Thursday, March 4, 2010

Who's Qualified To Judge?

Most of us--if not all of us--judge a book by a cover. But what kinds of other judging do we do? In a bookish context that is!

What does it mean--really mean--to judge a book by its cover? I suppose it means a quick judging of if we want to read the book. Whether or not we want to even consider reading a book. Based on how "appealing" we find the cover. Of course, a cover's appeal is completely subjective. Readers pay attention to their instincts that say, "I want to read that!" or "No! That one's not for me."

(I chose Fireflies in December as an example because, to me, it screams out read me, read me. It also has a great first line. "The summer I turned thirteen, I thought I'd killed a man." )

Some judge by covers. Some judge by titles. Some judge by authors--already being familiar with an author's previous books. A few might admit to judging based on publisher. (But I'd guess that would be a smaller number than the others!) Some judge based on first sentences, or first paragraphs. Some judge based on reading reviews by other readers, other bloggers.

Are you aware of the judging that you do? Do you ever think of looking past first impressions?

Of course, no one has to read anything. I know life is short. There isn't time to read every book out there. I don't think you're a better person if you go ahead and read books with unappealing covers, with ugly covers, just so you can say that you don't judge books by their covers.

But I think that readers who do take a second look, that do give second chances, they get rewarded now and then. It is so fun to be surprised by a book. To be proven wrong! To be shown that there are some really, really wow-worthy books out there. And they may be hiding under covers that underwhelm.

Why does judging by a cover offend me more than judging based on writing?

Well, I think judging by a cover is superficial, shallow. Just because there's a flashy cover doesn't mean that the writing is amazing. It doesn't even necessarily mean that the writing is better than average. It may mean that you pick the book up. Initially. But it's no guarantee that you'll like what you get. In some cases, the cover is the best part of the book.

I think books should be judged for what's inside. The writing style. The characters. The stories. A book may not be for every reader. A book may wow one person and do absolutely nothing for the next.

Not that I think you have to finish every book that you start. If after a chapter or two or three you're not enjoying it, you're not connecting, by all means abandon it! You don't have to stick with a book because you're stubborn! I am a big fan of The Reader's Bill of Rights.

The Reader's Bill of Rights
1. The right to not read.
2. The right to skip pages.
3. The right to not finish.
4. The right to reread.
5. The right to read anything.
6. The right to escapism.
7. The right to read anywhere.
8. The right to browse.
9. The right to read out loud.
10. The right not to defend your tastes.

—Pennac, Daniel, Better Than Life, Coach House Press, 1996.

So what about genres?!

Outside of Christian fiction--which tends to be a "genre" of its own for some reason--I try to be fairly open minded. I read science fiction. I read fantasy. I read historical fiction. I read realistic fiction. I read romance. I read classics. I read just about anything and everything except westerns. (I don't seek out mysteries or thrillers or horror novels either.)

So should Christian fiction be a genre on its own? Or is that unfair and a bit silly? After all, there are genres within Christian fiction. Historicals. Historical Romance. Mysteries. Thrillers. Contemporary literature. Chick lit. Contemporary Romances. Fantasies. (I've even seen a few Christian vampire novels.) Christian Fiction doesn't equal any one of those categories or genres. Christian Fiction isn't any one type of book. And folks who try to tell you that Christian Fiction is all the same, well, they're generalizing.

I love, love, love historical fiction, historical romance. For me, I find this genre to be satisfying. There are some readers who really, really don't understand the appeal. Who can't understand why there are readers out there who would prefer to "escape" into this genre. They find it boring; they find it predictable; they find it uninspiring; they find it tedious. Everything about the book that I loved, that I enjoyed, is just one more thing that they didn't love, didn't enjoy. All the pros become cons.

But even loving--or tending to love--a genre doesn't mean that you'll love each and every book within that genre! I love historical fiction doesn't equal I will love each and every historical that I come across.

Saying you love christian fiction doesn't equal you loving each and every book within that genre.

The elephant in the room when it comes to Christian fiction is preachiness. Whether you call it evangelizing, preaching, or being didactic. (Some might even say it's being hit over the head with a message. That becomes a MESSAGE!

BUT here's a little secret. Not every Christian fiction book is like that. Not every Christian book is didactic. Not every Christian fiction book sacrifices story and/or characters for a message or agenda. Some Christian books are good. Really, really good. Some have amazingly well-drawn characters. Characters that are fleshed out. Human. Flawed. Some stories are more original than others. I'll admit that some are predictable. But no more predictable than mainstream fiction. You take ANY genre being published, and you'll find original, unique premises standing side by side with predictable, predictably comfortable, stories. Some Christian Fiction books are compelling written. Page-turners even. Some are quite complex. Some are literary.

Here's something else you may not have considered. Christian Fiction isn't the only place you'll find messages and "agendas". It has a bad reputation, I'll admit, but that's because people assume a lot. It's because they expect to find it. If you look hard enough, you can find messages (some more subtle than others) in most books.

Is there a difference between judging and generalizing? And is either justifiable?

How many Christian Fiction books do you need to have read in order to make generalized statements about it? I'm serious. In order to say that it's horrible, it's awful, it's predictable, it's didactic, it's too evangelical, it's too escapist, it's too stereotypical, it's unsophisticated, it's boring, it's too simplistic, it's too something. How many books do you need to have read--or attempted to read--before you can be qualified to stand in judgment against a whole genre? I think picking on Christian Fiction is more acceptable or perhaps less questioned. I think that even supporters of Christian Fiction have bought into the idea that Christian Fiction is less than.

Sometimes all it takes is an awareness. A realization that your opinions are just that--opinions. In other words, realizing that "I didn't like this book" doesn't translate into "This book is a bad book."

If you don't want to read it, that's all well and good. I mean that. I don't care if you read Christian fiction or not. Read it, don't read it. It's all the same to me. I do want people to read something. But I want people to read what they want, what they take pleasure in, what they enjoy.

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible


Annette said...

Maybe you just heard me, but I said Amen!
One of the best posts you have written, you go girl!
I guess I am naive, but I had no idea that a person that claims to be a Christian has a problem with evangelism. That is what our great commission is, given by Jesus in
Matthew 28:19-20 "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
Today I read in 2 Timothy 4:5 "But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry."
I will probably put a post on my blog with a link to your post I really love it.
Have a great weekend Becky!

Colleen Coble said...

Great post! I actually seldom buy a book on cover. The title is what grabs me first because that's often all that's seen--the book spine. I pull it out and read the back cover copy and only then do I actually look at the cover. Weird, huh? LOL