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‘Red flag’ literature: On not judging a book by its cover

“Catcher in the Rye.” “The Prince.” “Norwegian Wood.” These are all some of the books that are commonly cited as “red flags” when a person indicates them as one of their favorites. There is something unsettling about nominating these texts, amongst others, as “one of the greats.” 

A lot of these books concern controversial topics and feature authoritarian leaders or morally gray, coming-of-age figures. They sometimes struggle with mental health, acceptance in society and may depict others in an unfavorable light.

However, there is a sense of awareness in the controversy towards liking this kind of literature. One Twitter user tweeted in 2021 “the one red flag about me is that Murakami is one of my favorite authors.” I can recall the reluctancy of one of my friends telling me that they loved reading MachiavelliThe admiration of these titles is followed by apologetic tones by the self-aware and met with a tsk tsk towards the unknowing. 

However, the appreciation of these kinds of books doesn’t necessarily need to glorify these thematic ideas. Complicity in a fractured system is not the result of reading literature that depicts its rawness. Many books that make these “red flag” lists are enjoyed by a manifold of people who do not condone the acts or thoughts of the characters. In fact, many books that commonly make these lists, such as this viral Buzzfeed article, are often prescribed in reading lists for middle schools and high schools. While general popularity of something is by no means an indication that is acceptable and good, the heuristic wariness towards these novels is not entirely substantive. 

How can we pardon the grievances and mistakes of these classic characters and narrators, but simultaneously look down upon those that sympathize and grapple with the complexities of these texts? Why are we attempting to deter people from reading and judging their reading preferences based on some arbitrary standard?

Psychologically, people are drawn to antiheros and flawed characters. In an interview published by Psychology Today, researcher Dara Greenwood shared that people exhibited high affinity for characters that are defined as such, particularly if they share any traits, such as Machiavellianism. These characters are seen as more dynamic, and relatable as they are exhibit some of the unfavorable traits that many people are afraid to show. 

There is nothing inherently wrong about reading and appreciating these texts, particularly because experiencing various backgrounds and perspectives develops critical thinking and analysis. In addition, these texts aren’t monolithic, but rather, can be interpreted a myriad of ways. 

On face value, while some of these texts may evoke strong reactions and contain negative connotations, the real harm comes from connecting such associations to the reader themself. Suddenly, someone who is holding a Murakami novel, perhaps wishing to expand their translated fiction reading selection, is judged against the discourse surrounding the author’s depiction of women in literature. The reader then begins to take responsibility for the word choice and thematic imagery of the author and assumes a nonreciprocal, martyr-like role.

Reading is supposed to be a place where one can assume many identities and experience multiple lifetimes. There is no need to be stratified or placed into a box based on reading preferences that are ultimately meant to expand discourse towards new ideas and concepts. A reader’s engagement with a text should not automatically be assumed as an apology towards an author’s claims. 

When we talk about judging a book by its cover, it is typically used to mean that the aesthetic appearance of a text shouldn’t be the substance of our opinion of the book. It requires us to expand upon our initial biases and disregard any facade to glean its “true meaning.” However, this judgment isn’t isolated to the physical appearance of the book but can extend to its ownership. This is an unnecessary and unfair judgment, placing personal perceptions and interpretations upon a separated individual.

It’s easy to stereotype these texts, and subsequently people who outwardly admire them, but doing so with no discourse or further discussion just enables unfair biases in the literary world. There may be books that are downright disagreeable, but in most cases, one is able to access a new viewpoint through this kind of literature, even if one doesn’t completely sympathize with the plights of these characters. 

While this may not seem like an explicit, pervasive issue, it connects to the degradation of other book genres, and othering of forms of literature that are deemed as less thought-provoking and intellectual. “Airport books” are deemed as subservient, and thus, met with quick presuppositions. The problem festers when such judgments are correlated to the attitudes of the authors themselves, and their loyal readers. A book doesn’t need to be covered in accolade seals or venerated by one’s friends to be valuable. If a work of art has the power to move, it has value. Refraining from conflating this value to the individuals who interact with the work is the true definition of abstaining from unwarranted judgment in the literary world. 

Elizabeth Prater is a junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and the Program of Liberal Studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics and literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the violin, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out eprater@nd.edu or @elizabethlianap on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Viewpoint

Slices of life: The world of literary fiction

When you dedicate a whole column to writing about literature, you may find yourself responding to the ultimate question: “What is your favorite book?”

While I certainly have several, I always find the need to add a qualifying statement, as if these works are not substantive on their own.  

“It takes a while to get into it,” is a go to of mine. And when they ask, “What is it about?” I also find myself fumbling for a concise explanation. “Well, it’s hard to put into words.” 

I love books that are about nothing. 

Plot-wise, the literature I read doesn’t consist of much. There is no one-sentence summary that can define the book, or act as an enticing logline. The commerciality of these works is meager to none.  

Literary fiction is often defined as following “non-conventional plot structures” and being character-driven. These novels aren’t typically able to fit neatly into a specific genre, and they are most notable in the ambiguity of their endings.  

One of my top-of-mind examples is Julie Otsuka’s “The Swimmers.” The novel follows the lives of a group of recreational swimmers who visit the same pool. Throughout the book, the reader jumps in and out of their perspectives and experiences through free, indirect discourse. However, nothing significant happens. If anything, the crack that forms at the bottom of the concrete pool, one of the only fundamental events which occurs in the novel, is more metaphorical than physical. The incident causes rifts and strains within the relationships of the swimmers. 

“The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath is another book where when I recall reading it, I remember more about the way it made me feel, rather than specific scenes or instances that take place. The premise is that a college student (Esther Greenwood) goes to New York City for a summer internship to pursue journalism. However, declaring that the setup is what the book is “about” would be a disservice. Most of the scenes are vignettes about her interactions with the people she meets, and most importantly, her dissent into mental illness. You experience Esther’s disillusionment with the world as she grapples her loss of adolescence. You encounter her dissatisfaction with the grievances of the world.  

I am often left curious and unsatisfied when I read these kinds of literary fiction novels. There is always something slightly vague and incomplete in the endings, as we never truly experience a true resolution, since there often wasn’t an explicit conflict in the first place. The formulaic relief that we experience when reading or watching our favorite genre-specific media doesn’t hold true for the world of “plotless” literary fiction. It’s indecisive, confusing and messy.  

After reading all of this, you may wonder how I am a marketing major, as I don’t seem to be doing a very good job “selling” this kind of literature. And you would be correct. However, I think there’s something more realistic and contemplative about these kinds of books. 

In contrast, classic storybook endings are more idealistic than truthful. But more than that, in the bustle of routine, we don’t always get to see the full range of a person’s life. Even with people we are close to, we often see slices of their experiences. The rest is up to speculation, interpretation or is disregarded.  

Many “slice-of-life” books may seem to be dull upon hearing about its contents. Some follow a person’s day doing seemingly trivial tasks (“The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro). Others contain stream-of-consciousness descriptions that make up the bulk of the word count (“To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf). However, I find that they are the most accurate in depicting the scope of our observation of people’s lives. 

In all honesty, we only get to be with those around us for a brief amount of time. Conversations are snippets into a person’s livelihood, and we often don’t get to see every facet of them. I think this honesty and limitation of human connection is exactly what literary fiction thrives on. A part of us wishes we could see more, but we must be content with the glimpse we are provided of another’s world.  

In the same way, the atmosphere of college life is like peering into vignettes. We only get to see scenes and selected fragments of strangers, and even friends, as we ebb and flow through the quotidian patterns demanded of us. Class. Dining Hall. Library. Dorm. These are the spaces in which we get a glance of what the day looks like for the people around us. It’s not always the most exciting or glamorous, but it’s raw, and it’s real. And I think that candidness is what makes literary fiction worthwhile.  

So, what’s this column about? Perhaps a synopsis would not suffice. But then again, this is no piece of literary fiction.

Elizabeth Prater is a junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and the Program of Liberal Studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics and literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the violin, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out eprater@nd.edu or @elizabethlianap on Twitter.

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Viewpoint

Red flag reading

Social media is full of comments on what books are acceptable to read. There are warnings plastered all across online platforms declaring that it is a red flag if someone likes “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger or “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn, maybe even “The Stranger” by Albert Camus. At the same time, romance novels such as the ones by Colleen Hoover can not be recommended enough. I must confess, I would much rather engage in the “red flag reading” than force myself to read a sappy love story. 

I am aware romance is by far the most popular reading genre, however, I could never find myself enjoying it. To me, these romance novels are boring and unrealistic. Of course, I am sure there are some realistic love stories in literature, but it would still not be my preferred pick. Most of these novels have characters that are stuck in a trope to appease a certain kind of reader. They are predictable and sometimes even nauseating. For a vast majority of these novels, the reader is only left to wonder whether or not the couple will end up together and in most cases I simply do not care enough. This question alone is not enough to keep me entertained. 

This does not mean I am against all romance within literature. Clearly, my claim excludes the subplot of love stories within the “Percy Jackson” series, the “Hunger Games” series and “The Book Thief.” When it comes to the main characters involved in these romantic subplots, I do not mind the scenes in which they enter. Most of them are wholesome and interesting enough that it is worth the read. 

To clarify my point, not all romance in literature is bad. Despite the fact that two of my examples have to do with Greek Mythology and a dystopian universe, I feel as though these are more realistic. Romance should be a subplot of all life and that should be reflected in literature. I do not think that love should be the sole center of anyone’s life, which means I do not want to read a story where that seems to be the case. 

The reason I prefer books that are considered to be “red flags” is because they often include more complexity. The characters are not people who someone can easily adore and I think that brings some realism to literature. In life, personalities may not be as exaggerated as in these characters, however, they will have their own hidden secrets that you will not know until you foster a relationship. This idea of an imperfect character is interesting to me, it is fully up to the reader to decide what is forgivable or not. It is intriguing to see what other flaws readers will be able to look past, assuming there is no excuse for racism, sexism, abuse or anything within that sort of ideology. It is clear that many characters within this genre should not be idolized, making it a “red flag” when they are, however, they can be used to think critically about psychology and point of view.

The plots are also able to fall further away from set tropes. There can still be some sort of a category such as “Good for Her” novels, but it is not as predictable as when one hears of an enemies-to-lovers story. In my own personal reading, these novels have had more twists and turns to keep me more engaged than I  have been when trying to read romance novels. 

All of that being said, people should read what they want! If romance is what makes you happy, then I am happy as well and I would love to hear recommendations for romance novels that do not fall into the same categories I said I dislike. This reflection is just based on the books I have read so far in my life. I highly suggest pushing away the perceived notion and giving “red flag reading” a try.

You can contact Emma at eduffy5@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this Inside Column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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News

Book club, cultural clubs explore global-themed reads

This year, Notre Dame’s book club is striving to go global by picking a book with an international connection each month. To maximize their multiculturalism, the officers plan to collaborate with Notre Dame’s cultural clubs that correspond with their monthly read.

“We are choosing books based on different cultures,” said book club president and graduate student Mayesha Sahir Mim. 

It is the first year the club has taken on a theme with their book choice. Sahir Mim said the club wants to “make things more fun and interesting” through a theme since it was inactive last semester, and meetings have been held over Zoom since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each month, the club will pick a book that fits the theme, purchase it for interested members and then meet on a Thursday evening at the end of the month for an informal discussion about their thoughts on the book. September’s book was “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian author. At September’s meeting, the Brazilian Students Association gave a presentation on Brazil and Coelho’s life.

“We thought the theme would be just for the semester, but there’s so many countries. And when we collaborated with the Brazilian club, we had a lot of fun with it,” Sahir Mim said. “We thought three months won’t be enough time, so we’ll just continue with it even over the spring semester.”

This month, the club is reading “The Girl with the Louding Voice” by Abi Daré, a book about a Nigerian girl and written by a Nigerian author. For its Oct. 27 meeting, Sahir Mim said the African club plans to give a presentation on Nigeria and share African food while discussing the book.

“I love our global theme this year. I think it’s really important to seek out stories from all types of people and am happy to be learning about different parts of the world from it,” social chair Sarah Nano said in an email.

Sahir Mim also mentioned the book club is planning to collaborate with Notre Dame’s Multicultural Student Programs and Services (MSPS), diversity council and international student and scholars affairs in their upcoming meetings.

Sahir Mim said she is hoping that establishing a theme and holding more engaging meetings will encourage current members to become more active and attract new ones.

“We definitely want more people to be aware of our club and join,” she said.

Currently, the club mostly consists of graduate students, but Sahir Mim said the group is open to undergraduates as well. 

“You will make some friends, and you get to discuss your ideas about a book that you’re reading,” she said of the club. 

Nano seconded that idea, saying she has enjoyed meeting new people as part of the club.

“I’ve already met so many great people who’d I’d love to get to know more about. I also like that book club pushes me to broaden my reading choices,” she said in an email.

Interested students can contact Sahir Mim at mmim@nd.edu or direct message the Instagram account, @bookclub_nd.

Contact Kendelle Hung-Ino at khungino@nd.edu

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‘Afro-Latinx Poetry Now’ to feature six visiting poets

Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies (ILS) and the Initiative on Race and Resilience will present “Afro-Latinx Poetry Now” on Tuesday and Wednesday, featuring six Afro-Latino visiting poets who will appear both publicly for talks in McKenna Hall and privately in selected Notre Dame classrooms.

Both days, Poetry Now’s public events will consist of “Poets on Poets” at 2 p.m., “Scholars on Poets” at 3:30 p.m. and “An Evening of Poetry” at 8 p.m.

In the “Poets on Poets” event, director of the ILS Letras Latinas initiative Francisco Aragon said the visiting poets will give brief talks “on Afro-Latinx poets of their choosing,” introducing another six poets to the audience over the event’s two days.

Starting 15 minutes after “Poets on Poets” concludes, the poets will then sit in the audience for “Scholars on Poets.”

“Six scholars in groups of three over two days will give talks on the work of these poets who are visiting us, which should be a special experience for them,” Aragon said.

For “An Evening of Poetry,” the final event on both days, the visiting poets will perform their own work in groups of three followed by a question-and-answer session and a book signing.

Poet Jasminne Mendez, one of the six poets attending the event, said she feels the event is a good way to uplift Afro-Latino voices in the literary community. 

“I thought this was a great way for us to all come together and be in community and share our experiences and our poetry as Afro-Latinx writers,” Mendez said.

Mendez said her personal experience was one of clashing identities and feelings, being Black while identifying culturally and ethnically with her Latino heritage.

“I think that my goal as a writer and performer is to try to expand people’s view and understanding of what blackness is and how it exists in the world and across the diaspora,” she said.

Aragon is especially looking forward to the classroom visit portion of Poetry Now.

“These aren’t people who are parachuting in, giving their reading and parachuting up,” Aragon said. “They’re gonna spend time with our students in classrooms, where these students have been reading and discussing and writing about their work.” 

Marisel Moreno, a professor in the department of romance languages and literature at Notre Dame, said she is excited for the dialogue her students will get to experience with poet Darrel Alejandro Holnes, who will visit one of her classes Tuesday.

“I’m hoping that they can, first of all, enjoy that interaction with him, learn more about him as a person to get to understand where he’s coming from and his poetry better,” Moreno said. 

Poetry Now, Aragon said, is a “modest contribution to what I believe is that national conversation of, ‘how can we celebrate the diversity of our communities, including our poets and writers?’”

Moreno said she feels Poetry Now is very significant as a literary gathering.

“I am honestly elated that this is taking place at Notre Dame,” she said. “It’s really a historic type of gathering, for a lot of Latinx writers, poets, artists in general, don’t tend to have much visibility.”

Contact Liam at lprice3@nd.edu

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Don’t ban books, celebrate their uniqueness

Let’s face it: nobody wants to hear that their book has been banned because of “controversial topics.” But the reality is that many of the classic novels that we were either forced to read in school or that we chose to read actually turned out to be either a challenged or banned book because of questionable content. 

Banned or challenged books are a fascinating topic when it comes to literature. In fact, banned/challenged books are so fascinating that there is an entire week in September dedicated to these books. This year, Banned Book Week will be occurring during the week of Sept. 18 and will conclude on Sept. 24. Now, this is not a national holiday. But I wish it was declared a national holiday because most of these books are classics that should be adored, but apparently the school system has to try to keep their students pure. They do not want to expose their students to sensitive topics. 

It may surprise you that many books that we all know and love are actually a part of the banned/challenged book list. Some well-known books that have been challenged and/or banned include J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and many more. According to the American Library Association’s website, there is a long list of books that have been banned and/or challenged, and most of the books have a laundry list of reasons why the book should be banned or challenged throughout the United States and in foreign countries. 

The idea of banned or challenged books really poses the question: why learn about these books in the school system? We all know many schools have strict curriculums where they have to teach certain books in an English classroom. Many of the books we are forced to read may have some of the most crude language that I cannot even say in this article, but we are still having to read them. When a teacher asks students about the language, the school is just asking for a lawsuit.

Many parents of high school and middle school students will also find some sort of excuse to say, “Well, this book has content that goes against my religious beliefs, so teachers cannot teach this material in the classroom,” or something to that effect. Take, for instance, the “Harry Potter” series. Say what you want about J.K. Rowling, but she created a truly magical (no pun intended) story for younger generations to enjoy. Some parents have gone on to challenge this book because it promotes witchcraft. This series’ main storyline is at a school of witchcraft and wizardry; it’s in the name of the school. Yet parents still want to make a big deal about how a young adult series such as “Harry Potter” is promoting witchcraft when it is an essential part of the story. 

Do I personally think that banning books is ethical? Absolutely not! If schools are banning books because most of the topics that are within the plot are very raunchy, that is extremely restrictive of not only what readers are exposed to but to the authors themselves. Sure, schools are entitled to their own opinion, whether it be a religious or an ethical reason. But that still does not detract from the fact that the author may feel discouraged to write another book because their work is considered to be controversial. 

In conclusion, banning books is highly unethical. If anyone wants to challenge a book over its contents, that’s fine. But don’t ban books because the contents are controversial. Celebrate the controversy!

Nicole Bilyak

Contact Nicole at nbilyak01@saintmarys.edu.