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Michelle Chahine Headshot

Don't Be a Book Snob

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I was at a book signing for a new author. As is probably the case with many debut novels, the event didn't draw a huge crowd. There was a decent turnout, but the room wasn't packed. I was therefore able to strike up a conversation with said novelist and another seasoned writer who has several books under her belt. I am not sure exactly how, but they came to the subject of Jennifer Weiner.

It is an understatement to say that I was shocked by the turn the conversation took. They seemed to downright scoff at her, implying that they were on another level completely and their books were not to be compared to her work. I remained quiet, sure that I must have misunderstood who they were talking about. Jennifer Weiner? Author of best-selling books like In Her Shoes, which was turned into a relatively big movie starring Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz? To me, she is one of the success stories in the writing world, someone to be admired for making a living writing books that people want to read and enjoy. Surely they were not looking down on her?

But this happened again. A few months later, I was having coffee with a fellow writer also working on a debut book (as I am), when the conversation turned to Elizabeth Gilbert. While I was using Eat, Pray, Love as an example of writing success, he implied that having written a book like that was not a good thing. Not a good thing to be an international bestseller, loved by many, turned again into a big movie starring Julia Roberts that reached even more people? I was confused, and I mumbled something like, "Oh I liked it..." Later in the conversation, the same thing was implied about Nora Roberts, a writer who, once again, I see as a success story in the book world. I gave a nervous laugh and quickly changed the subject, but was embarrassed to admit my views.

Don't get me wrong. If he had said that he hadn't liked Eat, Pray, Love personally, I would have nothing to say on the subject. People are different and will naturally like different books, movies, food, clothes... What bothered me about both these instances was that the books were deemed, somehow, beneath them. It was as though these three writers thought that by distancing themselves from Weiner and Gilbert they were increasing the value of their own work. That made no sense to me.

I've experienced several more situations like this over the past year or two, ever since I immersed myself full-time into writing a book, and therefore, the book industry. From writing workshops to critical reviews in leading newspapers, I observed that writers have the tendency to put down the work of other writers. It's like they're ranking books and writing on a scale of valuable to unimportant.

Once again, if each individual person were ranking a book on his or her own scale of like to dislike, that would be none of my business. But this had become an issue of snobbery, not taste, and that's what I take issue with.

Take, as a third example, the New York Times critic who basically told three authors to shut up in his review of their books. While I think critics have an important role to play both in curating books for readers and improving the work of writers, there is nothing constructive about telling someone to shut up. That crosses a line, once again, from artistic critique to snobbery.

Now, let me confess straight up that all of these people are probably much more well-read than I am. I have much more reading and learning to do in my own field. Having gone to high school outside of the United States, I still haven't read some of the basics, like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (yes, I know! I'm working on it). But I do know that while snobbery is not usually a good thing in any other area of life, when it comes to books, it is dangerous.

Every book should be celebrated, because they add up to our collective story. We often hear that history has been written by the nobles or the victors. Imagine if, now in a world that is more democratic and egalitarian than ever, we continue this practice and deem some stories more important than others.

We need all kinds of books. While it's absolutely fine to have certain literary standards, or argue for more books in a certain genre, claiming that one type of book is always better by mere virtue of its topic or kind is hurtful to all writers. Not all books are the same, just like not all people are the same. Some books, yes, are not that great. But to be all high-and-mighty over a good quality best-seller just because it is not a dark piece of "literature" does not make you more well-read or smarter. It makes you more limited. I find the hypocrisy of writers -- who hope to make their livelihood off of books and readers -- putting down other books offensive.

Yes we need books that tackle more difficult aspects of life in a thought-provoking manner. But we also need books to make us laugh, enjoy the beauty in the world, reflect on what we are doing with our days, and try to be happier. Those have great value too. And it should not be seen as the demise of the book industry if celebrities (even those of the Jersey Shore) are writing more and more books. That seems like a sign of growth to me. Success, nowadays, is not complete without writing a book. That can actually be viewed as a good thing, and a compliment to writers too, an assertion of the value of their craft. Additionally, these celebrities' books will certainly reach people who may otherwise choose not to read anything, and one can also hope, with a stab at optimism, that they can be gateway books too.

In a twisted way, it appears to be a mark of a sophisticated book lover to have a superb disdain for certain kinds of book. If you truly love books, then love all books, even if you don't like many of them. In fact, feel free to hate some books with a passion. But please, don't be a book snob.