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

Mini-reviews: fab YA genre reads offering great representation

Often when we talk about diversity and representation, it’s contemporary novels that get all the attention. Somehow, it seems that those ‘edgy’ reads set squarely and realistically in the present lend themselves maybe a little more easily to reflecting the world’s diversity a little more readily. That doesn’t have to be the case, though. Here are three novels I’ve read recently that are both fab YA genre titles AND offer something more positive in the way of representation.

White Rabbit, Red Wolf, Tom Pollock (Walker), 2018

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This absorbing spy thriller features a maths genius protagonist with a severe anxiety disorder. The book opens with Peter in the midst of a panic attack, and the inciting incident (as stated in the blurb – don’t worry, we’re still spoiler-free here) is his scientist Mum being found stabbed before an awards dinner in her honour, his twin sister Bel missing. So, you can see that the tension levels are high from the start, and trust me, things do not get any easier for poor Peter, who already found it difficult just to go to school and cope with life on a normal level.

It’s quite difficult to talk about this book without spoiling it but, trust me, if you like high-octane thrillers, codes and conspiracies with plenty of uncertainty about who to trust and what’s coming next, this is a masterpiece. And, of course, the representation of Peter’s mental state is perfectly executed.

The Wrath and the Dawn series, Renee Ahdieh (Hodder), 2016

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This is a gorgeous take on the Thousand and One Nights, which opens with sixteen-year-old Shahrzad facing down death to be a bride of the Caliph, Khalid, and avenge her friend who met a terrible fate.

I’m not generally a fan of purely romantic books, but there’s plenty going on story-wise in this sweeping fantasy duology which explores a kingdom in ruins through the introduction of various amazing characters. Be warned that book 1, The Wrath and the Dawn, has a shocker of an ending, so you may want to have book 2, The Rose and the Dagger, to hand ready!

If, like me and many other readers, you find you can’t get enough of those characters, there are also novellas which add to the world Ahdieh has created. Some of these are insertions from specific points in the story, while others provide backstory.

The Fallen Children, David Owen (Atom), 2017

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This gripping novel brings creepy sci-fi unease to a contemporary London tower block, and reflects the community you would expect to find there. Owen offers a retelling of The Midwich Cuckoos that explores how teens are othered by society and treated as inherently problematic and dangerous, as well as layering on additional social problems.

The result is unsettling and provides well-rounded teen characters that it’s easy to understand and root for in their context, even if sometimes you’re willing them to make different choices.

All three of these are great examples of books offering positive representation, with The Fallen Children presenting contemporary reality as it is, not the default white, and both The Wrath and the Dawn and White Rabbit, Red Wolf offering #ownvoices perspectives.

For more information about these authors and their fabulous books, I’d recommend looking them up on Twitter:

@tomhpollock

@davidowenauthor

@rahdieh