Problematic texts and reader-writer-text relationships

This is a post I’ve wanted – and hesitated – to write for some time. Like many readers (and writers), I worry about representation, about #ownvoices, about the balance between books showing diversity and getting that diversity right. Clearly, there’s a world of difference between wanting to reflect the world around you with a diverse cast, even if you personally occupy a powerful/privileged position within the world, or writing from a well-researched less powerful position and being the brat who tantrums about not being ‘allowed’ to write outside of your own experience.

There are difficult discussions to be had about #ownvoices, which at its heart is intended to validate marginalised writers and bring out stories that we haven’t had enough access to. It has, however, had the side effect of making people feel obliged to ‘out’ themselves or share personal details about identities, health conditions and background that they may not have chosen to otherwise. And, much as we may loathe the tantrummers, their claims that writing is inherently an imaginative exercise are valid: if all writing becomes autobiographical, where does that leave us?

Anyway, I intended to write about problematic texts today, not own voices (although this is related). Texts can become problematic over time as social values shift – witness the difficulties we’ve seen with rewrites to Enid Blyton to make her fit contemporary family value (less slapping in the school stories – particularly that associated with an ‘exotic’ Spanish temperament, although I’m not sure how/whether Famous Five rewrites deal with all the Gypsy-blaming). Obviously, texts can also be problematic from the start, often noticed only by some people – depending on who you are (or where you stand) – an issue of positionality. For example, personally I have issues with a much-beloved 2015 YA novel ‘about’ mental illness, which I feel does an appalling job of representing the mentally ill character: All the Bright Places. Please be aware that I am about to share spoilers for this book, so do skip to the next paragraph if you need to. In this novel, Theodore Finch has bipolar disorder and that’s pretty much his entire self. He commits suicide towards the end of the novel and there is no sense that he needn’t have done, that he could have been helped and – worse – all the kids at school who previously ignored/ridiculed him now celebrate him, so to a depressed reader, it could well look like suicide is a way to achieve love/acceptance. Highly irresponsible.

However, this book is massively popular, because it has ‘big’ characters with overwhelming emotions, which many teens can relate to, and it is emotional and romantic – many reviewers rate it highly, because it moved them. The few negative reviews tend to come from people who have had more personal experiences with depressive illnesses and are concerned with the messages created. This is similar to the issue of the ‘white default’ seen in many SFF novels and TV/film (decreasingly so, thankfully), where writers don’t think about using a diverse cast and describe all their characters based on white-skinned humans, even when they are aliens/dwarves etc. Equally, this was often only noticed by readers/viewers of colour until recently – or, more sadly, was not even noticed by them because it had become so much the norm. I have related before on this blog how my diverse-city-dwelling students will populate their stories with people named ‘Bob’ and ‘Susan’ because ‘That’s who’s in stories’, even though they are more likely to spend their time with people named Bilal or Sufiya.

My point is that often only certain groups of reader are positioned to see how texts are problematic – and we should listen to them. If enough people with a specific experience/identity are saying that a text misrepresents that experience/identity, then it probably does. Some of these examples might be explainable due to changing social context – note I’m saying explainable, not excusable/forgivable – but that doesn’t mean we keep holding them up as great examples. New texts exist that can replace these older texts (yes, Laura Ingalls Wilder apologists, I am looking at you!). At the same time, no single view of the world (and that is what a text offers – a view) can be perfect. It’s a snapshot. We need to consider how damaging that misrepresentation is. In the case I examined above, I believe it’s actively dangerous for some readers, who are in a particularly vulnerable state already. In the case of whitewashing racial representation as discussed in SFF, the damage is cumulative, so adding new texts is what’s needed, rather than getting rid of existing ones, although texts that provide obviously negative racial rep do need removal.

To end on a positive note, here are some YA novels that offer more productive representation of mental illness:

  • Highly Illogical Behaviour, John Corey Whaley (Faber) 2016
  • Under Rose-Tainted Skies, Louise Gornall (Chicken House) 2016
  • Am I Normal Yet?, Holly Bourne (Usborne) 2015
  • Beautiful Broken Things, Sara Barnard (Macmillan) 2016

Wordy Wednesday: But how do you read so much?

I’m often asked how I read so much – or people say ‘oh I wish I had time to read’ (often in that passive aggressive way that implies that they’re just doing much more important things, actually – but that’s a different issue).

Firstly: I don’t read that much. I average about 50-60 books a year – for a book blogger, that’s seriously small fry. I’ve seen some whose Goodreads counts are 250+ per year!

Secondly, I’m not reading War and Peace on a weekly basis. Mostly, I’m reading YA novels, some children’s (Middle Grade/9-12), with an occasional adult title thrown in.  It’s rare for me to pick up a massive tome, but it can happen.

Most importantly, though: I want to read, so I read. To that ‘oh I wish…’ person – you clearly don’t, actually. And, incidentally, it’s the same with writing. If you want to do it, you make/find the time for it. For me, that means reading on the bus, sometimes while cooking dinner, as a five-minute break between heavy-thinking tasks to clear my mind (nothing spirits me away like a good book!), as well as the standard reading in bed.

Starting this beauty on my bus journey today. I’d read a lot less if I could drive! #diverseYA

— Beth Kemp (@BethKemp) August 20, 2018

A final point: having discovered podcasts, bus time started to get a little crowded, so I now try to limit podcasts to walking to and between buses – commuter life is complex! What uses for otherwise ‘dead’ time like travelling have you come up with? When/how do you fit reading in?

Reading Recommendations Slide 27: Revision Season Escapism 3 – Historical

This half term, all my recommendations will focus on reading for pleasure, relaxation and escapism during revision season. This week I’m offering four historical titles allowing students to get lost in rich evocations of the past.

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 4 – Revision Season Escapism – Historical

The last theme posted was escape into fantasy for revision season. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Reading Recommendations Slide 26: Revision Season Escapism 2 – Fantasy

This half term, all my recommendations will focus on reading for pleasure, relaxation and escapism during revision season. This week I’m offering three titles featuring fantasy worlds, all of which have at least one sequel to get stuck into (and the one that is ‘only’ a duology are classic fantasy big fat books, so plenty of reading there!

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 3 – Revision Season Escapism – Fantasy

The last theme posted was contemps not set in school for revision season. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Reading Recommendations Slide 25: Revision Escapism 1 – Contemporaries

This half term, all my recommendations will focus on reading for pleasure, relaxation and escapism during revision season. This week I’m offering three contemporaries which, somewhat unusually, do not focus on school as a setting. (I wouldn’t want to read about high school politics when trying to escape from exam prep and thoughts of school!)

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 2 – Revision Season Escapism – Contemps

The last theme posted was witches. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Reading Recommendations Slide 24: Witches

A nice set of different novels with witches: two contemporaries (one including mystery, supernatural and historical elements), one historical and one dystopian eco-thriller – something for everyone!

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 5 – Witches

The last theme posted was for fans of the Big Bang Theory. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Reading Recommendations Slide 23: For Fans of The Big Bang Theory

I haven’t done a media-linked theme for a while, so I thought I’d offer these books for this week, which I think will all appeal to fans of The Big Bang Theory. Each has that geek chic vibe and humour (the top two are more laugh-out-loud than the lower two, but all have some), and has something to say about different types of people getting along.

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 4 – For Fans of The Big Bang Theory

The last theme posted was International Women’s Day. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Reading Recommendations Slide 22: International Women’s Day

These books all offer something relevant for International Women’s Day this week (March 8th). Buffalo Soldier and Things a Bright Girl Can Do both provide historical perspective on the position of women, while Asking For It and What’s A Girl Gotta Do? are both focused on the contemporary situation. Asking For It is suitable for older students as its discussion of rape is fairly brutal at times (although as Emma doesn’t remember the incident, there isn’t a description of the event as such. I wouldn’t personally give this one to yr10 and below though as the ideas are mature).

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 3 – International Women’s Day

The last theme posted was fairy tales. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Reading Recommendations Slide 21: Fairy Tales

These books all borrow from fairy tales, folklore or existing classic stories as their source material. This is a genre of its own with plenty to choose from. (I’m particularly looking forward to Louise O’Neill’s take on The Little Mermaid, The Surface Breaks, due out in May – bound to be an interesting feminist re-interpretation of that problematic story…)

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 2 – Fairy Tales

The last theme posted was friendship. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links. (Next week I’ve got a nice set ready for International Women’s Day)

Reading Recommendations Slide 20: Friendship

These books all share fabulous representation of friendships – whether those friendships pre-exist before the story or are formed through the story.

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: Friendship

The last theme posted was genre-twisting/unusual reads. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.