A lot of discussion about books seems to revolve around "messages." You know, the "message" a book sends. What the author is expressing, intentionally or otherwise, and how that message is received by those who read it.
If these messages were received, interpreted, and responded to individually, then it would all be purely academic, as a lot of people think literary criticism is. Maybe a book is full of racist, sexist stereotypes, or promotes a noxious agenda, or glorifies bad behavior, or is just offensively stupid, but if all that ends when you put down the book, who cares?
A lot of people, however, feel differently. Why would "whitewashing" matter if books have no significance beyond whatever is between the covers? Why would there be any concern over whether and how certain groups are represented? Do readers want to see characters like themselves solely out of a personal desire to identify with the protagonist, or because they feel diminished by their lack of presence in literature?
Won't someone think of the children?
I read this at age 12.
But I turned out fine, honest...
This is part of a much wider debate, of course. There has always been hand-wringing over what children read. There is a desire to provide young people with "wholesome" reading, or at least books that are worthwhile, educational, enlightening... something. Which is why of course children (the reading sort of children, anyway) have forever preferred to read books above their grade level that their parents and teachers did not choose for them.
Which is why young Inverarity was reading John Norman and James Clavell novels in sixth grade. And Stephen King by middle school, and Robert Heinlein well before I had the ability to see Starship Troopers as anything other than a story about space marines fighting giant bugs.
Is that a bad thing? It's kind of a moot point, because trying to restrict what kids read never works out. Rather, I'd advocate being aware of what they read. I'm not sure what to suggest if you think your sixth grader might not be quite ready for slave girls and people being boiled alive and skinned.
I do believe media affects us, probably more than a lot of people want to admit. Without wanting to enter into the great Violent Video Games debate, I tend to think arguments from hardliners on both sides are simplistic. Of course what we read, and watch, and play, affects us, desensitizes us, normalizes things. But we are also, to some degree, rational beings, and even children don't just passively absorb whatever they see or hear. We can process, we can think, we can examine and analyze and criticize.
This is so 19th century.
I stare at my girlfriend while she's sleeping.
Punk. I locked my wife in an attic!
I dug up my ex's corpse.
But, I'm not just talking about children here. I'm going to invoke the T-word.
Yes, this again.
Why do so many people hate Twilight? Well, there are a lot of reasons — bad writing, the flood of knock-offs that have taken over the YA genre, etc., but one of the most commonly cited complaints is the book's "bad messages."
Multiply this ×100 for books like Hush, Hush or Fifty Shades of Grey or all the other books that have capitalized on Twilight's romanticization of creepy, unhealthy relationships. There are those who say these books are dangerous for that reason: they teach girls that a relationship with a much older and more powerful obsessive control freak is romantic and sexy. But there are also people who say this is nonsense, readers don't necessarily want an Edward Cullen in their own lives just because they like reading about him.
I'd guess both things are true: a lot of people enjoy crappy books with crappy messages while being fully aware of how crappy they are. But I've also seen more than a few girls who genuinely want a boy who "cares" so much about them that he'll stalk her and try to control her movements. Did Twilight put that idea in their heads? And what is to be done, other than try to write better books, and criticize the ones you think are bad?
Considering, though, there are still girls today who read Wuthering Heights and somehow come away with the idea that Heathcliff is dreamy, or that Mr. Rochester is romantic, I'm a bit dubious about how much blame can be laid on Ms. Meyer.
Go to hell, writers who write about bad things!
What inspired this particular SBD post? Not Twilight. Not violent video games. Not another outburst of indignation on the Internets over some *-ist book.
Beauty, by Sheri S. Tepper.
It was Beauty, by Sheri S. Tepper. (Which I was reminded of by reading these reviews.)
There were times, I remember, when we said certain things were unspeakable. Fantasies too horrible for words. Imaginings too gross for description. Violence too inhuman to be put into human language. And then came those who said, 'We can speak it, we can say it, make stories of it, until there is nothing that is not there on the page for the eye to see, for the mind to comprehend, for the child in each of us to be corrupted and eternally tainted by.'
Sheri S. Tepper is kind of like Margaret Atwood but angrier and without the pretense of not writing science fiction. Her books are thought-provoking, disturbing, and unabashedly Second Wave Feminist with the subtlety of Carrie Nation.
(Typical Sheri S. Tepper ending: And then
Anyway, I read Beauty many years ago, and liked it, though I thought Tepper had a few bats flapping around upstairs. But I had almost forgotten the entire chapters she spends on screeds about horror writers and how they are making the world ugly. So in Beauty, she literally sends them to hell.
As I am moved through this place, I see some of them at desks, writing. Some are directing dramas. These are the willing ones who have always belonged to the Dark Lord. Others, the unwilling, who thought they could trifle with the Dark Lord’s works for amusement only, they are held in cages until time comes to act out their stories, and then they are let out. They are costumed, false faces glued to their own, breasts nailed to their chests if that is needed, their own genitals cut away or modified as the plot requires, this one to play that one’s wife or son or mother, another one to play the part of the character who will be slowly eviscerated in the third chapter, another one to be the child who returns from the dead with sharpened teeth or the child who is raped and then murdered, and then, then, they are set upon the stage, their memories wiped clean, and set to the play. Chapter after chapter, horror after horror, while the Dark Lord applauds and cries bravo, bravo, bravo.
There's no polemic like one written into a novel-length allegorical fantasy.
Do you think books affect our attitudes and culture?
Should authors be mindful about the messages in their books?
Are there books that bother you, to the extent that you really wish they hadn't been published?
Previous Saturday Book Discussions.