A guest post from Wonkomance’s official resident undercover librarian, Shelley Ann Clark.
It took me twenty-three years of school to learn how to read.
I’ve heard from a number of my fellow romance fans that they feel judged by their librarians when they check out or ask for romance novels. I’ve heard my fellow librarians speak scornfully of popular literature. There is a great debate, repeated endlessly in the profession, about whether we should give the public what they want, or give the public books that are “good for them.” As if we, the educated readers, are the only ones who can decide what makes a book great. This isn’t to say that I don’t think there’s plenty of room for critique, and I think it’s very important that romance not be exempt from cultural study. In fact, I think popular books need to be at the heart of cultural studies, because those are the books that reflect and shape our societal values. However, it’s vitally important that we remember that there is no one right way to be a reader, even if that’s what we learn in school.
The one-right-way-to-read thinking is antithetical to the principals of reader’s advisory. Generally speaking, most library professionals provide information to meet two kinds of needs: reference, which is when a patron has a need for information about a topic, and reader’s advisory, which is the art of helping the right reader find the right book at the right time. A reference question is, “I need to know how many elephants are currently working in the Barnum & Bailey circus.” A reader’s advisory question is, “God, I loved Fifty Shades of Grey. Do you have any other books like that?”
It wasn’t until I took Reader’s Advisory in library school (under the great Joyce Saricks and Becky Spratford, two of the best names in the field, and two of the best professors I’ve ever had) that I learned two principles of reader’s advisory that made the biggest difference in how I view both reading and writing:
1. There is no such thing as bad writing. There is no such thing as good writing. Good writing is writing a reader likes. That’s it. There’s no objective measurement of it.
2. Never, ever judge another reader’s taste. Reader’s advisory is about finding the right book for your reader, not about finding the right book for you or showing the reader how much you know about literature.
This philosophy was completely counter to everything I’d learned about reading and writing in all my previous education. After being taught how to analyze writing to find its strengths and weaknesses, after learning about Big Important Books, after evaluating Great Literature and dismissing popular literature, after being taught that genre was lesser, and a genre book might be great for its genre, but it would never be a Great Book…suddenly, here were two librarians teaching me that none of that mattered.
Readers should like the books they read. That’s the only rule.
It’s a radical notion, that, the idea that any one reader’s taste is just as valuable as any other reader’s taste, regardless of education or literacy level or economic status. And it’s an incredibly liberating philosophy as a reader and as a writer. There are no guilty pleasure books, just pleasure books. There are no “should-reads.” You should read what you want. End of story.
Reader’s advisors read for appeal; we do analyze what we read, but we analyze it in terms of why someone might like it. Is it fast-paced? Does it have an unusual setting? Is there a unique voice, or high interpersonal drama, or is the writing lyrical? A reader who loves fast-paced, suspense-filled books will likely be bored by a lyrical, thoughtful, emotional read. Does that make one book better than another? Only in terms of how it fits for that particular reader.
As a writer, learning to think about books this way is the only thing that un-paralyzed me. I didn’t need to write a perfect book; I needed to write a book that at least one reader would enjoy. The goal became manageable, and honestly, fun, for the first time in years. Of course I want my writing to be technically strong. I want to use all those skills I learned to make my writing the best it can be. But it will never be perfect; it may never be Great, in the terms I learned to study. And that’s okay.
Extra Bonus Fun Time!
So, since most of you aren’t reader’s advisors, I’d like to invite you to try to identify the appeal terms that apply to the books you tend to love. I, for instance, like steamy love stories with a strong sense of place and lyrical writing. Some examples of appeal terms: fast-paced, character-driven, dark, humorous, complex plots, high interpersonal drama, alternating point-of-view. Notice that none of them place a value judgment on the work, they just describe it. I’d love to see how you would characterize either your own work or the books you like to read.
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Shelley Ann Clark’s third-grade teacher told her she would grow up to be the next Danielle Steel. It probably says something about her that, at age eight, she knew who that was and thought it was a compliment. Shelley now holds an MA in Creative Writing, a Masters of Library and Information Science, and has worked in public libraries for twelve years. She lives with her husband in Chicago, where she writes about Southern men and the women who bring them to their knees.