The Assumptions We Make About Books & Authors…

Last week when the lovely Thomas and I were thinking about subjects to talk about on the latest episode of The Readers Podcast he came up with the idea that we should discuss ‘bookish assumptions’. I was horrified, how dare Thomas suggest that I made assumptions about books. I mean I don’t have any, well, apart from the fact I don’t like books set on boats, set around sports (a new one), set on another planet or with a horse in them or on the cover… Oh! The thing is the more I thought about it the more I realised I do it.

Judging for Fiction Uncovered is underway, and I am reading like a little book machine. When the first batch of book arrived I was filled with excitement, so much so that I put it off for a few hours. Upon opening them I took the books out one by one and instantly started making assumptions about them. I can’t talk about what the books are, as I have sworn to secrecy, but I can say I was basing my thoughts on the following; the cover, what I had heard about the author from other readers if I recognised their name, the blurb/premise. Shameful. This was judging before I should even be judging and so I set the books on a shelf in alphabetical order by title and that is how I have been reading them, and it has been somewhat of a revelation as now I am just reading them one by one and focusing on whether the writing style and prose, story, characters, etc are working for me. Oh and if any of them are giving me a book tingle – more on that tomorrow.

The reality of the situation is that if we are having a good old mooch around a book shop these are the very things that we will judge a book on if we are honest. Though that said this is in the instances when we know very little about the book and so that is all we can judge it on. What about authors themselves, Thomas asked me before we recorded…

‘Oh I don’t judge authors, I will give anyone a whirl, I think.’
‘Really?’
‘Erm yeah, unless they have written a book about a talking horse who is stuck on a boat filled with men who can only endure the long days boxing as they are stuck in an ocean on another planet with no help.’
‘Right, so what about authors that you have seen behaving badly on social media or who have extreme views?’
‘Erm, well I won’t read those obviously, who wants to read a book written by a knobhead?’
‘Okay… and what about E.M. Forster?’
‘Oh…’

First let me tackle the authors I think are knobheads might perhaps not come across very well on social media or who have some extreme views. I like to believe that goodness and kindness will out. So if I see an author on social media or maybe read/hear an interview with an author where they are coming across like a pompous/arrogant or worse homophobic/racist/bigoted then no I really don’t want to read their book thank you very much. One, I don’t want to give them any money/sales and two; I wouldn’t want to spend my time with them in the flesh so why would I want to spend my time in their heads where the book has come from. A prime example is Ender’s Game I don’t care how good it is, I don’t want to read a book by someone with his views. I don’t mind reading books about homophobia but I don’t want to read a book written by someone whose mind is laced with it.

Secondly, and lastly in case I am going on which as I love a waffle is likely, the authors who I have read before and made assumptions about. Rise Mr E.M. Forster, who I actually (having thought about it) have to admit that I may have tarnished unfairly because I loathed A Room With A View and swore I would never read anything by him again. Why was this unfair? Well, I think really it might more have been the way it was taught by a dreadful English A Level teacher at Devizes 6th Form College in 1997/1998 who made it as painful and unbearable to dissect and repeat, repeat, repeat both book and film. However, more recently, having read The Martian (or trying to) I can confirm I will never ever attempt/bother reading Andy Weir again. Ever. (I’m sure with the huge adaptation rights he has sold he won’t be crying into his pillow.)

But are assumptions actually a bad thing? I am going to say in the most part no, occasionally yes. In the latter case I have been proved by James Dawson, E. Lockhart, R.J. Palacio and Andrew Smith that YA novels, which I had made some rather negative assumptions about, are bloody brilliant when done really well and now plan to read Patrick Ness, Lisa Williamson and many more. The reason I think no is that actually as much as we are looking for more books to fill our lives and shelves with, we also need to filter down the amount of choice there is out there. This can be through materialistic things like a bad cover, personal choices about if an author being an utter wally can put us off or if we just don’t trust horses or more importantly if we just don’t like certain authors styles of prose and their books just don’t work for us. It is all about tastes really isn’t it?

Tomorrow we will be talking about book tingles, the best things in the world. In the meantime I would love to hear some of things that make you have assumptions about books (subject matters, talking animals, genres etc) and also about the assumptions you have made about books both ones you have been right and wrong about… Help me feel a little less crazy/judgemental.

14 Comments

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14 responses to “The Assumptions We Make About Books & Authors…

  1. Interesting stuff. At university we were often challenged with the question of whether or not we should allow an author’s life/biography/opinions (call it what you will) to influence our interpretation of their texts. This is been a kinda literary-critical stalemate for a long time, but with the age of social media, it’s freakishly difficult to remain ignorant of at least some, if not loads of information about an author, which is probably bound to influence your reading choices/interpretations.

    As for reading prejudices, I can’t stand any book that begins with a character waking up. (this hatred developed back when I used to work in publishing, and had to sort through submissions. I swear to God, about 50% of the books we were sent began in this way! It became an instant rejection, for me).🙂

  2. David

    Funnily enough I just finished reading ‘A Room with A View’ and thought it rather delightful – more so the England bit (which surprised me by being fairly funny), there was something a bit ponderous about some of the writing in the Italy bit.
    Assumptions: I assumed David Nicholls wrote disposable fluff but decided to give ‘Us’ a go when it was Booker-longlisted. I was sort of right, but it was also much better written than I’d expected, it had me in tears with laughter (cf. EM Forster who raised a couple of wry smiles) and I actually really enjoyed it.
    Horses, sports and boats are all fine by me in fiction but I assume I’ll hate anything that bills itself as an ‘adult fairy tale’ or similar, though that is less an assumption than the product of experience. And in the vein of you and Andy Weir, I now assume everything Michel Faber has written is the same terribly written twaddle as ‘The Book of Strange New Things’ and am very tempted to break my own Fury Rule (whereby I always give an author two goes; so called because I always think ‘what if the first Salman Rushdie novel I’d read had been Fury?’) and not try anything else by him (Mr. Faber that is, not Mr. Rushdie) because it really was the worst thing I’ve read in a very long time.

  3. It is really hard not to judge when you know something about an author. I was a big fan of a particular author, and then found out they had some really very strong right wing views which didn’t sit well with me. I do still read their books, but those views lurk in the background and I start wondering whether the prose is written to back up those views. In fact I don’t think it has influenced the writing, but it has impacted how I read that authors work.

    I like your approach to lining up the books in alphabetical order and reading them as they come. I did that last year when my TBR pile became unmanageable and I was starting to find it hard to choose. It was rather liberating and gave me some lovely literary surprises!

  4. I’m just wondering how differently your judging process would’ve been if the books had been in plain covers and labelled, Book 1, 2, 3, etc. Did have a thing about YA (why am I going to waste my time reading basically kids’ books?) but I changed my mind after We Were Liars. Missed the to-do about Ender’s Game, but I’ll avoid that, cheers. No putting £ in the pocket of people with such foul views in this day and age. And despite usually avoiding anything set in space, I was ALMOST tempted into giving The Martian a go – thanks for knocking some sense into me! But as a crime fan, I am heavily influenced by covers. And usually right, thus far. Although doubtless I’ve missed a few crackers that have been badly publicised.

  5. pam

    simon – I really enjoyed this episode of the readers. great topic! I was recently challenged on one of my assumptions – about ann patchett. for some unknown reason I always thought she was one of those super-popular grocery-store novelists that write low-brow romance. where this assumption came from, I’ve no idea because it couldn’t be farther from the truth. when a good friend suggested “state of wonder” for our book group I agreed to be nice. imagine my surprise to find it was a fab book with a great story and wonderful writing. since then, I’ve read “bel canto” and that is even better. I highly recommend her.

    I’ve also recently mixed up ali smith and monica ali. I think a lot of my incorrect assumptions may be due to authors with names similar to ones i think I will or won’t like.

    and as to your comments on authors acting like asses on social media – I’m SO SO glad that I fell in love with both salman rushdie and jonathan franzen before I ever heard them give an interview. they’re nowhere near as bad as others, but can their superior attitudes can certainly be offputting. no matter – i’ll keep reading everything they write and just not pay attention to them when they are on social media.

    have a great weekend!

  6. I have this problem with Margaret Atwood whom I see is one of your favourites. I think it has to do with my first encounter back in university 30 years ago. Here in Canada it is often joked that she is the author everyone talks about but no one reads. Most reverent fans I know don’t live here. I even have an American friend who keeps sending me copies of her books when he’s finished with them. But don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore her as an essayist and tireless advocate for literature. I love to hear her interviewed and would love to have a coffee with her. But her fiction, from the seriously feminist to the dystopian, no thanks. Who knows? Maybe some day I will eat those words.

  7. Ah, well this is an interesting thread… all very thoughtful questions put forth. I know very little about Weir or the Ender’s Game author, nor have I read those books. I’ve heard some off-putting interviews with writers and, more often than not, it dissuades me from pursuing their work. I do, however, try to get out of my comfort zone every so often and read something that clashes with my POV, just to stir the pot a bit. Overall though, it can be a turnoff. Great question!

  8. I totally judge any book as soon as I see the word “journey” on the jacket. Unless it’s a literal, physical journey, I probably won’t read it. Also, the word “trauma”.

  9. Memorable are the occasions when I’ve assumed that because a book has the elements I like, I read it through to the end… disappointed. The Miniaturist, The Night Circus & The Time-traveler’s Wife are examples that were right for many but wrong for me.

  10. gilgulis

    I have to second Thomas re: Jonathan Franzen. I’ve heard some of his interviews and he’s just the worst, really self-important and dismissive of criticism (especially if it’s coming from a woman). Also, while I don’t have any issues with YA as a rule, I don’t like it when they put photographs of people on the covers, whether it’s the ever-popular headless torso (I think they do this with some of Maureen Johnson’s books, for example) or just a headshot (some versions of John Green’s Paper Towns). I just don’t want some random model in my head as a character, and also I just think the covers make the books look especially juvenile.

  11. I was reading this thinking, what, was EM Forster a knobhead?! Hah. I read him at school and I liked Howard’s End but not Passage to India and I have this thing in my head that I wonder if I liked one because it had the better film version? I’m not sure school reads are a good benchmark for anything the way they’re taught.

    I don’t like reading anything with a rubbish cover, which is silly because there are loads of great books with very little thought gone into the outsides. And plenty of gorgeous covers hiding duds! So I try to get past it but having to see the cover again and again on my blog makes me sad.

  12. Funny thing about The Martian–it seems to be one of those books that people either really like or really hate. No in between. I really, really enjoyed it. I recommended it to my father because we enjoy the same kinds of books, and he really, really disliked it. He didn’t even get halfway through it before he refused to keep reading.

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