Everyone has hot takes when it comes to reading. You may, for example, be staunchly on one side of the dog-earring pages debate or cannot stand a trope others wholeheartedly love.
One of my own opinions has been on my mind a lot as of late: the kind of stories you enjoy reading or writing doesn't matter as long as it's something you enjoy (provided it's not deliberately hurting anyone).
Why would this fall under the "hot takes" umbrella? After all, writers are often advised to write the books they would most want to read and follow the things that most interest them. Readers are frequently guided to books and make decisions based on what they like—genres, tropes, topics, and so on.
Despite this, I've noticed a lot of us end up feeling like we have to explain ourselves or justify which books we pick up.
I've gotten a few askance glimpses when I'm seen with whatever nonfiction book I'm delving into primarily for WIP-related research; examination of agriculture in the 1810s and blacksmithing textbooks aren't exactly as expected texts to see someone with in public, I guess...
But fiction is where this hot take really comes into play, and it almost feels worse.
I started reading romance seriously early in high school and usually had one novel on me for downtime and mandated reading periods (the latter of which I'll be expanding on in further in this post). I wasn't bringing in anything too spicy or steamy—at least as far as covers and stepbacks went—but it still felt like there was an air of judgement any time I pulled one out of my backpack because of the genre's reputation.
Let's not forget the time during senior year that a classmate decided to call out, "Mr. H? Avril's reading porn again..." on that poor teacher's first day working at the school. Needless to say, I had to fill him in on the historical romance I was reading not actually being porn.
There would be a similar reaction to saying I was writing romance. Some assumed it meant I was writing erotica (which is different from romance). Others called it "smut" or "dirty" or "trashy." One individual strongly advised that I only write what I'm comfortable with—which I do—but their tone made it sound like I needed to cater more to their comfort levels and not dare to touch the slightest potential of my characters having sex lives whatsoever with a thirty-nine-and-a-half-foot pole.
Simply put, sex can and often does appear in romance. My own WIPs get a little steamy here and there. But the presence of sex, whether it is played out on the page, happening behind a closed door, or is just hinted at, does not make a story worth reading or "not a real book."
And, hey, if you are not comfortable with reading or writing about sex or sensual content, that is totally cool! You don't have to cross that threshold if it's not your cup of tea.
We all have our boundaries that are valid and deserve to be respected. In other words, if you do not want to read or do not enjoy a book for any reason at all, that is perfectly fine. No qualms here.
But please remember that if it's not your thing, that it may be someone else's. Don't shame or poke fun at their interests or taste in literature.
Don't yuck in someone else's yum, as the kids say.
Because when that happens, it results in situations like the one that inspired this post.
I have a coworker who usually brings her Kindle with her to read during her lunch. Let's call her Holly. As she was talking about the book she had just finished, said something along the lines of, "I know it's bad, but..."
That right there. That is the problem.
From what I could tell, it seemed Holly liked the book. Even if it wasn't her favorite, she mentioned parts she really enjoyed. Additionally, she did not read with much frequency up until a few months prior and had been making her way through the author's works.
Then we get to, "I know it's bad, but..."
Whether that was because the author in question whose works are not given tremendous praise by reviewers or that the book was a romantic thriller I cannot be sure of. But it was just another example of having to justify what we read for fun.
A book does not have to be a centuries-old classic to be worth reading. It does not have to examine significant themes or become time capsules of societal views in the period it was written in order to be of value. Sure, it can, but that's not mandatory for a reader to consider it good.
However, all through school, at least in my experience, curriculums tell us what is "good." From Shakespeare to Steinbeck, there is a frankly short list of books brought up in class, especially as we get older and move away from learning how to read but what to read.
In my senior year, the school introduced Accelerated Reader, which was intended to mandate reading and improve comprehension scores on the state tests because, as the rumors and rumblings went, the sophomores bombed that portion the year prior. At the start of the semester, you would be tested to determine your reading level, which would factor into your assigned goal. Basically, books would be given a point value based on the length and difficulty and you needed to reach a certain number.
You would have to log how long you read on a bookmark and have your teacher or parent sign off on it, and take a test upon finishing a book to determine how well you comprehended the material. Hence, the point system. If you fell short of your goal, it would impact your English grade.
I'm all for getting kids to read. The problem was that we had to select books approved by the AR program in order to earn points. And back then, the list wasn't all that broad.
What had once been free reading time became strict, like a second English class built on the illusion of choice and pressures. This system ranked popular books like The Hunger Games or the Percy Jackson series in a way that made them "bad choices." I remember one girl who was a slower reader getting invested in the Divergent series and being chastised for it because YA wouldn't score the points she needed. Despite having finally found something that piqued her interest, she was criticized for it.
It was stifling, and that had lasting impacts. The focus became more about finishing an assignment than finding yourself (and losing yourself) in a good book.
Although there are several reasons almost a third of people hardly pick up another book after high school, I feel like the way reading is treated in that environment can influence that.
I graduated high school in 2014. There was barely any queer rep present and the majority of authors class units were devoted to were white men. That's why I am so grateful for the courses I was able to take in college that focused on queer lit and texts penned by women.
That isn't to say curriculum-approved books have nothing to teach us, but having a small scope of approved books can make reading less enjoyable not only as students, but as adults.
The medium of the content can also provoke judgement. Even as far back in middle school, graphic novels were more or less banned for not being "real books" so imagine my surprise when an entire unit in one college lit class was centered around Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. And we cannot ignore the enduring debate that audiobooks don't count the same way as sitting down with a print copy. Audiobooks are books. Period.
By instituting an idea of what is valuable reading material or what is good, the peer pressure to avoid "bad" books or justify our interests is built alongside it.
The things that determine a book being bad should come down to the quality
of the book itself—its characters, plot threads, style, etc. Comparing it to titles in its own category and genre is one thing, but judging something like TikTok favorites Lightlark or The Zodiac Academy series in relation to War and Peace or saying they are not as good as A Rasin In The Sun just doesn't work.
A book not being like one of the classics or classroom-approved doesn't make it inherently bad. It's only different.
Now are there times where there should be cautions taken in regard to what one is reading or writing? Sure.
I personally wouldn't drop Anna Karenina in a six-year-old's lap for a number of reasons. And it's a good idea to avoid writing stories that intentionally promote hateful views or target minorities.
Beyond these circumstances, however, the limitations should ideally be few and far between. If you're an adult reading YA or graphic novels, go for it. And there is nothing wrong with having an audiobook on in the car, either.
Whether it's what you want to read or what you want to write, the value should not be placed on what it means to society or a GPA, but what it means to you as an individual at a specific point in your life.
As writers, and as humans, we are constantly evolving, but it's harder to do so when our literary pursuits are crammed into boxes to sit on another person's shelf.