A while back I was watching a great video by Alexa Donne on how you don’t need to write an important book- which I highly recommend checking out if you need a pep talk. But it made me think: what even is an important book?
At the risk of rehashing a lot of the discussion there, I’d agree that it’s often used in marketing for issues books. And, I’d also go as far as to say, much like the literary fiction label, it’s also a way of slapping a “this is worthy” tag on a book.
My first order of contention with the very idea of an “important book” is how much genre snobbery comes into play here. Because generally speaking, it’s going to be mostly contemporary (and very occasionally historical fiction) that gets this moniker. We might even see a sci fi getting talked about this way… buuut only if it’s dystopia. And my beloved fantasy? Forget about it. Doesn’t matter if it shines a light on the true horror of war or explores deep psychological themes- it’s just never going to be talked about in the same way.
More concerning to me is how this is often framed. As Donne said “what’s important for one person might not be important for another”. And this couldn’t be more true. We all know that books are such a personal experience: a book that touches us and proves important could really fit into any category. Regardless of whether a book covers an important issue, it can become important in someone’s life. On the flipside, a book that covers topical issues can feel irrelevant or be something an individual doesn’t connect with. Claiming a book has “importance” in such a context seems a little meaningless, don’t you think?
However, I also think this goes deeper and touches on a more significant issue. In the vast majority of cases, I see books and stories that are deemed “important” are on the same narrow range of topics. For instance, I have read countless literary books about the struggles of a working or middle class person to fit in with the upper class… which, surprisingly, isn’t super relatable for most working or middle class people, despite how often it’s portrayed in stories 😉 Not that there is a deliberate conspiracy going on- just that, as carefully curated as a list may be, it will always be subject to human decision making and a natural tendency to trend-chase. The problem for me isn’t just that these books are samey or that the topic is “unrelatable” (as I’ve mentioned previously, that doesn’t necessarily matter), it’s that it leaves so much space for *other* important topics that never get discussed. Especially injustices that that may seem hard to package in a palatable way or are too sensitive to be touched. And this is not to say there should be less of a certain kind of story, just that sometimes I think the focus of what is “important” could be broadened a little.
And, perhaps most controversially, I’d also say that being “important” or someone’s “magnum opus” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. There’s still that pesky matter of taste to contend with; there’s the possibility it was published to chase a trend. And, worst of all, there’s the potential for it to be tryhard and cringy and moralising… which can all be painful to read! I guess the only positive here is that calling a book “important” doesn’t give you any real hint as to its quality.
So, all in all, I’m not sure how helpful I find the term… even if I’ve used it myself in an offhand way 😉 Obviously, it’d be the pot calling the kettle black if I critiqued every usage- nonetheless I’m finding myself more sceptical by the day about whether any books are more important than others.
What do you think? Do you find the term “important book” useful? If so, why? I want to hear what you think in the comments!