s nothing wrong with reading erotica, and the massive success of the Fifty Shades of Grey series* is evidence of that. While it is not necessarily award-winning literature (a topic I will address later), it proves that audiences will happily consume erotic/taboo fiction and enjoy it openly.

The BookTube community has its own niche market for romance readers, and young women are embracing the genre. YouTubers such as Riley Marie, The Naughty Librarian, and Chandler Ainsley regularly make videos regarding romance books, and have opened up an entirely new generation of readers to the genre.

Ableism is also a major factor in the way people are judged for their reading preferences. A while ago, there was debate online as to whether listening to audiobooks is considered ‘real’ reading. Spoiler alert: it is! The debate arose in the comment sections of YouTube videos explaining ways to read more throughout the year and how to increase your Goodreads goal. The suggestion was to listen to audiobooks in your spare time, during your commute, or while doing housework. Many commenters thought that having the book read out to you wasn’t really reading and it shouldn’t count towards your goal. Literary critic Harold Bloom was quoted in the New York Times saying “Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear. You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.” No, Harold, you don’t.

Argot Magazine sums it up perfectly, stating, “The problem with calling audiobooks  ‘cheating’, is that you’re passively accusing disabled people of relying on a  ‘lesser’  form of reading, therefore implying they’re lazy.” The article linked goes into detail about the ableist superiority complex surrounding audiobooks, and it is definitely worth a read.

Font elitism is also something to note, in the context of creating accessibility for all readers. As much as people like to make fun of Comic Sans, it is actually an extremely helpful font for those with dyslexia. Similarly, converting books into braille gives visually impaired readers an opportunity to open themselves up to a world of stories that they may not traditionally have had access to. Unfortunately, not many books are converted into braille, with this Guardian opinion piece by Peter White stating that less than 1% of books are in this format.

It should also be noted that this elitism can directly affect authors as well. Emerging authors often have little resources or money and are attempting to make a living as a writer peripherally to a regular job. Emerging writers can be students, they can be from marginalised backgrounds, or from a demographic that is affected by poverty. This does not mean their stories are not worthy of being told. Charging an exorbitant amount to enter a writing competition or to be given the opportunity to put a story out into the world can be discriminatory. Yes, it encourages serious entries and covers overheads that the Government’s dwindling arts funding cannot pay for, but it takes so many writers out of the running and limits the stories that can be told.

Reading and creating literature shouldn’t be discriminatory. As long as you are engaging with and consuming stories, you are a reader. It doesn’t matter what you’re reading and in which format. Go ahead and listen to your erotic audiobooks (just don’t do it in the car; it makes for very awkward RBTs, trust me). Go forth and read that comic omnibus. Read that children’s book and save it on your shelf for the next generation. Write that poem. Express yourself. But most importantly, don’t judge anyone else for their reading tastes.

*It is important to note that the book series does not accurately portray BDSM practises!

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