Bookmarks at Dawn: The Reading Wars


You know, for a hobby that’s supposed to be relaxing and enjoyable, reading has lately become a battleground. There’s a war going on, and it’s being fought on five fronts. Readers and writers are coming to tweeted, Facebooked blows over… What? Books? Those things we all love? Those innocuous things that make you feel good, impart information, and entertain you? I feel like yelling, “Bookmarks at dawn!” as I charge into the fray to figure out what on earth has gone so wrong with our peaceful hobby. Why have we all turned against each other?

To start, what are these wars? What battles are being waged in the readerverse? There are five and while they’re being waged in their own little worlds, they all combine to create an overall “War on reading.”

Writers against writers.

Yes, writing can be a competitive field. It’s tough to get published, tough to self-publish and achieve success, and tough to stay relevant in a marketplace with the attention span of a gnat. It’s really, really tough to make money given the pricing race to the bottom. But… It’s also not the sort of field where success for one automatically means that others will not succeed. There’s not a set amount of open spots like there is on an athletic team.

Which is why it’s mind-boggling to me that some writers treat writing and publishing like some sort of Tonya-Nancy rivalry where they feel that they have to kneecap their competition in order to succeed.

Writers are making baseless accusations against one another and dragging the reputation of others through the mud. Some are deliberately trying to make it impossible for anyone else to succeed. (“Cockygate,” anyone?) They’re cheating the system by plagiarizing other’s works, or gaming the Amazon algorithms, to the detriment of other writers. On and on it goes, with writers out to intentionally make other writers suffer. (Some, not all. Let’s be clear that te majority are good eggs.)

Ir doesn’t need to be this way. The success of one does not mean all others are doomed to failure. That’s crab mentality, and it leads to all kinds of foolishness. It leads to a war where writers try to destroy each other, rather than working together to better the profession as a whole.

Readers against readers.

I used to feel like readers were a tribe. Sure, we may have loved different genres, but we all loved the written word. There was camaraderie. Respect. You’d see a fellow reader in the library and smile and nod, sharing something wonderful. Now, it’s different. Readers have segmented themselves into discrete tribes. The YA tribe. Romance tribe. Sci-fi tribe. And on and on. If you don’t read the “right” things, you aren’t invited to the party. In fact, you may even be vilified on social media for your tastes. Especially if you dare to post a dissenting review, or question on social media why other readers like or dislike a book.

It’s not enough to love books anymore. You have to love the right books, and ally yourself with others who love them, as well. And if you dare to read something outside of that space and comment on it, you’ll be met with, “Well, you’re not allowed to have an opinion because you’re not a regular reader of _____.” Which is nonsense of course. How do you ever learn to love a new thing if you never try it? Readers should be more welcoming to others, not drive them off with elitism and tribalism.

Writers against readers.

This, to me, is the dumbest battle being fought today, but there it is. Some writers are actively fighting with their readers. Why? Readers are the most important thing to a writer. Why in the hell would you pick a fight with them? But it happens. Writers argue with readers over negative reviews or comments, as if the reader isn’t allowed to dislike your work. (Hint, they totally are.) You, as the writer, are supposed to let it go, not engage in a war of insults. You’re not allowed to insult your readers’ intelligence, argue with them over the validity of their opinion, argue over what you should or should not be writing, or engage in any other sort of argument. Ever.

And don’t think that what you say privately won’t find its way into the public sphere. It will. Your comments will be on social media before you know it and there’s no way the writer will look good in the end. Writers who argue with readers lower readers’ opinions of all writers. And that translates into driving readers away for good. It’s too difficult to attract readers as it is. Don’t drive them off by fighting with them. Let them have their say while you just write more books.

Readers against writers.

Of course, this battle goes both ways. For all that some writers are fighting with their readers, there are some readers who fight with writers. Certain factions on Twitter have seemingly made a sport out of it, forcing writers to cancel books with which they do not agree. It’s no longer enough for readers to read, they now feel they must have an input into the process. And since they don’t get to choose what writers write and what is chosen for publication, they battle once the books are released as galleys. If they don’t like it, they drag the author through the mud, forcing the author or publisher to basically give in to their demands. And, not infrequently, driving the author away from writing forever.

I get where this comes from: There’s an admirable desire to see more representation and diversity in books today. Readers want authors to take care and avoid resorting to stereotypes and flawed representations of race, sexual orientation, or other markers of diversity. But… Fighting with authors isn’t the way to do it.

It’s fine to point out that a book is flawed. All books are, in some way, flawed in someone’s eyes. That’s simply the nature of work that’s written through they eyes of one person: The author. It’s impossible for an author to account for every single thing that might be offensive to someone. The best authors try, but even they rarely succeed. There’s just no way to satisfy everyone with a single book. Since you cannot know exactly what other people might find offensive, there’s no way to avoid all of it.

Sure, you can and should avoid the most obvious stereotypes and denigrations. The old adage, “Don’t be a dick,” applies. But no story should ever be perfectly inoffensive to everyone. That would be boring. The best stories are the ones that make us think and challenge our beliefs. They’re the ones that show us a world and ask us, “How could that world be made better?” They challenge us to take that story and apply its lessons to our own lives. To say that no author should ever include something that might cause a reader to think is ridiculous.

Yet it seems that some readers would rather not think, they’d rather fight. They’d rather force an author to give up their career than say, “Hey, I may not agree with what was said in this book, but I can see where the author is coming from and use this to better my interactions with others.” It’s more important to bully and threaten a writer into sanitizing a book than it is to wonder why the writer chose certain themes and topics.

Policymakers against pretty much everyone. 

This is the one that really pisses me off. There are plenty of people who seem determined to see reading go the way of the dinosaur. Book banners. (Don’t get me started. They’re going to get their own post one of these days.) Well-meaning but poorly-intentioned educators who try to standardize reading to the point where it isn’t fun for kids. Publishers who are so hell-bent on chasing trends that they miss the golden apples right under their noses. Politicians who cut funding for libraries and literacy programs, apparently thinking that people will somehow just figure it out on their own. Retailers (Amazon) who use bots for everything, removing human judgment and common sense from reviewing and selling. I could go on, but you get the picture.

There are a lot of people out there making reading harder and less desirable than it should be, when they should be doing all they can to help readers and writers, lest the entire world end up illiterate and ignorant. Which, now that I think about it, just might be the goal. Keep the sheep fat and happy in the pen… Don’t let them think for themselves.

I blame much of this war on social media. (Much as I blame social media for the overall “Us vs. Them” mentality that pervades everything from politics to hometown issues to dinner table conversation these days. But that’s yet another post for another day.) You know the joke that on the Internet no one is ever wrong? That’s the root of this problem. Everyone has an opinion, and that’s as it should be. Not everyone likes every book. Fine. That’s always been the case. What’s changed is that it’s not simply enough to say, “I just didn’t like the book, because…” or, “I really enjoyed it because…”  Now there’s pressure to defend that position. To be right.

The thing is, there is no way to be “right” when it comes to liking or disliking a piece of written work. What appeals to you will likely not appeal to others, and vice versa. It doesn’t make either of you right or wrong. You simply have different tastes. Think of it in the context of food. Not everyone likes salmon, for example. You’re not wrong to like it, just as I’m not right to dislike it. We’re just wired differently.

That’s actually a good thing. Life would be boring if we were all the same, but social media creates an environment where it’s not okay to have an opinion. You can’t simply say, “It wasn’t to my taste.” You can’t simply write a review stating your thoughts and walk away. You must justify that opinion. And when others challenge it (and it will be challenged), you must defend it. And that’s where crap goes wrong.

There’s no way to defend an opinion without looking like a jerk. An opinion is by its very nature indefensible. Facts are provable. Opinions are not, and there’s almost no way to convert another to your opinion. If they love a book and you hate it, you’re not going to change their mind no matter how much you point to certain flaws in the text. And trying to is only going to piss them off and make them refute you point by point. That’s the beginning of a battle, a battle which cannot be won by either side. It’s not much different from challenging someone else on politics or religion. There are no winners in those battles, either.

It’s fine to want more from books. Wanting more diversity, representation, etc. isn’t wrong. It’s not wrong to want different types of books and authors, either. Expecting more from publishers isn’t a bad thing. It would be great if there were more women and minorities working in publishing. And it would be great if the marketplace became more transparent and less “game-able” by writers and reviewers. But it is wrong to attack each other over any of it.

There are ways to lobby for change that don’t involve turning reading into a blood sport. There are ways to convey a point of view without ruining someone else’s career, or making writing and publishing even more toxic than they already can be. You can work for your own success as a writer without wrecking other’s chances.

We’re all readers. We all love books. Let that be enough and stop fighting each other. If you must fight something, fight the overall system. Fight the mega-companies like Amazon that reward few and punish many (both authors and readers) with their reliance on algorithms. Punish publishers who talk about diversity, but don’t do anything to improve the situation (either in their hiring practices, or in the books they acquire). Fight the race to the bottom in pricing that’s impacting the quality of material on offer and driving many authors out of the business. There are larger issues to fight than nitpicking battles with other readers and writers.

Let’s all just put our bookmarks where they belong: Inside a great book, and stop trying to metaphorically use them to destroy each other. We’re all on the same team. We all want great books, lots of great choices of genres, viewpoints, and forms, and plenty of time and space in which to read it all. There are ways to achieve those things without engaging in mutually assured destruction. Writers and readers should be on the same team. We should all be working together to make the industry better. Instead of tearing each other apart, try a little kindness and empathy. Who knows? Maybe we can set an example for the rest of the world and show them how civility can work to create change.

(Photo courtesy of 5xy)

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