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In Defense Of Lit-Shaming

July 5, 2014
25 years ago, I got lit-shamed for not finishing this.

25 years ago, I got lit-shamed for not finishing this.

Even though the term “lit-shaming” is relatively new, I’ve been aware of it for a long time. As a kid who read comic books, I often got lit-shamed by adults who thought I should have been reading actual novels. In college, I had a few girlfriends (not at the same time) who lit-shamed me when they caught me reading Mickey Spillane or Robert E. Howard. As an adult, I even got lit-shamed for reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in public.

Lit-shaming exists today, but most people don’t think about it. A few weeks ago, a columnist for Slate tried to lit-shame adults who read YA literature like The Fault in our Stars. I don’t know if the author was sincere or not. Sometimes columnists say controversial stuff just to get noticed, and this might have been what happened. She got noticed for a few days, but I don’t remember what her name is anymore, so maybe it didn’t work. Most critics seemed outraged at her comments. Some of the critics who said they opposed such lit-shaming then called the author a bunch of derogatory names, which to me was worse than the lit-shaming.

Most book readers claim they’re against lit-shaming, but I’m not so sure. When the Twilight books and the Fifty Shade books were popular, there was a lot of anti-Twilight/50 Shades lit-shaming. I too was a lit-shamer. I admit it. I thought the 50 Shades books were beneath me (I actually read part of a Twilight book, but 50 Shades?) I even made fun of 50 Shades a few times, but I haven’t made fun of the women… I mean… I haven’t made fun of the people who read 50 Shades.

I don’t think lit-shaming is necessarily bad. Readers should have high standards, and shame is one way (though not ideal) to maintain those standards. I think maybe James Patterson should be lit-shamed. He’s writing about 10 novels a year (while using a bunch of co-authors), and I think he should be ashamed of himself. No author is capable of writing 10 high quality novels a year, even if he has a co-author (or a bunch of them). I would never lit-shame somebody who reads James Patterson because most readers don’t know (or care) about his scheme. But I’ll lit-shame James Patterson for writing (or putting his name on) so many books a year.

One of the college girlfriends who lit-shamed me read The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. She knew I liked King Arthur stuff (like The Once and Future King), so she strongly suggested I read it. I tried The Mists of Avalon, but it gave me a headache (which King Arthur books shouldn’t do). When I told her I wasn’t going to finish it, she lit-shamed me. She said she was “disappointed” in me, and then mocked the books that I was reading at the time as “childish.”

I’m partially to blame. I called The Mists of Avalon a woman’s book, and that might have sparked the lit-shaming. I didn’t mean “woman’s book” in a bad way. It makes sense to me that some books would appeal to women and some would appeal to men. I didn’t mean it as an insult. But she said my books were stupid (she might have used synonyms with six or more syllables). She called me “small-minded,” but that was the only “small” reference she made toward me, even when we broke up. Still, her insult was uncalled for, and I felt deflated. I felt shamed.

Speaking of The Mists of Avalon, I recently found out that the author of The Mists of Avalon Marion Zimmer Bradley has been accused of committing horrible crimes against her daughter. I’m not going into the details because the details are pretty bad, and it depresses me a little, and this isn’t that kind of blog. Bradley has been deceased for a while, so she can’t be prosecuted, but I really don’t want to read The Mists of Avalon now.

If I had known 25 years ago about this author’s past (nobody knew back then), I probably would have brought it up while my ex-girlfriend was lit-shaming me over reading Stephen King books (back when his books were actually good). I would have said something snide like “Oh yeah? Well, at least Stephen King hasn’t…. insert horrible crime against a child… like Marion Zimmer Bradley.” I would have engaged in lit-shame retaliation. Even if I believe lit-shaming is wrong, I believe in lit-shame retaliation if another lit-shamer starts it. But I’d feel guilty about it. I don’t like using somebody else’s traumatic experiences just to win an argument, so maybe I wouldn’t have mentioned it at all.

What do you think? Is lit-shaming ever justified? Is lit-shame retaliation justified? Would you read a novel if you knew (or suspected) that the author had done something horrible or was a horrible person? Is that fair to use in a lit-shaming argument? Have you ever been lit-shamed? What books would you lit-shame a person for reading?

37 Comments
  1. I was told all sorts of crazy and quite discouraging things by adults when I read Superman and the other comics as a kid. Well, I turned out OK. However, I am stupid and I do wear glasses.

  2. Hannah Kubiak permalink

    I usually get the “(gasp) you haven’t read that?!” Response for having not read something, but I’ve never been lit shamed in person, though I’ve heard of it.

    • Being lit-shamed for NOT reading something is pretty bad too (bad for the person doing the lit-shaming). I used to pretend to have read some of the classics just to avoid the lit-shaming (even though the term hadn’t been created yet… I think).

  3. I read the Mists of Avalon when it was published. The world and I were young and I enjoyed it for what it is — fantasy. When I tried re-reading it a few years ago, I couldn’t get through the first chapter. Taste changes.

    I have always read omnivorously and a lot, always ignored literary snobs and critics. I read what I want and don’t care what anyone thinks. Never did. But I am always glad for recommendations. I’ve found most of the books I love because someone told me about them.

    Didn’t know about Bradley. Sorry to hear that. Hope it isn’t true.

  4. I work at a university, and I am a high school dropout. Oddly enough, I find that I have read a great deal more than many of the professors. I was once moving furniture out of a room 101, in preparation for a new staff member moving in, and I asked if that was going to be Winston Smith’s new room. I got a bunch of blank looks, and I found out that none of the faculty members in the area had read Nineteen Eighty Four. Granted, it was the sociology department, but I was kind of shocked.

    • I’ve read 1984, but I wouldn’t have gotten the reference until you mentioned 1984. Then again, I don’t get a lot of references until they’re explained to me.

  5. I’ve never really been lit-shamed by other people for not reading this or that important book, so I have to lit-shame myself into reading those. Unfortunately, I’m not very good at it, so those books remain unread.

  6. I bet Hemmingway would have lit shamed Fitzgerald at some point, or vice versa. And I bet Gertrude Stein would have lit shamed the both of them. There is always someone who is going to lit shame you, no matter who you are or what you read.

    That said, there is a scientifically verifiable bottom of the barrel, and that bottom is where Patterson and 50 Shades resides. There is just no way around being lit shamed when you read that stuff.

    • I think Gore Vidal lit-shamed people for reading Hemingway. At least, I think he insulted Hemingway’s writing. I’m not sure if Gore Vidal impugned the people reading Hemingway, but I wouldn’t be surprised. He liked to insult people.

  7. Stefanie (ดอกแก้ว) permalink

    I’ve been lit-shamed so much since I started graduate school. Considering my educational background is related to political science, I get many comments like “Don’t bother reading books with stories in them” or “Why don’t you read non-fiction?” despite that I do incorporate non-fiction into my reading selection. And even though I prefer to read historical fiction, I still get frowned upon and insulted. I even have classmates who don’t want to read Orwell’s 1984 because it’s ‘labelled’ as fiction, disregarding the fact it’s also a social protest in writing.

    • “Don’t bother reading books with stories in them”? Well, that would narrow your choices a little bit. People who read lots of fiction are supposed to be more empathetic than people who don’t, so maybe some of those nonfiction lit-shamers need to read some fiction and build up some empathy.

  8. Gosh, I just hopped on over to that EW site you linked to. Lord, that’s such terrible, terrible stuff 😦

  9. Is lit self-shaming a thing? I read all kinds of books, from YA to Literary Criticism. I self check-out at the library so that the librarian can’t judge me when I’m checking out a book like “Divergent”, and if I have to go to the doctor’s office, I make sure that I’m reading “War and Peace” in the waiting room rather than Janet Evanovich.

    No one has ever commented on my literary choices, but my internal shamer is always there to keep me in line.

    • “Internal shamer” – I like that! I have one of those, too.

    • When you’re reading in public, just put the War and Peace book cover over the Janet Evanovich book, and you’re set… except War and Peace is a lot thicker than most books. Maybe use a Jane Austen book cover instead.

  10. I never lit-shame people. In my opinion reading something, anything, is far better than not reading at all. I’ve read Twilight (the books are much better than the books, Bella still kind of sucks though) and I’ve never read 50 Shades. I’m not really into men like the main guy in the series. I’ll probably read it someday though because I believe that everyone should at least try to read the books. Even if it’s not what you normally read. I’ll read just about anything I get my hands on.

    But I do get lit-shamed for reading Harry Potter. I absolutely love that series and I don’t know where people are getting this ‘they’re for kids’ thing. But I ignore it because Harry Potter is the only reason I read at all now.

    • Have you read any of the other JK Rowling books or the ones by Robert Galbraith (or whatever his/her name is, if I didn’t get it right)?

      • That’s the right name. I haven’t had the chance to read any if them yet. But I definitely plan on it. Have you?

        • No, I haven’t. I tried the first Harry Potter book, but I didn’t like the name Dumbledore. Something about the name irritated me, so I quit reading. It was probably a bad reason to stop reading. But I’ve never lit-shamed anyone over Harry Potter (either way, for reading it or for not reading it).

          • The names are odd but its what makes them unique. The books aren’t filled with Jennifers and Bryans. I liked that quite a bit. There doesn’t seem to be an in between with HP though, you either like it or you don’t.

  11. genlablanc permalink

    Reblogged this on Genevieve LaBlanc | A Window to My Imagination and commented:
    Yeah, I have been there. I used to get lit shamed by people who looked down on me for reading romance, when they were stuff like forgotten realms books.

    • Yeah, romance novels are a target for lit-shaming. I got laughed at once for just picking up a romance novel, and the guys laughing at me didn’t even read books. I think I was growing out my hair like Fabio at the time. It didn’t look right on me.

  12. I am guilty of lit-shaming but don’t feel badly for it. I get lit-shamed as well. I think it is just an opinion and don’t get worked up about it. The same thing can be said for tastes in many walks of life: music, art, clothing, etc.

  13. milanimo permalink

    I tend to be lit-shamed for not reading popular teenage cult fiction (I’m a teenager) because I usually read other types of books than my peers (ie philosophical books, classics) and they usually say what I read is boring

    • If they try to lit-shame you for reading a classic, just tell them that John Green has read it and thinks it’s great. Maybe that will shut them up. Or maybe it will make it worse. I don’t know. You probably shouldn’t take my advice.

  14. I’m a high school English teacher. I’m ecstatic to see anyone reading anything. I read the Twilight series (yes, books were way better). I loved them. I’m in my thirties. I’ll never read 50 Shades because it’s not my thing, but I have friends who have. Friends who hardly ever (rarely) read. If it gets them reading, I’m glad it exists. Period.

    And I would never support an author who had been successfully convicted of something awful (or sufficient evidence to make it clear). I also don’t support authors like Patterson who rub my moral compass the wrong way. I throw my money where it’s deserved. Where the hard work shows and pays off.

    Just my 2¢ 🙂

    • It always warms my heart when I meet another book lover who won’t read James Patterson. So many other people don’t understand, and I get frustrated trying to explain it to them.

  15. It seems like quite a few people don’t read at all anymore. I would rather encourage those who do rather than question their choice of what they are reading. (within the limits of decency)

  16. I agree with cat9984. I don’t read as much as I would like. I listen to audio books. I don’t know if lit-shaming is helping or hurting. We should also consider that in 20 years would it matter. When an issue like this comes up, I always think about what happened with Stan Lee. For Years the man was shrugged at for being a comic writer. Now ppl practically bow.
    I will also like to say that I have never read Mists of Avalon or any of books by MBZ; I don’t know why. I do know I didn’t read 50 shades because I was past that subgenre and had moved on.

  17. I have to admit that I have done this on occasion. When it’s a book that’s REALLY good, I will tell the person they just HAVE TO READ IT BECAUSE IT’S SO GOOD. But if I know someone who prefers comic books or “graphic novels” (excuse me, there really isn’t that much difference as far as I can tell) over an actual book, I don’t make fun of them for it. Reading is reading, no matter the content. The only problem I have with people who read comic books is the fact that I don’t believe in comic books. They don’t make sense to me, but I will never shame someone for reading one. Now, onto the other subject of reading or not reading a book based on the author’s personal life. I would never BUY a book if I knew the author had engaged in some seriously awful behavior, but if it’s a genre I like I might borrow from the library, thereby avoiding the possibility of supporting said author.

  18. I’ve just written a review about Kevin Powers’s novel The Yellow Birds, an award-winning book about the Iraq War, published last year. I’ve essentially lit-shamed the work for not engaging with the sociopolitical milieu in which the war takes place. If you’re going to write war literature worth its salt then – I’m sorry – you must at least strive for the heights Hemingway reached with For Whom the Bell Tolls. That was a novel that not only exposed the horrors of the Spanish Civil War but also its social and political motivations. Any modern novel that deigns to tackle war should not only try to illuminate the human suffering but also the political and social factors that drive it.

  19. Just dropped in… thank you, WordPress hints. I love it that anyone is writing about this amusing phenomenon: “You read that? Obviously you suck!” “You haven’t read that?… gee, I guess you just aren’t with it.”

    As a Literature Major Gone Horribly Wrong, who went to the kind of college where scorn was a social grace, I connect with this so much.

    I read comic books. (DC: I hear they write the scripts first, vs. Marvel where they start with the storyboards.) I ate up C. S. Lewis and Tolkien and Mervyn Peake and T. H. White, and all the Golden Age science fiction there was to read, but I absolutely could not gag down Marion Zimmer Bradley or any of the host of other faux-fantasy crapCeltic stuff that was going around at the time. If it weren’t for the horrendous harm involved to living creatures human and otherwise that her daughter adduces, I would almost be smug to read that she was an awful human being, and I do know about mothers like that; much too much.

    I have no use for literary novels about Women Confronting The Pain Of Aging Parents And Dawning Daughters or whatever the frick, nor for “magical realism” stories that supposedly expose the vigor and authenticity of some other culture snore zzz, nor for what I call Novels About People Walking Around And Talking To Each Other (as a substitute for doing something; like Hamlets who never reach the last act).

    But there’s Ariosto and Chaucer and Dante and Beowulf on my bookshelf, and one day I realized: I want to read fiction in which something happens. I want these fictions to be presented intelligently and artfully, and I like them when they are layered with the elements of stories that have been told before, but something has to happen. Hardly too much to ask.

    BTW, re Harry Potter: John Granger, the “Hogwarts Professor,” has written dazzling criticism (in the high sense) of the HP books with respect to their underlying plot patterns and sources, from the Commedia to Jane Austen. Next time anyone lit-shames a Potter lover, come back with remarks about Rowling’s use of alchemy and her Ring structure. THPFPT.

    • Wow! I don’t think I’ve heard of community lit-shaming being so harsh as how you described your college experience. I’ve been told that I suck, but never because of a book I’ve read, and I think we’ve read a lot of the same books… except for the Harry Potters. I stopped on page 9 because I didn’t like the name Dumbledore, but that’s a whole other issue, and I’ve never been lit-shamed over that.

      • Aw now, Dumbledore is a clever name: it means Bee. (“How doth the little busy bee Improve the shining hour?”?) I have some issues with Harry Potter: namely, that the villain was more or less set up to BE a villain by his birth and sorry, but is it really okay to imply that certain people are destined to be bad guys whom we need to kill? — nonetheless, the craftsmanship of the books is dazzling.

        To be fair, no one said in so many words, “You suck!” but still — the message got through. To be even more fair, I had the “you aren’t showing good judgement” reaction — tamer than “you suck,” I hope — to Erich Segal’s “Love Story,” which came up in a freshman class discussion. But… well, it really was bad… wasn’t it?

  20. I’ve been reading science fiction for more than 3 decades, and fantasy for even longer; being “lit-shamed” has become so familiar to me that I don’t pay much attention to it unless it is accompanied by threats of physical harm. (I once received death threats — to my face, in front of witnesses — for reading science fiction.)

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