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Literary Red Flags: Cause for Alarm?

“Red Flag Books: avoid people who read…”, “If your date reads these books, run for the hills”, “Watch out for people whose favourite books are..” The internet loves to tell us what to do, especially when there’s a healthy smattering of pseudo-psychology involved (I’m looking at you, TikTok). And nowhere is this more apparent than in the popular practice of analysing personality through literary taste: American Psycho, Lolita, A Clockwork Orange – all examples commonly listed among the top culprits for what are increasingly becoming known as ‘literary icks’. These books, in which central characters partake in their fair share of violence, bigotry, and otherwise generally depraved behaviour, have themselves flitted on and off various ‘banned books’ lists since their publication and have now become indicative of a certain type of ‘controversial taste’. A preference for these texts is, apparently, a sure sign of a disturbed character: an underlying lack of empathy, proclivity for aggression, or – perhaps most concerningly – an unhealthy obsession with business card fonts. 

All this speaks to a wider assumption: that the books we like to read, or indeed the media we like to consume, is in some way a reflection of our character. There is, certainly, some element of truth to this: when we recommend a book to someone, for instance, there must be a certain amount of character assessment involved. We assume they will enjoy it because of a specific trait or hobby of theirs, or maybe something they’ve mentioned repeatedly in conversation. I’m certainly not sure how delighted I’d be if informed by a friend that I should read A Clockwork Orange because it ‘reminded them’ of me. Media preference and personality do seem to overlap on occasion, but not always. 

There is, I suggest, no clear correlation between the books that provide an ‘enjoyable’ reading experience – the ones that sit comfortably within our expectations and worldview, the ones that coincide with our personalities – and the books that become our ‘favourites’. Some of the ‘best’ books I’ve ever read weren’t necessarily the most ‘enjoyable’ to read. Sometimes the reading process felt more like watching on in fascination or abject horror. How is the author doing this? Is this even allowed? Though occasionally the mood calls for a book that lets you gently flow through it like a literary lazy river, it’s the text that violently jolts you awake – the one that pokes and prods at your untested assumptions and ideologies – that leaves the greatest impression. 

At the risk of sounding like your Year 10 English teacher: books teach us stuff. They can expand our minds in directions we never thought they could be stretched to, and challenge viewpoints we didn’t know we had. Accessing this complex mental gymnastics involves choosing to read books that we know will provoke even our most deeply-held senses of morality, even if they only serve to validate exactly why we hold them. In a media landscape of increasingly short-form content, the very format of which seems geared towards creating conflict or ‘hype’ by eliminating nuance, the cultural conversations around ‘controversial’ texts must continue. Creating an arbitrary cultural ‘taboo’ around these, granted often deeply unsettling, books is no solution to anything: we need to understand the ‘transgressive’ in order to realise how to ‘progress’. 

In this way, the books we like most aren’t so revealing as the reasons why we like them. Sure, some people get a kick out of being seen with a ‘gritty’ book in public, but these ‘Red Flag Books’ cannot be – in themselves – a sign of anything more ‘sinister’ lurking beneath the surface of their adoring readers. They are ‘cause for alarm’ only in the sense that they push the boundaries of what is possible and acceptable within literature. So the next time you’re out with someone who says their favourite book is American Psycho, try asking them why. Maybe their reasoning will surprise you, and will lead to a long and fruitful discussion about corporate culture, authorial responsibility, and the ethics of media consumption. Or maybe they’ll tell you that it’s because they want to be Patrick Bateman, in which case: consider that flag very red indeed.

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