When (non-writing) people find out I’m a writer, one of the first questions they usually ask (right after something along the lines of how I plan to make money) is what kind of books I write. When I say literary fiction I’m usually met with a blank stare and I end up trying to explain:
“It’s general fiction. I tend to write stories about families.”
“I want to write the type of stories you probably read in English classes.”
“It’s not fantasy or women’s literature or mystery or anything like that. It’s just everyday stuff.”
These all fail for obvious reasons: they are too general, they discredit the work I’m doing, they describe it for what it isn’t. At this point I usually start offering the titles of the books I’m reading at that moment (and I seem incapable of reading fewer than five at any given time), but people rarely have heard of them. Then comes the killer question.
“So what’s your favorite book?”
I never have any clue how to answer this question. First, this question is one that begs a recommendation, but I’d venture a guess that the average reader has different taste than I do. I avoid bestsellers—not because I feel that something successful is somehow tainted of worth but because I’ve rarely enjoyed books I pulled from the bestsellers shelf. There have been a few (The Time Traveler’s Wife, Wicked, The Glass Castle) but more often I read a few pages only to find that nothing entices me.
The second reason I find this question so hard is because I hate to reveal something I like only to have someone else hate it. Yeah, yeah, I know. We can’t all like the same stuff, but I get too worried that people will judge me based on what I find good (and not only good but amazing). If you tell me your favorite book is Twilight, yeah, I’m going to judge you, so I can only assume you’re doing the same to me.
Because, really, the type of literature we enjoy says a lot about who we are—even if I’m not always sure exactly what it says. I’m reading some Amy Hempel right now and I just love it, but I also love The Abhorsen Trilogy, a YA fantasy series. I love the experimental form in Carole Maso’s Ava, but I also love Fitzgerald’s more traditional The Great Gatsby. And I certainly can’t pick a favorite. So to the man on the airplane reading a trade paperback I might say I like The Wheel of Time, or The Kite Runner (which I actually hated). To my cousin asking for recommendations of Facebook I suggest some of the less-dense literary books I enjoy: Middlesex, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. When my super-religious friend asks what books I’ve enjoyed lately I’m sure to mention only books that present her religion in a positive light and not any Bertrand Russell.
Partially this is because of what I said about: It’s hard for me to just pick one favorite, or even a top five list (which I see as different from my desert island list). But it’s also because I want to paint myself in a certain light to certain people. I’m certainly not going to admit my love for YA in a group of literary fiction writers (except, I just did—but I assure you, I substituted YA for a more embarrassing genre) but I’m also not going to gush about how I love Hempel’s use of negative space my grandparents (who prefer lighter reads).
So how do you handle this question? Do you go for all honest all the time or do you tweak your answers depending on the group you’re with?