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

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Beth Kemp

Teacher of English, writer, blogger, reader, mother, feminist

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