A Fiction Reader’s Guide to Social Interaction

Whitney Carpenter explores the implications and consequences of answering the age-old conversation killer: what’s your favorite book?

There are some questions that you can’t be expected to answer honestly in polite society. Of these well-known conversational blunders (inquiring a woman’s age, a person’s income, why a new acquaintance doesn’t have all ten fingers), spontaneously asking someone to name their favorite novel is probably the worst. There is simply no good answer.

I know what you’re thinking, polite reader with your leather-bound, gold-leafed copy of Great Expectations on the mantle. You are wondering what sort of silly illiterate claims that there is no “good” book to call your favorite.  And I agree wholeheartedly.  There are many books worthy of the title, but that fact does not make me any more eager to name a favorite. 

Unfortunately, I can’t lay my reluctance at the door of sentimentality and claim that my adoration of novels is so impartial as to exclude favoritism.  I have buckets full of favorite books. My bookcase is organized to include two shelves devoted entirely to favorite books, on which the books are further organized by depth of affection and attractiveness of cover. 

No, my reluctance comes from a quaking social squeamishness.   Great works of fiction often evoke equally great assumptions about their enthusiasts.  Therefore, unless you are lucky in the obscurity of your tastes, this very personal piece of information allows the questioning party to label you as an established “type” based on the rumored characteristics attached to that particular novel’s followers.  Through a process that I like to refer to as literary stereotyping, your favorite novel becomes a social calling card, a veritable status symbol.  

Certainly the more earnest readers of this diatribe (the aforementioned Mr. Great Expectations among them) are throwing up their hands in protest of such scheming and self-consciousness.  Scoff if you will, literary stereotyping is a real discriminatory practice. Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is what Nike sneakers were in the mid-nineties: instant cool. 

No work of literature is too exalted to fall prey to literary stereotypes. Even a fondness for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be interpreted as a fondness for pre-Protestant culture, a partiality for recreational corset use, and a weakness for necklaces featuring fairies perched on bottles full of glitter.  

In the face of these stereotypes, I consider lying about your favorite novel an entirely justified falsehood. I see no reason to subject so personal a choice to the rigors of public scrutiny. I’ve developed a system for selecting an appropriate decoy novel for situations when the question cannot be politely avoided.  

An ideal decoy novel is generally innocuous: vaguely suggestive of your intelligence, widely recognized, not too sexy (read: Nabakov’s Lolita or anything by Joyce Carol Oates), and preferably being sold at Urban Outfitters with a trendy new cover.  Of these criteria, being widely recognized is the most important.  No novel, no matter how beloved and perfectly crafted, can stand up to an awkward verbal synopsis given to an acquaintance. Take it from someone who always wants to talk about E.M. Forster after a few beers: the subject is better avoided.

To dodge the awkward discussion of plot summaries, my stock answers read shamefully like the photocopied syllabus of a lower-division undergrad English lecture.  Yet even these texts are not without considerable associations.  

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, for example, implies a certain morose disposition and the ownership of several pairs of black tights.  Similarly, Hawthorne’s House of The Seven Gables suggests serious sexual frustration, while a love for Hemingway belies a weakness for the sauce. The choice of Frank Herbert’s Dune or Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy insinuates that you were too ashamed to admit your first choice, Ender’s Game, because it involves non-satirical spacecraft and is not yet vindicated by being “retro” or “classic.” As for Milton’s Paradise Lost — well, no one was going to believe that was your favorite anyway.

Political implications are also important to keep in mind.  A declaration for Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is a firm indicator of socialist leanings. Similarly, a fondness for Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway shows a soft spot for feminist theory. The prize tomatoes of any modernism lecture, Joyce’s Ulysses and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, are also rife with political associations; however, these are generally overlooked in favor of the equally damning hipster implications.  

It goes without saying that Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand is shorthand for a certain social demeanor (that is to say, being a jackass), so if you value your reputation as a sympathetic person this decoy is best reserved for the company of other Rand enthusiasts. On the off chance that you mistake the fondness of your friends for Atlas Shrugged, instant recovery is possible by evoking Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a text that implies a kind heart and acts as an effective repellent for Rand junkies. (A handy primer for deciphering how your friends feel about Ayn Rand: Are your friends cruelly indifferent to you? Is anyone smoking a cigarette with a dollar sign on it?)

Like any good premeditated judging device, literary stereotypes do create an opportunity for the bolder sort to harness these associations to project a favorable image.  While this trick can be employed very successfully (especially among young women professing a love for Salinger’s Franny and Zooey), it is not for everyone.   For example, when done correctly, telling some young fellow at a party that you adore George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss can imply that you are (attractively) jaded and worldly. Incorrect application of the same novel, however, could result in that very young man mistaking your charming declaration for a hint that your taste in men is inclined toward ill-fated hunchbacks/painters and (provided that he is neither hunchback nor painter) is his consequently being less likely to ask for your phone number.  

In the face of this difficulty I offer the decoy novel that I have found (through entirely unscientific research) to be the best choice when one desires to answer this question respectably while concealing the true inclinations of one’s literary desires.   Though an acknowledged classic, this novel has inspired a feature film, thus allowing you to preserve your pretense of intellectualism while carefully transitioning the conversation to the less dangerous but equally impressive topic of “Why Adaptations are Bad.” 

With suspense sufficiently built (and all of those Pride and Prejudice freaks on the edge of their imitation-Edwardian seats) the ideal decoy novel can be revealed. Obviously, and undoubtedly, the answer is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

I have found that The Great Gatsby is frequently name-dropped by two demographics.  One of these, the firmly qualified literary types, can call The Great Gatsby their favorite novel and be considered learned, even modishly intellectual.  A reply of the same from a member of the second group (youths with clunky plastic eyeglasses and purposefully weathered messenger bags) is generally accepted as earnest, but chalked up to a mandatory summer reading list and a placating personality.  

Regardless of these distinctions, the irreproachable quality of the novel neutralizes any implications and therefore evokes no literary stereotypes.  The Great Gatsby has all of the earmarks of a marvelous novel — arresting prose, patriotic suggestions, contraband liquor, and class commentary — yet remains the equivalent of professing a love for The Beatles amongst music enthusiasts.  In short: a partiality for The Great Gatsby is a confession obvious to the point of being a virtual non-statement.  

Though I have discovered the ultimate deterrent of literary stereotypes in The Great Gatsby, I occasionally question my purely defensive tactics.  Perhaps my time would be better used proactively, encouraging people to embrace those stereotypes and denouncing other stereotypes as utterly unfounded.  Someone must take a stand against such untruths; after all, Chuck Palahniuk novels do not always make a pervert .   

Whether on the defensive or the offensive, in the battle against literary stereotypes no resources will be committed to convincing those of you who consider this theory totally bunk.  In this instance, I think, skepticism is its own punishment.  Just keep admitting that your favorite novel is Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and the rest of us will keep assuming that no one asked you to the junior prom.  

Whitney Carpenter is a would-be writer who spends her time starting great cubicle conversations with questions like, “Which soda do you think is the classiest?" She blogs the mundane at Little Nearer.