Monday, May 8, 2017

Opinion: Are Literary Reviews Relevant In Today's Reading Landscape?

It is no secret that I am not a huge fan of literary reviews and will seldom chase after titles that critics have rated well with the upper echelons of literary critique.

He thinks you need more purple prose in your life.

There is this archaic misconception that only select books are considered "good literature". That reading anything other than these lauded titles means that one simply is not a real reader. This has irked me for years as I always felt that I was a reader! Readers, after all, read, do they not? It's in the name and everything.

It also said that reading these books is not supposed to be easy. That it should encourage thought and provide some mind-opening experience that will allow the reader to transcend the intellect of average mortals. "Read this!" critics proclaim. "Read this and have rainbows of superiority radiate from your nethers!"

Honestly, I feel that we live in the age of information. Where I can go from wanting a book to having its digital form on the device of my choosing in less than a minute. Where I have literally millions of books at my fingertips. Why would I want to slog through a book for the sake of literary snobbery? The world is hard enough, dammit. And yes, there is a place for difficult literature, but we need to shed the ridiculous ideals placed on the reading public.

I feel that these perceptions are damaging and, instead of promoting literacy and the love of reading, they can actually have the adverse effect. People should read for enjoyment and should have the liberty to pick books that appeal to them without their choices being frowned upon. Also, schools should have a look at their prescribed materials and determine if kids actually find these books fun to read. I know I would rather get papercuts than slog through Joseph Conrad's A Heart of Darkness, a book that was both mystifyingly short and long at the same time.

I have taken a look at a bestsellers list from 2016 and will highlight some of the results here for interest's sake.

The bestselling book of 2016 was Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The reason for this is obvious. It's Harry Potter. It would sell even if it was the worst written book in history because the fans need more Harry. It clocked just under 1.5 million unit sales in the UK alone. This is hardly a literary masterpiece. The series has dominated best-seller charts for the past two decades because they are books that speak to the general public. There is a character everyone can relate to and fall in love with.

Hot on Harry's heels is The Girl on the Train, sales driven by the release of the film. I have read this book in one sitting. It is also far from being a literary work of art, but it has satisfying and addictive plot elements. It is also one of those hybrid titles that dips its toes into many different audience groups, including those of the snobbish variety. But, it remains an accessible read.

Go Set a Watchman, the newly discovered novel by Harper Lee, one she arguably never intended for publication, sits at number 70. This was a book that had set tongues wagging in all the high places, with readers clamoring for copies on the day of release. It's one of those books that you simply had to get because you would look good reading it. It was also bested by not one but three Wimpy Kid titles in terms of sales. Go figure.

Another example is All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It managed to secure spot number 80 in spite of winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Andrew Carnegie Medal for Fiction, ALA Alex Award and more. Certainly, it was not published that year, but one would think the accolades under its belt would have meant a higher ranking.

In 2012, The Guardian released a list of the top 100 bestselling books of all time.

The spots in the top ten that were not claimed by Harry Potter were taken by two of Dan Brown's novels (Da Vinci Code in the top spot) and Fifty Shades of Grey. Fifty Shades Darker sits in number 11 with Twilight in number twelve.

Here. Read these.

My point is simple. People read what makes them happy. It doesn't have to be verbose and "intelligent". Reading critically-acclaimed books should not be treated as a badge of honour. And no one, ever, should be judged by reading what they enjoy. The sales show the bigger picture. Critically acclaimed novels are not the ones that sell.

Literary reviews only cater to a very tiny, niche, upper-crust market. They actually mean very little in the grander scheme of things and should, quite frankly, not be taken very seriously at all. Well, unless you are the kind of person who needs this to define your own intellect and worth. Then, don't let me stop you. But don't point fingers when I laud my love of YA all over the internet, either!

If you think I am wrong or have anything to add, please feel free to leave a comment below.

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