Several days ago, on October 30th, two simultaneous ‘lighthearted’ critique articles hit the pages of The Guardian and Vulture, condemning bookstagrammers, repeatedly using the word ‘annoying’ as if this community, made up mostly of women (82% of my over 7K followers are women between the ages of 13-34) were a small child vying for an elder’s approval.
This attack seems very strange to me. Should not writers whose livelihood and lifeblood is words and those who read them be defending other logophiles? In a world where books and literacy is being subsumed by ten-second videos and two hundred and forty character opinions, what is to be gained by denigrating and ridiculing this particular artform with baseless assumptions and pretentious condescension?
Let’s look at what writer Hillary Kelly claims in her article in Vulture (the Guardian article is uncredited):
After a prolonged bit about books being status symbols and social indicators, and the derogatory comments about books-as-props, we come to this:
“There’s a reason why, centuries later, nearly every casual, desk-leaning photo of an author includes their bursting bookshelves in the background; we’re a vain, affected bunch, we book people. We want you to see our learning indulgently spilling out behind us.”
First of all, we aren’t here to show off our credentials and never have been. I doubt a single booklover started their bookstagram with the intent of gaining a platform from which they can show the world how terribly smart they are.
The sole point of bookstagram is not to be intellectual. Certainly, there are bookstagrammers who cherish the classics above all, and whose idea of a good time is to flip open one of their many antique copies of War and Peace and settle in for some extremely long paragraphs. But that’s not the point of bookstagram. The point of bookstagram is to show off something that we readers love. That might be Proust or one of Ms. Kelly’s prized first editions of Virginia Woolf. It might be a Sarah J. Maas novel. It might be an indie book. Or a comic. Or a self-pub.
Alleged vain proffering of credentials aside, exactly what else does Ms. Kelly have against bookstagram? Let’s find out.
“They could be any books — which is sweetly democratic in a way, but also oddly anti-intellectual for supposed bibliophiles, who are presumed to bicker passionately over merits of particular genres and titles.”
“….but what bugs me about these pictures is how devoid they are of any engagement with what books really do: For instance, they consist of words which, in relationship to each other, mean something. These photos are not inviting you in to enjoy or critique or loathe or interrogate the books. They’re not even telling you the titles of books.”
So her issue is that she can’t see the titles of the books we’re using as background? Or that we aren’t bickering passionately?
This really bothers me. How long did she spend perusing the accounts she denounced? Has she looked at the other photos that @amyflyingakite, @danysbooks, or @loriimagination post? There are definitely some spines and title pages peeking through, and had she asked on those photos without visible titles, the artists undoubtedly could have told her which books they were. And beyond these accounts there are bookstagrammers by the thousands who routinely show the book titles. Nevertheless, that seems like an insignificant beef.
About the bickering, I don’t believe that Ms. Kelly has wandered the halls of bookstagram if she does not yet know that the book-loving community that she believes is unintellectual has some of the nicest, most generous, and most perceptive individuals around. We don’t ‘bicker’, and above all, we respect and uplift each other constantly.
For a real world example, my home (including my personal library) was threatened by a wildfire on two separate occasions this summer and both times, women I barely knew messaged me with words of comfort, offers of help, replacement books (should I lose mine), and invitations to stay at their home. It is because of the kindness of these women that I felt like I needed to speak out against these hurtful articles: because whatever Ms. Kelly believes, these women aren’t vain, annoying, and childish.
Look up any book on Goodreads. There’s a good chance that many of those erudite, insightful reviews were written by bookstagrammers.
And let’s revisit this phrase: For instance, they consist of words which, in relationship to each other, mean something.
Words do mean something. For all of you out there who think I’m overreacting, words do mean something. And in a world that is so full of turmoil, ugliness, and heartache, why in Dicken’s name would you sacrifice a group of book-loving, art-producing women to the Clickbait gods? This article could have easily been a promo piece praising the women of this generation, who sit down with an honest to goodness physical book instead of playing phone games or bingeing Netflix.
Ironically, The Guardian also published an article last December outlining the death of literary fiction, the loss of author voices, and the near-impossibility for ‘authorship’ to be a viable career. Now, not even a year later, the same publication stoops to ridiculing the art of young women whom they assume do not read the books they photograph?
Au contraire. After a quick swipe-through of some of my friends’ accounts, I have run across multiple women who have read over 100 books this year so far. I personally am at 62 and in the middle of several more.
“Novels and histories and essay collections and treatises are just vehicles for style, unidentifiable bits of black ink that I’m secretly hoping rubs off on these ’grammers’ faces after they spend 25 minutes in uncomfortable poses, their brunette manes artfully obscuring the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Mary Higgins Clark or Beatrix Potter or any of the other writers whose work has now basically become a Literary Filter.”
What a weird wish, but by all means! Let that ink rub off on my face, and on all the faces of women who love books. Let’s let everyone see that ink. On our faces, our hands, written across our hearts and souls and minds. Let the world see that I love the printed word.
“Because they aren’t really books, you see, they’re suggestions of books, hints of how utterly devoted the Instagrammer is to her literary pursuits.
They’re just another object, shorn of meaning and sometimes of binding, rearranged to show that their possessors’ lives are prettier, more whimsical, more creative than yours. These people are beautiful literary hermits, dammit, Brontë sisters wandering the wild moors of the inside of your iPhone, seekers of beauty and truth and a shit ton of unearned likes.”
Aside from the obvious elitist ridicule here, I hone in on that little word second to last. “Unearned.”
What exactly does Ms. Kelly believe? She’s repeatedly said that our art is foolish and fake. ‘Unearned likes’ rankles me—it’s adding insult to injury (or in this case, insult to insult). I work hard on my bookstagram, every day interacting with people on the platform, commenting, liking, messaging. Off the platform I am researching hashtags and reading books so I can talk about them. All of which is on top of the painstaking, creative effort of the actual photography. Not once have I bought a single follower. Why does she believe our likes are unearned? What makes a like of a bookstagram photo any less valid than a like of an architecture, car, or beach photo?
Back to the point, Hilary suggests there is only one way to love something: her way. God forbid that someone should be different from her, read different books, love things a different way. God forbid that a book should exist not just for the mercenaries of the press, but for the ‘unintellectuals’ that spend an hour laying books out on the floor before tucking into bed (maybe without pants!) with a cup of coffee and a book they’ve just spent time and energy marketing. Because they love it.
If one peruses the hashtag #bookstagram, or even the ridiculed #bookselfie, it takes less than a second to see the titles on these spines and title pages. It takes perhaps a few moments longer to read positive, uplifting captions of women of all ages, academic levels, tastes, colors, and locations. These are written by women, myself included, who are passionate about stories of all kinds, who spend time out of our schedules to formulate thoughtful reviews of books both modern and not. Who regularly engage in sometimes-heated always-friendly debates about these objects that we love.
Books are not just for the elitist few who believe that the only worthy authors are the famous ones or the classic ones. Art comes in all shapes and styles and that is what bookstagram is. Art.
For many, the effort of taking photos of books is for ourselves. We do not ‘pretend to have a beautiful life in order to make other people even more depressed than you are’. Just ask any bookstagrammer for a behind the scenes shot!
We create art that we love, and use books as our medium. We are not children looking for the approval of those who create ‘real’ art or write articles condemning the photography of books. We are artists, intellectuals, and lovers of words.
We are bookstagram.
For a sweeter take on this subject, please visit https://meandorla.co.uk/in-defence-of-book-selfies/