Over the years writing this blog, I’ve come to learn about certain sensitive and insecure groups. Southerners, for example. Merely point out that the the poorest and least educated states are in the south, and some insecure southerners will complain that it’s really great and that I don’t know anything about the south.
Point out that a lot of homeschooling parents are doing so because they don’t want their children exposed to science education, and they’ll come out of the woodwork to tell you that’s not true, and that the earth is only 6,000 years old and you should just believe it and shut up already.
Apparently romance writers are one of those sensitive and insecure groups as well, as the comments from last week’s post on Amazon reviewers shows.
I merely opined that romance novels are all bad books and no one reads them for their literary qualities. There’s nothing wrong with reading escapist trash, but don’t try to dress it up as literature.
One commenter begged to differ: “No, they’re not. I can understand that the basic plot of romance novels may not appeal to you, but unless….”
I stopped right there, because the comment made my point. If there is a “basic plot” that gets repeated from book to book over thousands of books, it’s escapism, not literature, especially if its appeal is almost exclusively to one gender, like romances and westerns. It’s like most books, movies, and TV shows, little works of escapism designed to entertain and distract.
You can do it well or poorly I suppose, but it’s like doing a paint-by-numbers well or poorly. It’s still not art. Instead of “bad books,” I should have just said “bad literature” instead.
I’m happy to have a little fun goading romance readers and writers so they can have a chance to defend their genre and tell me how great it is. Doesn’t matter to me.
The most amusing comment came from a librarian, though, which brings me to the question of the title: do public librarians have any standards? Here’s the opening of the comment:
You discuss being a “professional” librarian throughout your blogs. I am afraid that with this post you have highlighted that you are far from professional. As all professional public library staff and readers’ advisors know, it is not our job to pass judgement on readers’ taste nor to diminish the work of authors because we don’t personally understand the appeal of a specific genre. With your vitriol against romance novels you have shown yourself to be ill-informed and misrepresent our profession.
Oh, my, where to begin. We definitely have some Public Library Privilege, where a public librarian has mistakenly confused “public library staff and readers’ advisors” with the “profession of librarianship.” Let’s set the record straight.
Supposedly, “it is not our job to pass judgement on readers’ taste nor to diminish the work of authors because we don’t personally understand the appeal of a specific genre,” with “our” supposedly applying to “professional librarians.” Oh, public librarian, do you have no standards? Do you give up the ability to read critically when you become a “professional”?
Passing judgment on reading taste and diminishing the work of authors is definitely part of the job of thousands of librarians. They’re called information literacy librarians, or instruction librarians, or reference librarians, or collection development librarians and they work in academic libraries where librarians are supposed to have critical standards about what other people read.
They promote a whole series of questions and guidelines about books and reading rather than just passively leading people to whatever books they already feel comfortable with. That’s a good way to make sure people stay entertained, but not all librarianship is about entertaining the masses. Some libraries are educational institutions, not entertainment centers.
They make choices not to buy bad books to fill their always limited space, so they don’t waste a lot of space or money on romance novels, westerns, or fantasy novels, among others. They hope that for the people who like those sorts of things, the public library will fill the bill, and if not, they don’t really care.
And then the students come, complete with their own taste in reading, if they read at all. Do you know what those librarians think of students’ reading tastes? They don’t think anything at all, because they don’t care. It’s the librarian’s job to give students some tools to choose the wheat from among the chaff and to help.
Then they keep the chaff of the shelves so that unsuspecting students don’t think a Harlequin novel would be a good book to write about for their romanticism class.
Those libraries often support departments of literature as well, and while there are the occasional classes examining romance novels, it’s not a genre that literary academics usually consider literature. Oh, it could be all those people paid to study literature for a living are wrong, and the partisans for particular genres are right, but that’s just the way it is.
So I could be wrong about romance novels, and instead of being repetitive genre fiction aimed almost entirely at one gender, it’s really a goldmine of literary masterpieces.
But please don’t confuse professionalism in librarianship with having no standards about books and reading. That might be just the right thing for readers’ advisory, where the goal is to get the reader to the next book that’s more or less like the last book they liked, but in librarianship the sun doesn’t rise and set on readers’ advisory, and a lot of librarians are actually paid to have standards and develop tastes.
Thus, some librarians are there to help entertain the masses and keep them occupied with one diversion after another, but I don’t see anything particularly professional about this, unless you’re a professional entertainer.
Other librarians are in the education business, and they’re supposed to have standards and make judgments and stuff like that. They’re not professional entertainers, they’re professional librarians.