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August 11, 2015

Subjectivity and Reader Shaming

A woman with her head in her hands with text: Have You Ever Been "Reader Shamed"?

Throughout the history of fiction, a divide has separated literary fiction and genre fiction. We only have to look as far as the review pages of “serious” journalism sources to see the difference in how much respect each is accorded.

If we write genre fiction, we might bemoan the lack of respect or media coverage, but the same lack of respect occurs at the reader level too. At various times in recent history, readers of science fiction, fantasy, graphic novels, young adult, and romance have also been looked down on (along with probably more genres that I can’t think of off the top of my head *smile*).

Within the romance genre, many outsiders have attempted to make readers ashamed of their reading choices:

  • “Oh, you read that?”
  • “I can’t take anything with those covers seriously.”
  • “Aren’t they just porn for women?”

Therefore, as a romance author, I try very hard not to shame readers for their reading choices. We all read for different reasons, and there shouldn’t be a pecking order for how valid or noble those reasons are.

I fully admit that I’m a genre girl. I like being entertained at the same time that I’m getting insights into characters, relationships, and human nature.

Heck, I’ll even admit that I enjoyed Twilight despite the much-maligned quality of the prose. (I’ve seen worse writing craft. Believe me. *smile*)

My point is that our reasons for reading and what we personally enjoy are extremely subjective. Because of that, conversations that imply that readers shouldn’t enjoy certain types of stories make me very uncomfortable.

I might find no redeeming qualities in a story, but that doesn’t mean others wouldn’t. Or that the story wouldn’t speak to anyone else. Everyone will have different measures for how to quantify that very subjective “good” or “enjoyable.”

Yesterday, members of the romance writing community received their scores from this year’s RWA RITA and Golden Heart contests. As usual, many were shocked by how their scores were all over the map.

Contest scores, especially in the RITA and Golden Heart contests, can be hotbeds of subjectivity. So I thought that digging deeper into the different factors affecting contest scores might also shed some light on the subjectivity of readers and their choices. *smile*

The Subjectivity of Enjoyment

At the preliminary round, the RITA and Golden Heart entries are judged by a writer’s peers. However, judges aren’t allowed to judge a category they entered.

Depending on how widely read within romance’s subgenres they are, there’s a chance a judge might receive a bunch of entries in a subgenre they’re not familiar with—or that they even dislike.

In other words, entries are often judged by people who aren’t that story’s target market. Not surprisingly, that means they’ll be less likely to enjoy the entries, which causes problems with the next issue.

Stories will often appeal more to those in their target audience.

The Subjectivity of Contest Scoring

RWA doesn’t provide guidelines for how to score entries. In past years, the only hint for providing a score was essentially “how much did you enjoy this story?”

That’s a great scoring mechanism for duplicating how non-writer readers might react to a story. Readers will either like our story or they won’t, and they probably won’t analyze why.

But when those judge-readers aren’t a story’s target audience, it’s tougher to get consensus on which stories are “better” than others. What are they judging each entry on? How much it doesn’t offend them? Or irritate them? Or hit their pet peeves?

In addition, some judges start at a score of five (figuring that to be average) and add or subtract based on the quality of each entry. Some judges start at ten and subtract for things they don’t like.

Those two approaches can spell the difference for whether an entry gets enough high scores to final, as judges in the first category are likely to score entries between 2 and 8 or so, and judges in the second category are more likely to score entries between 5 and 10.

(And none of this is meant as sour grapes for me. *smile* My scores were strong even though I didn’t final. However, many authors I know received scores far below what I would have given them, so I started thinking about the causes of the huge variations.)

Readers can have different levels of pickiness.

The Subjectivity of Genre Expectations

The romance genre is made up of several subgenres, which each feature their own tropes and expectations. Some romance genres focus almost entirely on the romantic relationship. Other subgenres can include extensive worldbuilding and/or a strong external plot that might (in the eyes of some readers) take away from the romance.

For example, the romantic suspense subgenre includes a strong mystery or thriller plotline, as the characters attempt to evade the bad guys. Paranormal romance might have extensive worldbuilding of made-up cultures and a big “save the world from the bad guy” plot.

So what happens when a reader of contemporary romance has to judge a packet of romantic suspense entries? They might give higher scores to those stories light on suspense, as they’re looking for the focus on the characters and relationship alone.

Or what happens if a reader of historical romance has to judge a paranormal romance featuring a psychic working for a secret government agency?

They might not realize that paranormal romance features far more than vampires and figure the story is off-base. Or they might look at all those worldbuilding scenes between the psychic and her boss establishing the conflict with the Big Bad (and where the hero is nowhere to be seen) and think the story is “not a romance” (which can disqualify an entry).

In other words, stories that fall outside of the stereotypes or that feature deeper or bigger plots might suffer in the scoring.

Readers can have different expectations of stories.

The Subjectivity of Acceptance

Every reader is also going to have a different line of what they’re comfortable with. If we feel uncomfortable when reading, that could affect our enjoyment of a story.

Without guidelines, some judges might lower scores for stories with elements they don’t like to see:

  • sexuality beyond hints or just kissing
  • profanity
  • characters of different races, religions, etc.
  • characters with a job they don’t approve of (a pacifist judging a military SEAL romance), etc.

In other words, stories that “push envelopes” might be punished with lower scores. And as luck-of-the-draw is entirely responsible for which kind of judges each entry receives, “safe” stories might be more likely to final.

Reader discomfort can be individual.

The Subjectivity of Problematic Elements

Over the last couple of weeks, one story has highlighted the subjectivity of what people find problematic or offensive. There’s no end to the articles written about the Nazi romance that was a finalist in the RITA this year. (Note: Language at many of those links.)

On Amazon, this book has hundreds of 5-star reviews. Library Journal gave it a starred review. RT Book Reviews named it a Top Pick. Then 4 to 5 judges gave it high enough scores to final in the RITA (it didn’t win).

Obviously, many people didn’t see a Jewish prisoner in a World War II concentration camp falling in love with the SS officer in charge of the camp as problematic enough to affect their enjoyment of the story.

As an “inspirational romance” (a faith-themed romance), the story likely appeals to those who focus on the message that even a Nazi SS officer can be redeemed through faith. (Inspirational romances technically don’t have to be Christian in nature, but I don’t know of any that focus on a different religion.) However, for many, many others who learned of this book through the RITA contest (i.e., not the target audience), the entire premise is understandably offensive.

Most conversations I’ve seen about this book have focused on raising awareness of why it’s so offensive. But a few people have veered into reader shaming, which is a different issue.

Readers will find different things problematic.

Where Should the Line Fall?

I’ve seen statements that this book should have been disqualified from the RITAs because the power differential between the hero and heroine prevented consent, so it couldn’t have been a romance.

That’s a very slippery slope. We see huge power differentials in romance tropes like billionaires and their secretaries. In paranormal romances, the non-human member of the couple typically has abilities the human member doesn’t.

In the niche of dark romance stories, motorcycle club and fight club criminal heroes are downright threatening to the heroines. There are even a few sex-trafficking-victim-falling-for-her-kidnapper stories out there.

In short, romance has stories with power issues everywhere. In fact, as Sarah MacLean teaches in her conflict workshop, every romance will have a conflict rooted in power.

The heroine needs something from the hero and vice versa. The story often is about the couple’s power negotiations.

Yet, it’s sometimes not obvious how the couple balances each other out. And while that can be a sign that the author didn’t write the romance arc strongly or cleanly enough, in many stories, one member of the couple needs something external and the other member needs something internal. That difference can lead to a reader impression that there’s too much of a power differential between them because one need is more obvious to readers than the other.

When that balance feels off (whether it really is or not), consent can be difficult to “prove.” It might seem easy to say that only stories with clear consent could have the emotionally satisfying ending required to be a romance, but a statement that a story with X premise, such as slavery or imprisonment, could never be consensual is going to be subjective.

Some readers would take a slave heroine falling for her scifi alien master at her word when she says and shows that she’s happy in her relationship. Some readers wouldn’t—no matter how well the author “sold” the idea.

Some readers simply can’t suspend their disbelief to get over their suspicion of Stockholm Syndrome. And that’s their right.

But I also don’t want to see readers who can suspend their disbelief and trust in a heroine’s happiness shamed for their reading choices. On some level, if we state that we will never believe a heroine’s claims of happiness because of the situation she worked through during the story, we can end up patronizing the character.

In no way am I defending that book. No matter the quality of the writing, I don’t think a book with a premise that is so offensive and hurtful to so many demonstrates the best the genre has to offer—as should be the goal of the RITA contest.

So none of this post should be taken as pushback against the very necessary conversation about the problems with that book and the need to raise awareness of those issues. There are many reasons any reader, no matter their background, might have for being horrified by the premise, the characters, the romance, the plot, the resolution, the theological depictions, the writing craft, the emotional arc, etc.

However, I think it’s misguided to focus on the subjective consent issue as an “easy” answer for how to prevent a story like that from reaching the RITA finals again. Those conversations can shame readers who enjoy dubious consent stories, those who don’t struggle with separating fiction from reality for problematic elements, or those who are simply able to suspend their disbelief more easily.

As a romance author who faces “shaming” issues constantly, I’m very sensitive to the possibility of reader shaming. We all enjoy stories for different reasons, and we all have different reasons for reading what we do.

So the issues of subjectivity will follow us as authors as we query, submit, deal with editors, pursue reviews, and search for a readership. But hopefully, we can avoid shaming based on subjectivity when it comes to readers. *smile*

Have you run into subjectivity issues with your writing or reading? Do you have thoughts about the RITA or Golden Heart contest? Had you heard about the issues with that book in the RITAs? Do you disagree with my thoughts about reader shaming? Have you ever been “reader shamed”?

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44 Comments on "Subjectivity and Reader Shaming"

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Mary Kate

Oh, yes, for sure. I was recently reading a Sarah Dessen novel and someone near me took one look at the cover and said, “Should you really be reading that past the age of twelve?” Yes I should and I will continue to read YA because I love YA, thank you very much.

I’m at the point where these comments don’t really bother me, but when I was younger (read: an actual teenager) they bugged me a lot. I thought there was something wrong with me that I liked mainstream fiction more than the classics they made us read in school. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that it’s totally fine to like what you like.

Also, good points about subjectivity from readers. I’m in a writing class, with writers ranging in age and genre, and when it was my turn to be workshopped, a lot of people said the present tense of my YA submission put them off, and also that there was too much “white space” on the page (too many paragraph breaks). I knew not to take this seriously, since SO MUCH YA is written like that, and they just weren’t used to it. You really have to consider the source when hearing criticism!

Melinda Primrose
Melinda Primrose

Hi Jami,
Great points here. I just don’t understand reader shaming at all. Just because I’m not fond of a particular genre doesn’t mean no one’s allowed to like it. That would be like telling everyone they had to have the same taste in food. And that would just make life plain boring if you ask me.
Melinda

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[…] A tangential, but very important conversation to have: author Jami Gold on Subjectivity and Reader Shaming. […]

Carradee
Power imbalances intrigue me, perhaps because of my background. (Short version for those who don’t yet know me: my “normal” = psychologically abusive; I got away last year, and last I heard from any family was one of my nicer relatives trolled my blog a few months back. That “nicer” ≠ sarcasm.) The psychological aspects are pretty much why I read romance at all, because I certainly don’t have any interest in the sex (aromantic asexual, here). I’m outright used to be harassed (and sometimes even outright punished or penalized) for my writing and reading choices. Even as a teenager, years before I realized my family was something more/worse than dysfunctional, I admitted that strangers couldn’t be any crueler than my family. My first thought upon seeing most online trolls (or even in-person manipulation) is “Amateur.” I not infrequently bite my tongue to avoid alerting the would-be manipulator what they’ve done wrong. But that doesn’t make me unaware of the reader shaming, nor does it mean I think readers and writers just need a thicker skin. The same people who shame others for their writing and reading choices won’t accept the same responses to their own writing and reading choices—hypocrisy that spotlights the core problem there, in my opinion. I hadn’t heard about that book or the issues, but I also haven’t read any romance lately—and then when I do read romance, it’s more likely to be something psychological than inspirational. [shrug] In my own writing, I have an extreme… Read more »
Anne R. Allen

A timely post, Jami. Just yesterday the Guardian ran a piece that said the line between “literary” and “genre” is blurring, and some of the best writing is in genre books these days.

And after all, Jane Austen and the Brontes wrote what would be categorized as “Romance” today.

I also saw a guest post on a blog I follow that made my blood boil. The blogger said the number one thing that should make somebody not buy a book is if the blurb says “hilarious romp” or “comedy”. I know Millennials have been raised to be easily offended by humor, but I didn’t know it had become taboo.

Early novels were all comedies, from Don Quixote to Tom Jones and everything by Swift and Pope. The idea that reading humor is somehow shameful made me furious. I hope it’s not a growing trend.

Read what you love! If people are too ignorant to “get” your genre , avoid them.

Rhoda Baxter

I sincerely hope people don’t stop reading comedy! Many a true word spoken in jest and all that…

Interesting post, Jami. One thing that comes to mind is that even though the readers for round 1 aren’t the target audience, as you rightly point out, they are writers. I would have expected a writer to be able to judge a book objectively on the basis of ‘is this a good book?’. After all, if we do this when we critique someone’s work.

On the other hand, if you’re reading just as a reader (and all authors were readers first), then all those personal preferences would come into play.

Robin
Robin

Shamed for my reading preferences, Yup.
My family, for the most part, is pretty “intellectual” I guess I’d call it. My mom was a high school teacher for years, with her master’s degree in Reading. My sister and her husband both teach community college. My dad doesn’t read much, but his one sentence to contribute on fantasy “I’ve just never found any of that relevant, or interesting” has been applied to Tolkien, CS Lewis, and my WiP every time the topic of conversation comes up (talk about being in good company, hmm?).

Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Romance have always been something I’ve enjoyed, and that they have been vocal in stating has no literary value.
I figure it’s their loss, not mine. 🙂

I read For Whom the Bell Tolls recently (amazing romance/love story there, in my opinion)… and I can say that while I loved it… while it was exceptional… it was Hard. Hard on my heart. Hard on my psyche. Some days it left me feeling broken.

If I read books like that all the time, I wouldn’t read nearly as many books.

It left me in the mood to read Pippi Longstocking (again).

Evolet Yvaine

Wow. Really interesting post. I have been reader-shamed: by my father, my husband, even the bookseller who rang up my books!! I can honestly say that I’ve never done that. Everyone made such a big deal about 50 Shades. I never read the series and I never saw the movie because I’m not a fan of the topic. I don’t read historicals, dystopian, comic books, YA, memoirs, autobiographies, thrillers, steam punk, westerns, poetry (although I like poetry slams), or themes surrounding BDSM, ménage, M/M, F/F and motorcycle clubs, for one reason and one reason only: I’m. Not. Interested. When I was writing YA, my parents bought the two books I wrote and indie published because I wrote them and they wanted to support my writing. They’ve never read them and I’m okay with that. Because it’s not the type of stuff–or the genre–they read. I would never shame someone for reading something I’m not interested in? That’s so stupid I can’t even comprehend. It just seems like another form of prejudice to me, y’know? As for the whole RITA thing, I’m guessing the judges aren’t allowed to choose which category they’d like to judge? I was under the impression they were allowed to choose.

Angie Arcangioli

Great post.

I’ve been reader shamed. All my youth and even still. I love genre fiction and read all types of it. All the subtypes of romance included. Personally, I consider literary a genre. I don’t read much literary because it bores me.

In a writer group during our first non-virtual get together we introduced ourselves and spoke of what we write. I said, I was writing a phsychological suspense and was immediately dismissed. “Oh, you write genre.”

Yes and I’m proud.

Melissa Maygrove

Excellent, well-thought-out and well-articulated post.

When people comment on romance (me writing or reading), I tell them that life has enough downers. I prefer stories with happy endings.
I’m a very picky reader, so I have no trouble with having a ‘to each his own’ attitude.

Deborah Makarios

That whole literary snobbism thing always reminds me of PG Wodehouse’s bit about romance novels:
“Are there any books of that sort nowadays? The only ones I ever see mentioned in the papers are about married couples who find life grey, and can’t stick each other at any price.” “Yes, sir, there are a great many, neglected by the reviewers but widely read.”
I’ve never been much of a fan of genre romances myself, but I do like a well-done romantic secondary plot – and now I find myself trying to write one!

Iola

I read (and review) Christian fiction almost exclusively … and the mere existence of books like this make me feel a little ashamed for reading books in a genre and by a publisher that put out *this* book.

But you’ve also challenge me: I’ve been following this mess since the original review appeared on Dear Author. I turned down the opportunity to review the book because after reading the blurb I couldn’t see how the book could possibly be good, and the DA review confirmed all my preconceptions.

It also left me feeling a little superior to those who did like it, who didn’t see the problems. And that’s awkward: am I now reader shaming those 5* reviewers?

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[…] few days ago, I read a fabulous post by Jami Gold on the topic of Subjectivity and Reader Shaming. Granted, the subjectivity part had to do with contest scores for RWA’s (Romance Writers of […]

Jon
Jon

There was a time (LOL) when paperbacks were sold at Woolworths and one didn’t want to be caught with any of them unless it had a little Penguin on it.

The point above about Austin (and Twain) being genre writers is spot on.

Should I leave my kindle open where other hetero males might see I’m reading a Robyn Carr or Jami Gold or Candace Blevins novel? Yes. Shaming is a reality and I’ve felt it necessary to give an explanation why I just happen to know about such authors. Perhaps I can cut the warm-up in the future and get right to the book recommendation.

Thanks for another good post Jami.

PS (But I’m not going to admit I’ve read and enjoyed Sarah Price Amish theme novels, so please don’t tell anyone.)

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
😀 Hurrah! I enjoyed Twilight too. Not because of the romance, even though it was nice too, but because I was very touched by Bella and Jacob’s friendship, and by the family love between the Cullens. Lol! Seriously? “Porn for women”? These people either have never read a romance before, or really aren’t looking carefully at what’s actually there, lol. They are so much more than just sex scenes…Not to mention that some romance novels have zero sex scenes, haha. Some don’t even ever mention the word “sex”, lol. Oh and there’s definitely reader shaming for adults who read children’s books. I have a close friend who enjoys children’s books anyway, but why not, right? Children’s books are so sweet and innocent! The illustrations are often fab too. This close friend of mine is also one of those people with the heart of a child (that’s one reason why I love her so much!), and so there’s nothing strange about her preferring books for young kids, even though I know a lot of judgmental people would look down on her preferences. 🙁 She reads many other books too, though, including mysteries, comedies, fantasy, literary fiction, various non-fiction and others. Ooh I love this topic of reader subjectivity, of how much each person can tolerate power differences, and how much they can suspend their disbelief. Yeah, haven’t they ever heard of the rich woman, poor man romances? Haha. Btw Lady and the Tramp (the Disney movie) was also about transcending social… Read more »
Serena Yung
Serena Yung

I’ve been listening to the “He’s a Tramp” song, haha, and gradually learning it. You know how I usually don’t like bad/ rough boys? Well I do have my exceptions and The Tramp from Lady and the Tramp is one. 😀 He’s so cool and so handsome too!

” I especially love the female leader and male subordinate idea. 🙂 *lets muse go romp in the idea*”

Yay! Haha maybe something like this has already been going on in my stories without my knowing it, since my female leaders have both male and female subordinates… 😉

LOL! I love how you put it–Kira is royalty and Zachary is a “nobody.” Haha maybe it’s mean of me to laugh, but it made me laugh anyway. I’m sure Zachary’s a worthy and awesome man, though. 😀

I also forgot to say that I really love Ironclad Devotion’s blurb, as I’ve gotten very into parent-child relationship stories recently, and the blurb does talk about Kira and her foster daughter, and this foster daughter is also Zac’s biological daughter. Yay! =D

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Yeah, Tramp is really hot. 😀 Heehee I’m happy to hear that about Ironclad Devotion. 🙂 BTW you know what? Today a thing I suspected in my story–some attraction or mutual (or one-sided) good-feeling between two characters–came true! I had thought that this guy seemed to be talking to this girl more than other guys did, aside from the hero who only talks to her for informational purposes. (The heroine, the hero’s wife, talks about the same amount to this girl as her husband does.) Anyway, yeah it looks like there is something going on in the interactions between that guy and this girl. And guess what? This girl happens to be the super kickass leader of a powerful fighting organization, while this guy is just an ordinary strong fighter guy! He’s not bad as a fighter, but clearly he’s a lot weaker than she is in fighting skill, and he certainly doesn’t lead hundreds of people like she does, lol. When I first got an inkling of this possible attraction, I was kind of worried, because I thought readers wouldn’t like this pairing. Because although the guy has a really likable personality such that probably most readers would like him, he would be too ordinary in “social position” compared to this girl. Epsecially as it’s a powerful girl vs. an ordinary guy, which is something the audience is not used to, and some people don’t approve of pairings where the girl is clearly more powerful than the guy. 🙁… Read more »
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[…] week, a post by Jami Gold about subjectivity and reader shaming lit a tiny defensive fire in me. Reader shaming is something that happens a lot in the romance […]

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[…] Subjectivity and Reader Shaming This post explores how there are many types of subjectivity and how shaming readers for the books they enjoy is never a good idea. […]

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