‘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 or @elizabethlianap on Twitter.

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


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.

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