Don’t Hide That Cover!

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Lately I’ve seen articles popping up with names like “25 Novels You Can Read on the Beach Without Embarassing Yourself”  and “What Are You Reading In Public?” The books suggested for public reading tend to be literary tomes with plots like It will take a tragedy to fully bring the lessons of grace, honor, and tradition home or Three women are drawn into the painful glare of the national spotlight and forced to reconsider their lives, who they are and who they are meant to be. At finer online retailers you can purchase brightly colored canvas or velveteen book covers as the perfect way to hide the actual cover of your lurid mystery or horror novel from those prying eyes on the subway or at the lunch table.  In other words, someone, somewhere, thinks there are books one should be ashamed to admit reading, and the general assumption is that genre fiction is the worst of it. Once upon a time, I read a book I was guilty about.  The summer I was 13, my parents were working during the day, so I spent a lot of days at the pool, reading in the sun and watching my little sister splash in the water with her friends.  Having read The Fellowship of the Ring the summer before, I knew I liked fantasy, and decided to try a little science fiction, too.  I was burning through the library’s limited speculative fiction collection, and one of the books I’d checked out was Robert Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil.  I’d already read Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and I assumed Evil would be similar.  Oops.  (For those who haven’t read it, here’s a synopsis.  Go ahead and read it – I’ll wait.)

I knew about the facts of life, of course, but I’d never read a book that had so much adult behavior.  I wanted to finish, but I was afraid my parents might look over my shoulder, see what I was reading and snatch the book away.  It was a thick book, not one that I could easily hide in the pages of another.  I remember one evening, when my aunt and uncle were over for dinner.  “What are you reading?” they asked. “I Will Fear No Evil,” I said,  “What’s that about?”  Panic!!  I stammered something about it being science fiction involving brain transplants, my cheeks flushing.  Fortunately none of my family reads SF, so the conversation moved on quickly and I was saved.  Some years later, I asked my parents what they would have done if I’d admitted what I was reading, and they reassured me that they believed that I was able to read whatever I thought I could handle, a philosophy I’ve worked hard to use with my son.

After that, I determined never to be ashamed of my choice of reading material, no matter what. Along the same line, I’ve never been ashamed to write what I want to.  Some people (likely the same ones who think I should only read literary fiction on the beach) think nice Southern ladies shouldn’t write fantasy.  When my book first sold, and I started telling people about it, I often got the shocked stare.  “Fantasy?  For adult readers?  You mean like…sex, right?”  As if erotica would even have been more acceptable than all that naughty magic.  Which is why it bugs the daylights out of me to read articles that seem to indicate genre fiction is the wrong choice for smart people to read.  Some of the genre fiction I’ve read is more well-written and brilliant than any ten literary doorstops, but kept from the eyes of the literati merely because of the genre label.  And don’t even get me started on literary writers who write speculative fiction then moan and wail at reviewers who dare to label their books as such.

There’s nothing to be afraid of.  Genre fiction sells millions of books each year, and we all read it.  Isn’t it better that we’re reading at all? Next time someone looks at you askance for reading Stephen King or David B Coe, you stare them right back down again.  Reading is power, no matter what the book’s about.  One thousand years ago, reading was limited to the religious communities and the sons of wealthy families only.  Today, everyone has the chance to read.  Daily reading keeps your brain healthy, regardless of whether you’re reading James Joyce or Faith Hunter.  *grin*  I’m reading Mike Carey’s Vicious Circle, a fantasy/noir mystery genre blend.  There’s magic and exorcism and ghosts and werewolves and I’ll read it in front of anyone.  Hold up your genre fiction proudly, y’all!

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22 comments to Don’t Hide That Cover!

  • Oh, I've run into the same problem when I say I write Urban Fantasy: the wide-eyed stare, the quick glance away, and the change of subject. And let's not go into 'Dark Fantasy'–that's clearly the really kinky stuff. LOL.

    The imbalance of respect between genre fiction and literary fiction always amazes me. I found it particularly painful when I was in college and thought it would be a great idea to take a writing course–discouraging plan! One day things will change. Until then, I'm with you–I'll not hide my favorite book covers.

  • The hubby's preacher's wife asked what I was reading one day. I said, "A lovely little dark urban fantasy erotica by Laurel K Hamilton." And I smiled. And she smiled. And she never asked again.
    Odd, huh?

  • Kalayna, when I was in college, I thought about taking a creative writing course, until I talked to an older friend who was in the English department and knew the professor.  Apparently he had been known to throw students out of his class for writing anything genre!  Oddly enough, the professor was a hopeful novelist himself, not that I've seen anything from him on bookstore shelves in the last twenty years.  Hmmmm…. 😀

  • I once had a college creative writing teacher who marked us down for genre fiction. That didn't stop me from submitting it, but it was the worst grade I've ever received in a writing course.
    Someone once said to me that "literary fiction is a genre as much as Fantasy or Romance." Then, just this year, another college professor who I met at a conference told me that "there are no genres". Wish I'd had him instead … but the other instructor was useful. I stuck to my guns with him.

  • sunlitshadows

    Oh I get this all the time. One of my coworkers saw me reading Laurell K. Hamilton's Incubus Dreams one day in the breakroom and the expression on her face was priceless. I got a great laugh out of it. I don't feel the need to hide the covers of my genre fantasy – for the most part there's some great art and design, and I'm not ashamed of it. Indulging in a romance novel is another story. I'm so glad they're getting away from the Fabio-type covers. The cheesiness was distracting from the fact there are some wonderful writers in the genre! 

  • Hepseba ALHH

    The snobbish attitude against genre fiction always catches me by surprise.  Mine were the sorts of parents to give me Stephen King and Peirs Anthony to read while I was still in middle school, and my family reads a LOT, but it's always for fun.  Our local Barnes and Noble was recently remodeled and in the new set up it's almost impossible to find the adult genre material.  The teen stuff is much easier, but Scifi/Fantasy is tucked back into such an awkward corner that I have to wander around the store a little every time I go in order to find it.  This, to me, is baffling, but I live in a University town, so…no, it still doesn't make any sense.

  • Ah, yes, I still remember how I was ostracized at a sf/fantasy convention for reading Kingsolver — those scars don't heal quickly….

    Living in my little snobby University town, where Southern Literature is king, I know exactly what you mean.  It seems that I'm never reading "the right thing."  But then again, I'm never writing it either.  And I'm pretty sure I outsell most of the authors they invite in for their writer's conference….

  • Oh, there are definitely books–in genre and out–I'd be ashamed to be seen reading – but I don't read them. 😉

  • So far I've gotten some interesting and funny looks when I say I'm writing Romance.  I don't tend to hide covers–then again, I've never really read a romance novel in mixed company…well, yes, I suppose I did.  I read one from Linnea Sinclair in public.  I'm with sunlitshadows.  The romance covers were always like a holy symbol to a vampire for me.  I'm glad they're moving away from "half dressed muscle-bound man holding buxom lass"  pics with no real tie in to what the story's about.  I tend to judge books by their cover and if I can't get at least an inkling of what the book's got in it by the picture (besides a muscle bound man and buxom woman) I'll tend to pass it by.
    Yesterday I was out and about when we took our daughter to her first dance class and I was reading a book on reading and interpreting the elder Futhark.  Ah, those kinds of books get even more funny looks than genre fiction. 😉

    Lately I've been seeing a "Read an RPG book in public day" thing on Facebook.  There's another type of book that gets the odd glance.

  • I used to hide the Anita Blake covers, but only because I was on a train with children present.  Now with the kindle I don't have to worry about young innocent eyes.
    Interestingly enough, I've never been ashamed to talk about what I read, which has been SF/Fantasy/UF/PR since I was about 12 years old, but I do have a hard time explaining what I'm writing.  As soon as I say, "I'm writing a novel about a woman who turns into a werewolf" people respond, "Oh, like Twilight?".  And then I have to explain that there's a whole lot more out there than Stephenie Meyer, and it's not all filled with teeny-bopper angst.

  • We're supposed to read books?  How strange….
    Actually, I always found this snobbish attitude doubly puzzling — first, because of what's been covered above, but second, because if statistics are to be believed, the majority of people don't read books.  So the next time somebody gives you attitude about reading genre, find out if they've read anything at all!!  People who even care about this should be thrilled somebody is reading.

  • Stuart – I was shocked to learn about how few books the "Average American" reads.  I heard someone else mention it on a blog post, and so I did a little research.  According to one article (published in 2007), 1 in 4 Americans stated that they had not read a single book in 2006.  If there wasn't such a stigma about reading genre, maybe more people would try it and find something fun and interesting, and maybe, just maybe, that non-book-reader percentage would go down. 

  • Chase

    Great post! I will now refuse to hide what I'm reading and writing!

  • Woo hoo!  Power to the readers! 

  • I'm with Stuart; if you're reading at all, you're ahead of 90% of the masses. How can anyone look down on that?

  • I don't get the genre fiction isn't real fiction debate, or that, even worse it doesn't take actual skill to write, though I've heard both.
    That being said, I do understand why some people would be disturbed by books with titles like "Incubus Dreams" or ones that were described as "erotica" (and I've read a lot of Hamilton, and gave up because there was a bit too much sex and not enough plot for me, but I'll probably go back because I love Anita Blake.)  Erotica and fantasy are different genres (though I do know UF tends to have sex–often lots of sex–in it).  I'm fine with people writing and reading erotica (and I draw a line between erotica and pornography, but that's another debate), but I don't know that I'd read erotica at work.   
    Frankly, given how little people read, I wouldn't much care what they read if they'd read more.  Studies even show that, with students (and people in general) it DOESN'T MATTER what a person reads.  Simply the act of reading will improve their reading, writing, and thinking skills.  So, if a kid likes sports books, he should read those.  If a kid likes urban fantasy, then read away!  

  • So, if a kid likes sports books, he should read those.  If a kid likes urban fantasy, then read away!

    Precisely.  I had a student two years ago who wouldn't read anything.  Nothing his teacher offered him caught his attention, so she sent him to the library.  I asked him what he did like, and after working very hard to get an answer (middle schoolers are champs at avoidance) we determined that he was insane for soccer and baseball.  I introduced him to Matt Christopher's books, and from the day on, he was a reader.  He's in high school now, but his mom is a friend of mine, and she tells me he's still reading.  Thank goodness!

  • Stuart and Megan, that's just…depressing.  I can't imagine not reading – can't even go to sleep at night without getting a few pages in.  Not to mention how good for the brain reading is.  So many people swallow handfuls of gingko biloba and drink green tea and work endlessly at sudoku to keep from developing Alzheimer's and other degenerative problems, when reading is just as helpful and way easier.

    Easier for me, anyway.  Sudoku kicks my butt every time.

  • Tom G

    Whew. It’s a relief to hear I shouldn’t have been ashamed to be reading John Norman’s “Gor” books. Hey, don’t hit me.

  • One of the best things about ereaders to me is that I can read whatever I want without someone knowing. It’s not so much about being judged for what I read – I really don’t care what people think, it’s about not having to engage in a conversation about what I’m reading. It maybe odd of me but when I’m reading, I like to just read. When people want to discuss what I’m reading it interrupts the precious time I have to enjoy the book.

  • Alan Kellogg

    Just today I was asked what I was reading. It was Much Fall of Blood by Lackey, Flint, and Freer, and I described it as, “The grandson of Dracula versus Elizabeth Bathory in a world where the Archduke of Lithuania is possessed by a demon.”

    The response I got was, “That sounds interesting.”

    So I added, “It’s the third in a series known as The Heirs of Alexandria.”

    Hopefully I intrigued her enough she went looking for MFoB and the others in the series.

  • When people want to discuss what I’m reading it interrupts the precious time I have to enjoy the book.

    I don’t mind people asking what I’m reading, but there are some people who seem to do it just to make me stop. As if they’re somehow saving me from the horrendous boredom I must be experiencing with only a book for my company. Sometimes I want to carry a sign that says, “Reading Zone – no interruptions.”