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Oct 28

Portrayal Does Not Equal Endorsement

This is a topic that’s been on my mind ever since I first began writing, really, and certainly ever since I was first published. With books out in the wild you get all sorts of people reading your work, and those people come from all walks of life, backgrounds, etc. Every reader brings their own experiences and world view to the table when they start reading, and I’ve always found it really interesting just how varied different people’s responses can be to the same work. One thing that always stood out to me, though, are those (relatively rare) occasions where something that occurs in a book – it doesn’t have to even be one of mine – that upsets the reader so much it causes them to stop viewing the work as a whole and start focusing almost exclusively on that one aspect.

By way of an example, say an author were to write a book about the deep south in the late 1800’s when lynchings were reaching a peak. If it were to be at all realistic then some of the characters, even main characters, therein would be horribly racist by today’s standards and would likely use a lot of inflammatory language and racial slurs. I can understand a reader who feels very strongly about racism in America feeling that the character in question is racist, but what I understand a lot less is when that same reader goes on to declare the book that contains the character is automatically racist, and maybe even extend that label to the author who wrote it as well. To me, that begins to smell a little like ‘books shouldn’t contain racism at all’ but, to go back to the post’s title, portrayal and endorsement really are two entirely different things. If you take the ugliness out of the world you’re attempting to portray then you end up with a story that isn’t fully honest. The film ‘The Help’ comes to mind and kind of relates to this example – there was a darkness in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960’s that it kind of glossed over. So, it wasn’t scary or violent and probably spared a lot of people from feeling bad or uncomfortable, but it also rang a little untrue.

This comes up a handful of times with every book I write, sometimes because of violence, sometimes because of smoking, sometimes because of drug or alcohol use, and sometimes it’s misogynistic language. I know at least a handful of people who read The Burn Zone didn’t care for the main character’s smoking and drug use, as if these were being portrayed as ‘good’ things because the protagonist did them, but the main character of that novel had experienced trauma on a level few of us ever will. I didn’t feel it was unrealistic that she might turn to something to help numb that, in fact I felt the opposite since time and time again that is exactly what people do in real life. I had her do those things because they felt real to me. It doesn’t mean I think young people should take up smoking and do a lot of drugs. Likewise, some have complained about the misogynistic slurs that appear in Alice in No-Man’s-Land, often voiced by one of the main characters (at least in the novel’s earlier chapters) but again, at that point she’s intentionally trying to be mean. Sometimes people are assholes. Even when they aren’t really assholes at heart, sometimes they’re just frustrated and angry and are reaching for the most hurtful thing they could say to someone – and sometimes they use the exact same language that has been hurtful to them in the past. That to me feels realistic. In fact I’ve seen it play out in real life, which is part of why I used it. It doesn’t mean I think people should say those things as a matter of course in the real world.

Something similar actually happened during the editing of my debut novel where I was essentially told ‘they will not print that word’. I changed it – in part because in that particular case I didn’t feel like it was central to the character or anything, and in part because it was my first novel and I didn’t want to get combative right out of the gate, but it always bugged me just a little. It felt to me like ‘there are limits to what art should portray, because some things are inappropriate in any context’ and I just can’t agree with that. It doesn’t mean I hate people who feel that way because I don’t, but I can’t agree with it.

On those occasions I’m afraid we must (I hope respectfully) agree to disagree.

4 comments

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  1. Marc Jentzsch

    Absolutely. I read not long ago that this is a big issue in the YA community, what with some aggressive virtue signaling by readers and reviewers (and occasionally other authors) potentially shutting out otherwise good works dealing with uncomfortable subject matter or language, or which otherwise don’t deal with things the way a particular reader prefers.

    I read a book as a kid where there was a fairly horrific scene of explicitly misogynistic torture leading to death. The imagery stuck with me…hell, it’s STILL with me. But at no point did I think the writer really wanted to do that to anyone or that he thought it was awesome or that he was a closet misogynist. The scene was making a point. A brutal and horrifying point. Misogynistic characters, racist societies, bad behavior…they all help with a story and its verisimilitude. Not everyone or everything in a story will be sterile or clean or whatever metaphor we want to put here. Nor should it be. Those would be awfully bland stories.

    The thing that stands out to me when I read is how self-aware the narrative appears (though occasionally, effective portrayal requires the narrative be blind to some elements, to be sure). Sometimes you really can tell through a combination of language, events, characterization, dialogue, structure, and so on, that what you are seeing is the author and not the story or a character or the setting. Not with 100% accuracy, but there are times when it’s leaping off the page and kicking you in the face. Presentation matters for effective portrayal.

    Anyway, I am in agreement with you, as a random internet poster whose opinion matters not at all. =)

    (forgive my bad, rambling structure and half-baked thoughts)

    1. James

      Hey don’t sell yourself short, your opinion matters as much as mine! It’s interesting you mention YA readers. This was really my first YA novel (some would argue it’s not technically even YA, but it always felt like YA to me) and it happened more so with this book than with any of my previous adult novels, maybe even more than all the others combined. Young people do tend to be more idealistic, I know I was, so maybe that’s part of it.

      1. Marc Jentzsch

        I just bought Alice in No-Man’s-Land yesterday. Can’t get to it until I finish with Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon series but I am looking forward to it (and the Burn Zone books, for that matter). I am an enthusiastic fan of your Revivors series and was checking in to see what else you had done since then when bang! Found several more books that look like great fun.

        I think this is the article I found ( http://www.vulture.com/2017/08/the-toxic-drama-of-ya-twitter.html ). It is long and at times it is stupefyingly irritating, but the thrust of the article is the same as your post: where is the line between creator and art? How sharp is the delineation? How clear should it be? Should fiction comfort or challenge. Has the mob become the gatekeeper?

        For a shorter commiseration, see ( https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/disagreement/ ), linked to in the article above.

        I don’t read a lot of YA fiction; although Lloyd Alexander is a perennial favorite of mine, and I recently picked up Sigler’s Alive series and quite enjoyed it. Your assertation that Alice is both YA and not, is a selling point for me. The best YA fiction is fiction first, and its target audience…later. I find it essential for a good book to have characters that are not emblematic of perfection, real, ideological, or otherwise. Characters must be flawed and often even ugly, in order to be successful as characters. A character does not have to be one a reader is in full agreement with for that character to be sympathetic and compelling. Taran of Caer Dallben, for example, is a petulant and often childish character, even as he grows and changes, his benevolent chauvinism as unthinking as his rashness and indeed his courage. Other characters in the books are bald racists or classists and are yet engaging and vital.

        Anyway, keep up the great storytelling.

        1. James

          Holy smoke, I finally got a chance to sit down and give these articles a good read. It sounds like I got off easy, though my book didn’t get nearly the buzz that The Black Witch did and so maybe I wouldn’t have under different circumstances. My first impressions after releasing a YA novel was that maybe it would be better to just stick with Adult, and the Vulture article cemented that for me. I’ve had plenty of people complain about my work over the years, you can’t release any kind of artistic work without that happening, but they usually just stuck to the book itself as a whole, or didn’t like the graphic violence, drug use, etc. It wasn’t until I wrote in YA that I saw folks declaring the book itself ‘problematic’ and maybe even wonder if I myself aren’t problematic as well. I remember one reader said she stopped reading because the two main POC characters use a lot of slang words. The intent was to draw a clear line between Alice’s world and this new world she gets stuck in, where even the language is alien, but she interpreted it as me, the author, making a minstrel show out of the disenfranchised, which was frustrating to me. It made me a little sad when I read in the Vulture article that an author wanted to introduce a POC character and was told ‘Spare yourself’, but in light of the rest of the article I can totally understand why. It’s unfortunate.

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