Back in the early 2000’s, U.S. Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin spoke at the Maui Writers’ Conference. Before reading from some of his work, he expressed an opinion of poetry (and by extension, written works generally) that resonated with me, and with many others in the room:
“Don’t read bad poetry,” he told us, “and by bad poetry, I mean poetry you don’t like. Don’t read poetry because someone told you it was good, find some that you like and read that. If you like it, it’s good.”
Books work the same way.
It’s easy to get caught up in a discussion of literary merits and style, but the reality is that when you write, you write because you want someone to read it. You write to silence the Voices In Your Head (or maybe that’s just me), and possibly to make a point, but at the end of the day if no one enjoys it, your work falls flat.
Novelists owe a debt to the oral, bardic traditions from which our profession grew. Male and female, old and young, good bards all had one thing in common: they could hold an audience’s attention. When talented bards recited, spoke, or sang, the audience listened – not because someone told them the bard was good, but because the story (and the storyteller) captured their attention and held on.
Sometimes, people want to tell tell you what books you should like, and sometimes people put down a book you did like because it didn’t fit that person’s image of “quality fiction” (or nonfiction, or graphic novels, or fill-in-the-blank with your genre of choice).
Read what you love. Read what you like–and don’t be ashamed of the books that spark your imagination.
Some readers like adventure novels. Others prefer romance. Whatever your favorites are…enjoy them, and do it without shame or hesitation. Try new authors, but always return to the stories you love, and advocate for them whenever you can–you never know when someone else might love a book, too, and your recommendation might be the spark that ignites a love for reading in someone else.
Lately, it’s in vogue to put things down–to criticize, condemn, and act as if we’re “too cool” to become a fan of anything, especially if that “thing” isn’t widely accepted by those around us. Don’t let the prevailing “wisdom” (which, for the record, isn’t wise) make you embarrassed or afraid to love the books you enjoy or to spread the word about them.
It’s great to love the books that everyone else is talking about, and great to love a book that’s a well-kept secret. Neither is better than the other, and neither has “more merit” than the other.
Remember: if you like it, it’s good–as the reader, you get the final say.