I’ve seen the threads, you’ve seen the threads, we’ve all seen the threads where people recommend their favorite “underrated” books, which inevitably end in people just recommending popular books. This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for a while, but I’ve never really been able to pinpoint my thoughts on it. Thankfully, Eri and Mana agreed to contribute to this post, which I really appreciate! We discuss how not every book can be “underrated,” the use of the word “underrated,” and how being labelled “underrated” can undermine the success of authors of color.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- not every book can be underrated
- the use of the word “underrated”
- undermining the success of authors of color
NOT EVERY BOOK CAN BE UNDERRATED
Frankly, people have just started throwing around the word “underrated” when their favorite series doesn’t get as much attention as they want it to (or so they think). Just because you don’t see your fave book on your timeline at all times doesn’t mean that it’s underrated! It gets even worse when people call their favorite book underrated when the publisher is clearly marketing it and has built a platform off promoting the series.
I have seen the Lunar Chronicles been called underrated, and I just had to take a moment to stare into the camera because this has to be a joke, right? Like sure, maybe people aren’t talking about this series (other than the fact that it has horrible representation) because it’s a 5+ years old? I read the series from the very beginning and they were never not popular okay.
I also adhere to the opinion that if your book has a fandom on tumblr, it probably isn’t underrated. I realize that not everyone is on tumblr, but the point stands because if the book is even BIG enough to get a fandom on tumblr, a platform where people can only focus on one popular book/series at a time, the book is not underrated!
Anyways, we cannot possibly talk about every single series enough at all times, so yes, while you don’t see your fave being talked about and discussed to the point of death every single moment, that doesn’t mean that it’s underrated. I don’t mean to call anyone out in particular, but I can pull up just a couple of those “what underrated books do you think more people should read?” twitter threads (of which there are a million) and show you replies that genuinely don’t make any sense.
Just a few examples: Laini Taylor is not underrated; she has such a wide fanbase, and her books have been big since Daughter of Smoke and Bone, a 2011 release. V.E. Schwab is not underrated; she’s book twitter’s (and tumblr’s) darling right now, so even if you’re saying one of her backlist books are underrated, you’re discounting the fact that she’s undeniably popular right now. Rainbow Rowell is not underrated; actually, if you think any of her books are underrated, I really need you to rethink that sentence.
I don’t mean to downplay these authors’ books; I’ve read a few of them and enjoyed them, but you can’t deny that there’s a pattern here. People complain that their favorite books aren’t appreciated enough, when often, no one’s really talking about them BECAUSE they’re books that released 5+ years ago. There’s a difference between reading backlist and reading a bestseller that’s been out for ages, so everything that is to say about the books have already been said.
There’s also something to say about how an overwhelming number of responses to those posts that I noted above are white. Getting people who only read white authors to support authors of color is a whole other issue (and a whole other post at this point honestly), but there are also people who never fail to call authors of color underrated, including bestselling authors of color, which frankly does not make the point that you think it makes. Mana’s going to talk about this in her section below.
Anyways, not every book can be underrated! That defeats the point of being underrated! If every single book that people think is underrated was actually underrated, we would have no popular series. This, of course, means we need to analyze the use of the word “underrated,” which Eri will discuss below.
THE USE OF THE WORD “UNDERRATED”
First, let’s step back and look at the word underrated with its opposite: overrated. I’m sure many of us tend to associate the former positively and the latter negatively but really, that doesn’t have to be the case.Because the thing is, overrated and underrated are both subjective terms, at least in how we often use them. It often represents how your personal taste matches up to perceived and actual popularity/success of a book.
The other pattern I see rather is how people get hung up on the word underrated as this sign of taste. Especially when as bloggers or otherwise, you look at the shiny books that are upcoming and discovering the next hit book, being there at the start it’s all rather exciting. Sometimes that drive to be the first backfires, we all want people to read our favorite books but tossing the word underrated around for every book that’s not the hot topic of the moment dilutes the meaning of the word.
Another thing to consider is that, as I mentioned earlier, by labeling something as underrated, you are implying that people have not heard of a book and fell under the radar. How certain can we really be about, especially when there is so much that goes into whether a book was successful?
How we get into tricky territory regarding “underrated” is when we fail to recognize the metrics of how it is defined. Depending on the perspective, what is underrated can cover a wide spectrum and where misconceptions arise. In the online book community, there is a strong focus on up and coming books which is only natural since that’s where active promotion from publishers and other industry professionals often is strongest. That means that backlist titles tend to be mentioned less, if you were not active at the point where the discussion around a title was at its peak. Unless you know the history of popular book trends, it’s easy to assume. At the end of the day tangible metrics like sales history cannot be ignored when talking about books being underrated. How that plays into undermining the success that authors of color have achieved is something Mana will go into next.
UNDERMINING THE SUCCESS OF AUTHORS OF COLOR
Eri defined underrated as subjective, and when we look at media, especially at books, we see the trend of calling books that have garnered mainstream success, “underrated”. Not only that, we have found that numerous books by authors of color are labelled “underrated” when in reality that is not always the case.
Why does this matter? I have seen a large amount of tweets indicating or at least assuming most authors of color are underrated. When we focus only on how a book by an author of color is underrated, then we are instilling the notion that books by authors of color are only sellable and palatable if seen inferior to their white counterparts. Meaning, we are more likely to attribute success to those who are white because we expect it versus authors of color who possibly can’t garner that much attention. This not something everyone is conscious of because why would we? It’s good to sell books by authors of color, and it’s also good to continue giving them success regardless if they made it onto the NYT Bestseller.
However, if we continue to undersell books like Legend by Marie Lu, The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, or An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, we fall in the trap of undermining their success. These books, for example, have not only paved the way for their respective genres, but have challenged and pushed for conversation on what it means to have authors of color in a space that is so predominately white. It is the assumption that all authors of color can only be underrated and that truly underrated books by authors of color get shoved aside because people tend to focus on books that are popular and mainstream, but still use the labeling of “underrated”. It’s a tricky slope because we cannot possibly always know what is a popular book and vice versa. This is why reflection is necessary when considering “underrated books” because the word has morphed entirely to not the intended usage and the difficulty to define such a vague word can undermine so much that I’ve mentioned.
With all of that being said, when considering authors of color, and promoting their work, we need to recognize the impact and history that comes along with it. We need to also understand that being mainstream is neither wrong nor a bad thing. We need to remember that we should want authors of color to have what many white authors have when it comes to fandom culture (minus, you know all of that negative stuff lol). It’s so important to give credit when it’s due, and we should actively have conversations on why we allow people to undersell authors of color more often than not.
Too many people call their favorite books and series “underrated” because they don’t see people talking about them 24/7, which simply isn’t feasible. If we talked about every so-called “underrated” book all the time, it would never end! It’s worth saying that often, books that people think are “underrated,” are in reality not discussed anymore because they came out 5+ years ago.
Also, “underrated” in and of itself carries a heavy connotation because it’s so subjective a word. How can we measure the worth of a book until it is not “underrated” nor “overrated”? The more we call a book “underrated,” simply because it’s not the current popular book of the day/week/month, the more we dilute the meaning of the word “underrated.”
There is also a tendency to constantly label books by authors of color “underrated” when they are NYT bestsellers. This undermines the success of these books and starts a slippery slope of implying that books by authors of color only do well if we do not expect them to do so. People consider books by authors of color “underrated” more often than not, and this undermines their success.
What are your thoughts on this topic? How do you feel about so-called “underrated” books?