Are “safe” books really what we want?
Last week, in the comments to Kris’s wonderful post about abelist language and the stigmatization of mental health issues, several commenters raised questions about what words can and cannot be used ‘safely,’ and noted the complexity of words that have different meanings and different contexts. A word like “irrational,” for example, has great importance within the Social Sciences, but can also serve as an inappropriate substitute for “crazy” or “insane.” That discussion really had me thinking about how much context can matter, not only in terms of what we are presuming and implying when we use certain descriptions, but also where we are applying certain descriptions and to what end.
For example, one of the reasons I was uncomfortable with all of the references to Kathleen Hale as “crazy” – beyond the stigmatization problem – is that I also felt such a label pushed her behavior into a place where it seemed aberrant and therefore not necessary to criticize. Like because it was “obvious” she was “crazy,” we shouldn’t worry about “normal” authors stalking readers. Never mind the huge leaps made in ascribing her behavior and her motives to mental illness, but even beyond that, the prescriptive label of “crazy” also served for some as a kind of shield, behind which Hale could have safe harbor from “unreasonable” readers and bloggers who objected to her behavior, her post, the Guardian’s publication of it, Harper Collins’s silence, and the rallying of others to her defense. And suddenly, we were in a discussion about Hale’s purported motives, which we could not possibly be privy too, rather than a discussion about the behavior itself and the way readers and authors responded to that behavior.
Then, this week, Janine reviewed Ilona Andrews’s Burn for Me, and one of her comments seemed particularly relevant to the previous week’s discussion, namely that when she’s reading a book about a different cultural context – one she’s not familiar with – she can “overcompensate:” Sometimes I want to bend over backwards to make sure I’m being sensitive to all possible issues and I go too far as a result.
While some descriptions of Hale seemed thoughtlessly insulting, Janine’s comment seemed very much the opposite to me – so concerned with being on the ‘right’ side of the appropriation issue that she went too far the other way.
And in both cases, even though in so many ways they seem like diametrically opposed responses, there is a similar outcome, namely the potential to stifle complex, difficult discussion about boundaries, underlying issues, questions of representation, and investigation of what type of representation is appropriate and when.
Before I go further, let me say how much I appreciate Janine’s honesty and candor, because her willingness to engage in that discussion created an opportunity to talk about something that has been on my mind for many months now, and which I have similarly heard from many other readers and authors – namely, the ubiquity of a stifling fear of being called out for the ‘wrong’ view of a character or a book.
I realize this seems like an oxymoron. After all, don’t all the references to Hale as “batshit” and “insane” and “off her rocker” and whatever pejorative you might want to use here mean that we need to be more assiduous in policing each other when it comes to reading representations ‘correctly’ and displaying the appropriate understanding and respect for differences?
Contrary to what may seem like the obvious answer to some of you, I’m going to say instead, “Maybe not.” And here’s a very condensed explanation of why.
Disclaimer: Discussions related to representation are incredibly complex, often contentious, potentially volatile, and unresolvable into any true universal principles. Not to mention, far, far beyond what I’m attempting here. In fact, at this point, I’m less concerned about the representations, per se, as I am interested in looking at the conditions we are or are not creating around having those much more difficult and complex conversations.
Obviously representation matters. Words matter, how people and cultures and identities and conditions are represented in language matters. That said, I think fiction and real life are different contexts, and as such, they often present different challenges and opportunities.
For example, when we use abelist language to describe someone like Kathleen Hale, we’re making presumptions about a real person, and those presumptions unfortunately, if inadvertently or unintentionally, stigmatize certain conditions and the people who identify with them. Also, we just don’t know what Hale’s mental state is, so the presumptions are also, well, presumptuous, and even potentially dangerous.
If, however, you have a character in a book named “Mad Rogan,” I’m going to have all sorts of questions before I decide whether his name is ableist. For example, how did that nickname come about? Is the book challenging that name in any way? Is there a commentary in the story about madness and insanity? Are there differences between the way people use the word “mad” and the way they use “crazy” and do any of those differences apply here? In other words, my list of questions is going to be a hell of a lot longer than my questions as applied to a real-life woman for whom we have a woefully incomplete narrative.
For one thing, in fiction we really can talk about character motivations, and we can interpret and debate and disagree about those interpretations. There are often narratives and meta narratives in a work of fiction, and what seems straightforward or uncomplicated on one level, may actually be working subversively or questioningly on another. And, of course, reasonable, bright people are going to disagree about how any given character or characteristic is represented, as happened in the discussion thread to Burn For Me, where several commenters really appreciated and liked the way Andrews represented Hinduism. I wonder, though, what would have happened had the first comments been from people who were dissatisfied with that portrayal. Because in order to even have that discussion, we’ve got to have a conversation space that feels safe enough for people to disagree without getting massively defensive or offensive. And I feel like what’s happening instead is that many people are simply not engaging at all.
I really started to notice this during the massive Fifty Shades backlash, where some people were talking about how they felt shamed, and others felt that shame was being conflated with critical discussion of the book, and rather than working through this dilemma, the discussion just kind of dissipated without resolution. Readers felt they needed to justify their reading tastes, complete with disclaimers for problematic texts. And in the wake of that, I wonder how much risk authors feel free to take, especially when it seems clear that we won’t have more diversity in the Romance genre without many conflicted portrayals and representational missteps along the way.
And most of all I wonder whether there’s a way we can be both critical of those representational missteps and still authentically and convincingly encouraging of more risk and more diversity. Because right now I feel like we’re crowding ourselves into a corner where we’re actually cutting ourselves off from what we claim to want more of. And ironically, what seems “safe” in Romance isn’t necessarily the kind of aware and enlightened representation that people reference when they talk about wanting more diversity.
Part of this, I think, goes back to what people believe that the Romance genre should do. Should it present moral exemplars and represent characters and characteristics in an “ideal” way? Is there a perceived standard of how certain characters and cultures and characteristics should be represented, and if so, are we essentializing that standard to the point where we are only willing to accommodate a narrow range of characters and circumstances?
Rarely in fiction do we get the kind of clarity about why certain representations are problematic that we do in real life. And I believe that’s part of what makes fiction so important – it can challenge us to think differently, to look at situations and characters from different perspectives, to question our own values and principles. Personally, I like moral and ethical ambiguity in Romance, although I know that many readers do not. But I also feel that the broader our boundaries are, the more of everything there is for all of us, and the better chance we have at true diversity and non-stereotypical representation. Problematic characters can be imperfect in ways that make readers think, dig deeper into their own views, and understand something familiar in a new way.
I’d rather have a book culture where authors don’t feel like writing outside some very narrow lines is considered risky, and where a single book doesn’t have to stand for – and be judged as — an entire identity system. And as much as I value critical analysis of representation in the genre, I think that the inclination to label characters and texts with all those “ist” terms is actually getting in the way of doing the work of analysis to break down how and why those representations are problematic.
I’ve heard comments to the effect that everyone is too sensitive these days, but I think it’s more that people are afraid of not being sensitive enough. Which may be even more paralyzing in the end, because uncertainty will feed the fear indefinitely, and both authors and readers will withdraw rather than engage in a way that feels unsafe.
In my more idealistic days, I figured what the hell — unconventional, talented authors will persevere and break through. Just as I used to think that bold readers will speak no matter what. Except that I’m pretty bold and I find myself holding back when it seems like more work than fun to talk about a book that’s perceived as a “bad example” of whatever.
So one thing I’m going to try to do less of myself is using labels as shorthand – misogynist, anti-feminist, racist, abelist (all the ists and isms)– when I can instead explain my issue with the conduct or the symbolism or whatever. I know that I can shut down when too many labels start flying around, even though I’m guilty of using them myself. Also, I’m going to try to overcome my own concerns about having to defend something I anticipate will be controversial, and just get out there with it, because I’ve self-censored many times over the past few years, and I’m not any more content for it.
But what do you think – do you feel like you’re walking on eggshells these days, or are you happy with the current discussion culture? Or maybe you feel that everyone just needs a swift kick in the ass and a big dose of get over yourself. Any thoughts of how we can cultivate more robust book criticism without discouraging diversity?