Politics, YA and Narrative

Posted: September 4, 2012 in Political Wrangling
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Here’s a contentious statement: A writer’s personal politics cannot ever be wholly disentangled from what they write. Stories reflect our culture even as they shape it, and as culture is an intrinsically political concept — in the sense of not only shaping and reflecting the politics of the people within it, but actively seeking to comment on how and why this happens — so too is storytelling. At base, fiction is an attempt to answer two different questions with a single answer: nobody can ask what if without first establishing what is. Assumption is as much a part of narrative as invention, and often betrays as much, if not more of the writer than anything they consciously create. Like it or not, our politics — by which I mean, our moral, social and spiritual beliefs about the world as refined through the lens of our individual biases, ignorance, privileges and experience — drive our assumptions; and in fiction, our conscious and unconscious beliefs about what is become the parts of the story we assume the reader already knows — the characters, tropes and logic we assume to be universal, or at least unimportant, and which therefore require neither examination by the audience nor explanation by us. They’re our personal default settings, where personal is the operative word: not everyone will share them, and we forget that at our peril.

For instance: as a teenager, I wrote a number of escapist stories that all began with a bored, frustrated girl of about my age being suddenly rescued from maths class by magic, aliens or something similarly fantastic. I’ll give you three guesses as to my least favourite subject — but while I was fully aware of replicating my own bias, I never saw the harm in doing so. And why would I have? It was my bias. The fact that it was fairly benign doesn’t change its status as an assumption, viz: an aspect of the story that I didn’t intend the prospective reader to question, and whose universality I therefore took for granted — not because I thought that everyone secretly hated maths, but because I wasn’t interested in the feelings and opinions of people who liked it. While the primary point of narrative is certainly to make the reader think, imagine and question beyond the norm, that can only happen if both reader and writer agree on what normal actually is; and if the reader’s own opinions and experiences aren’t encompassed by the writer’s take on what’s normative — if, in fact, they are absent altogether, or else marginalised, twisted and scoffed at — and the reader notices the dissonance, then the likelihood is that they’ll become hostile to the author, or at least to their assumptions, and conclude that the speculative, what if elements are fundamentally flawed by virtue of having been extrapolated from an inaccurate view of reality.

Here’s another, considerably less benign assumption my teenage self made: that white people live in cities and towns, while brown people live in tribal groups in the forest, desert or plains. Not that I’d have phrased it that way if you asked me outright — obviously, I knew people of all nationalities could live in all types of places! But subconsciously, from the culture in which I lived and the tropes I’d absorbed from exposure to other narratives, I’d nonetheless internalised the idea that the type of civilisation I found familiar must always be the work of white people. One brief flash of self-awareness at the age of 14 made me wonder if, just maybe, there was something offensive in my having a lone black character speak in broken English; the thought made me profoundly uncomfortable, and hopefully to my credit, I abandoned that version of the story not longer after. The one that ultimately replaced it, however, while certainly better in some respects — brown people building cities! egads! — was just as racially inept as its predecessors. This time, I wrote about a continent where the indigenous race was dark-skinned, long-lived, innately magical and not-quite-human, and where the human population was descended either from escaped slaves (black) or colonist farmers (white) — and despite having ostensibly created a setting where white-skinned humans were the minority and had arrived last of all, I still managed to have a light-skinned royal family and predominantly white protagonists.

The fact that I had good intentions doesn’t make those early stories any less problematic, and while it’s true that I wasn’t trying to write politically about race, that doesn’t change the fact that I’d internalised enough negative stereotypes that not only had I failed to recognise them as negative, I didn’t even understand they were stereotypes. I had simply assumed that the tropes I’d employed were acceptable, neutral defaults, as inoffensive and apolitical as the classic fantasy usage of elves and dwarves. But our choices always speak to our opinions, whether we mean them to or not. Familiarity is synonymous with neither inoffensiveness nor neutrality, and while the infinite variety of human taste and experience makes it impossible to please everybody, let alone equally, there’s a wealth of difference between causing offence by actively challenging the assumptions of others, and causing offence by failing to challenge your own.

And the thing is, even if you’re aiming for the former option, you won’t always succeed: partly because, as stated, it’s impossible to please everyone, but mostly because we all still need some basic assumptions to work from. A single piece of fiction cannot question the entirety of itself, because then you’d be questioning questions — an infinite recursion without answer or end. But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to ever challenge assumptions, either; the point is to accept that, all too often, it’s the things we take for granted — the things we neither explain nor question — that say the most about us as writers, political beings, and as people. The argument that stories shouldn’t be judged for anything their authors think is irrelevant therefore strikes me as having fundamentally missed the point of criticism: Creators shouldn’t have a monopoly on interpreting what they’ve made, while the assumptions which underpin a work are just as important as the inventions which make it unique.

To take one example, I’ve written before, in detail, about my issues with default narrative sexism in SFF: instances where fictional worlds and cultures are anchored in sexist social logic for no better reason than that the authors have assumed its existence either to be so fundamental to sentience, or its use as a trope so unremarkable in narrative, that they never considered excluding it. Or, alternatively, their efforts to write an equal society might come burdened with a whole new set of sexist assumptions, the most common one being to masculinise women without feminising men — there’ll be plenty of empowered female soldiers, leaders and spies, but not so many male nurses, teachers and domestics. (A big part of real-world sexism is still to exalt traditionally male pursuits as being objectively desirable for everyone while discrediting female ones as being objectively undesirable for everyone, but particularly for men.)

And then there’s the current, depressing trend in YA discrimiflip novels: stories which all too often base their supposedly egalitarian messages on simplistic, binary notions of discrimination and privilege by taking a mainstream, powerful group (men, the cisgendered, straights, white people, the able-bodied) and turning them into the victims of those their privilege currently discriminates against (women, QUILTBAG people, POC, the differently abled). Ostensibly, this is meant to engender sympathy for the other side among members of privileged groups, but when poorly handled — as, with few notable exceptions, it overwhelmingly seems to be — the egalitarian intention is buried by the surrounding weight of negative assumptions, foremost of which is the idea that there’s anything simple or binary about discrimination to begin with. The most notable recent example of such a discrimiflip novel is arguably Victoria Foyt’s Revealing Eden, where white people are Pearls and black people are Coals, but there are others, too: Laura Preble’s forthcoming Out, where Perpendiculars (straights) are considered abnormal in a world run by Parallels (gays), and Claire Merle’s The Glimpse, which, while not a straight social flip, nonetheless pits Crazies (those with mental illnesses) against Pures (who don’t).

Which brings me, at long last, to the overwhelming number of YA-related arguments in the recent past over issues such as romance, racism, feminism, conduct and reviewing, and what strikes me as being the primary unifying factor in every instance: the presence of a dispute about interpretation versus intention — which is to say, a criticism of the author’s assumptions on the one hand, which cannot help but also be a partial critique of the author themselves, and the assertion that such criticism is unreasonable, irrelevant or unfair. Over and over again, in arguments about the portrayal of romance in YA novels (for instance), certain authors have been accused of presenting as healthy and desirable relationships which critics claim are literally abusive, toxic and dangerous, and regardless of where you might stand when it comes to individual novels, the fact remains that this debate has been stymied in large part by an overwhelming uncertainty as to whether such criticism is valid, and if so, to what extent.

The recent emergence of YA as a mainstream, successful genre and the overwhelming popularity of series like Twilight among both teenage and adult readers has fundamentally altered the concept of YA reviewing — which is to say, has ended its status as a separate kind of reviewing altogether. Prior to the advent of Harry Potter, it seems fair to say that YA novels were reviewed, not as books that anyone might like to read, but as books for children, the crucial difference being that, as children weren’t (and to a certain extent still aren’t) presumed to care about issues like politics, equality, feminism, bias and privilege, pretty much nobody was reviewing YA novels with those aspects in mind, let alone considering that their handling, presence or absence might be a relevant factor in judging the success of a given book. After all, we’ve traditionally maintained different critical standards for stories that are intended purely for entertainment value — action movies, for instance, are still graded wholly differently to serious drama — and prior to J. K. Rowling, what else was YA meant to be for but entertaining children? Certainly, there’s a long history of literary praise for youthfully-oriented issues-based novels, but that’s still a far cry from mainstream cultural analysis, and anything that smacked even slightly of magic or escapism was exempt from scrutiny (until or unless it was old and vaunted enough to be deemed a ‘classic’, of course, in which case scholars were right to treat it with reverence).

But now, in addition to the rise of digital reviewing – which, as I’ve said before, is particularly skewed towards genre novels – YA is being treated seriously. Not only did the success of Twilight prompt a flood of romantically similar titles, all of which have found themselves subject to the same scrutiny vis-a-vis the promotion of stalking and female passivity as the original, but it directly contributed to YA being critiqued for things like whitewashing, straightwashing, cultural appropriation, sexism, racism and homophobia, too — issues which had previously been the critical domain of mainstream literature, if and when they were discussed at all. Which, often enough, they weren’t, literary fiction being possessed of its own, separate-but-related battles with misogyny, classism, genre snobbishness and white male homogeneity. (Suggesting, perhaps, yet another reason why so much political literary criticism has fallen on YA of late: the old establishment still has its barriers up, so that those of us who wish to critique the negative assumptions of writers as manifested in fiction and deemed reflective of society have necessarily had to look elsewhere.) But still, the tension between those who view YA as pure escapism and those who hold it to a greater accountability remains, well, tense — because for every writer of YA who isn’t trying to be political, but whose assumptions about what is necessarily encode their opinions anyway, there’s a flock of readers ready and waiting to dissect their work as a manifestation of culture.

A writer’s personal politics cannot ever be wholly disentangled from what they write; nor should they be, regardless of the intended age of the audience. Though pop cultural analysis has been sneered at in some quarters as an attempt to give trash entertainment a significance far above its station, it can’t be denied that the mainstream is a powerful reflection of our collective cultural subconscious: the assumptions and stereotypes we all quietly learn from childhood, but which many of us never learn to recognise openly, let alone question. Every time we construct a story without any thought as to the assumptions we’ve made that underpin it — assumptions about race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, ableness, privilege, ignorance, bias, identity — we run the risk of replicating the very problems we might otherwise condemn; or at the very least, of being lazy thinkers. The fact that it’s impossible to please everybody shouldn’t make us afraid to challenge ourselves or others; rather, we should try harder to ensure that we’re not alienating people through ignorance. But most importantly of all, we need to accept that no story is told in a vacuum: that the politics, beliefs and assumptions of authors are at least as important to the structure and creation of their narratives as those elements which are purely fictional — and that sometimes, there can be real and significant overlap between the two.

  1. Christine says:

    Very thought-provoking post. This subject has come up a lot recently in areas that I frequent on line, in part, I think, because of response to Revealing Eden, which has been largely negative.

    The main thing that I want to add is I have questions about the underlying “usefulness” of the whole notion of the “discrimiflip” novel. Now telling a story can be a useful and entertaining exercise in itself. But perpetrators (writers) of discrimiflip lit (I love that term, by the way) defend their books by claiming that they wanted to do things like “turn racism on it’s head.” I question this assessment though. Is it really “turning racism on it’s head” to simply substitute one form of racism for another?

    And really, isn’t it incredibly insulting to suggest that the only way “mainstream readers” can understand racism is to make them see themselves in the character? I am a middle-aged white woman who is the daughter of a doctor and I grew up in a relatively privileged environment. Certainly I didn’t experience economic uncertainty in any real sense, nor was it ever expressed to me that I needed to set my sights lower – that being a doctor or a lawyer or whatever I chose to pursue was out of reach for me. But I don’t need the protagonist to look like me – i.e., be white, be female, be blonde, or any of the other discrimiflip tropes – to empathize with a characters who is being discriminated against. I don’t need slaves to look like me to understand that slavery is indefensible. And I feel genuinely insulted that Victoria Foyt that thought that *I* or my daughter or others who are of the same cultural background that I am, needed to see discrimination through the eyes of a pretty white girl to understand that it is BAD. Seriously. I am more than capable of understanding that racism is bad, and reading a book like Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Thurston, will take me a long way further in my understanding than some silly book that purports to “turn racism on it’s head” but actually does no such thing.

    So, what does the discrimiflip really add to the discussion? We (pretty much) all agree discrimination is bad. It isn’t worse when the object looks like us. And people who can only see that discrimination is bad when the main characters resembles them have bigger problems that aren’t going to be solved or enlightened by reading a silly book about a future society where “pearls” are undesirable and “coals” are the majority oppressing the “pearls”. Personally, I think it is usually a cheap and lazy device that prevents the author from having to think deeply about character development. They can simply use the worst stereotypes, but apply them to the opposite race, without having to do the hard work of thinking for themselves.

    • fozmeadows says:

      “I don’t need slaves to look like me to understand that slavery is indefensible. And I feel genuinely insulted that Victoria Foyt that thought that *I* or my daughter or others who are of the same cultural background that I am, needed to see discrimination through the eyes of a pretty white girl to understand that it is BAD.”

      This. SO MUCH THIS.

      At heart, discrimiflips like Revealing Eden fail, not just because of all the ridiculous offenses they commit in the process, but because they’re ultimately based on a failure of empathy: the idea that it might easier to sympathise with the oppressed if they look or act like you, when the whole problem of discrimination is people who make exactly this distinction – who automatically ‘other’ those groups to which they don’t belong, and therefore fail to treat them with empathy. If you have to teach someone that Racism Is Wrong by saying, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be terrible if white people were treated that way,’ then CONGRATULATIONS, both you and that person have MISSED THE FUCKING POINT, which is that NOBODY SHOULD BE TREATED THAT WAY, PERIOD – and if you’re only capable of seeing discrimination as wrong as it applies to you, as opposed to being wrong as applied to everyone, then you haven’t actually learned how not to discriminate; all you’ve done is reinforced your existing belief that you shouldn’t be discriminated against .

  2. fadeaccompli says:

    I suspect I don’t have my finger on the pulse of modern controversy, because I find “A writer’s personal politics cannot ever be wholly disentangled from what they write” a complete uncontentious statement. Of course they do! Unless one simplifies down to, say, writing instructions on how to make a sandwich, our assumptions about the world–both what it is and what it ought to be–are always going to inform our writing.

    In my lit crit classes, we were urged both to examine the writing itself for what it was saying about the world, and to not ascribe these things to the author personally. “This text suggests that colonialism is an awesome establishment that should be continued, as seen in X, Y, and Z” was acceptable, and “This author clearly thinks that colonialism is awesome” was not.

    But that was partly because the latter implies a lot more intent, and a hell of a lot of the time, it’s not about intent. I may intend to write something that’s not racist, or sexist, or imperialist, or ableist, and yet inevitably some of that is going to seep in–despite my shining pure intent–because of the culture I’m steeped in. And so it’s perfectly reasonable for someone to look at what I wrote with squeaky-clean pure intentions and go “Woah, this has a lot of unfortunate implications!”

    I picked up on a lot of unfortunate implications from the stuff I read as a child and a teenager. “Girls can have adventures without boys, but if a girl likes a boy then all of her stories are about that” was one. “Only white people get to have fun; non-white people only get stories about terrible things they’re suffering” was another. The intentions of the authors regarding those messages (and I bet that a lot of the “Look at the poor suffering non-white people!” books weren’t trying to say that) aren’t especially relevant, in the aggregate; I got those messages from what they’d written anyway.

    Which I guess is a long, roundabout way of saying “I agree with what you wrote.”

  3. lamellae says:

    I think YA tends to cop both criticism and well-intentioned authors writing ’issues’ books because a lot of people feel anything written for young people should be instructional and some sort of moral exemplar. (Also a good way to ensure you get onto school reading lists!)

    I’ve not come across the idea of these ’flipped descrimination’ novels as a thing, but I wouldn’t be too quick to say that people don’t need to relate to the descriminated character to understand descrimination… you’re right that it’s a ’failure of empathy’ but I’ve worked with plenty of people who have very little ability to empathise (and feed my mysanthropy) and certainly not in the abstract (as in, they only understand racism if they see their mate subjected to it etc). Maybe for people like that, walking in those shoes via a character who’s ’like them’ does help their understanding? Of course it should be that way but…

    By the way why did you think your opening statement was controversial?

    • It might be simplifying things to think that, taking the instance of race, we can only identify with people of our own race. Isn’t the real way to eliminate discrimination to help us to see through the eyes of people of other ethnicities and backgrounds? Whenever we find a character we relate to, they are necessarily not identical to us…why should race/gender/sexuality be any different? I guess the major problem is that readers might want to avoid such “issues” and not even pick up such books, but in the case of Foyt’s book, if you didn’t want a book dealing with problems relating to race, you wouldn’t pick up hers either.

      I tend to take issue with “flipped discrimination” books that are written by people who are actually of the majority group because they cannot completely understand the nuances of discrimination experienced by the minority group. This means that the writers, good intentions aside, often reinforce negative prejudices out of ignorance–and these, in my mind, actually are more insidiously powerful because they are create the illusion that these prejudices are somehow a universal “truth”. To take a less recent example than Foyt’s book, Mark Twain set out to write Jim of Huckleberry Finn as a sympathetic character. At the same time, much of Jim’s dialogue and “humor” is derived from minstrel shows. So in the end, what do people take away from Jim’s character? That he’s a nice person who was brutally and unfairly treated? Sure. But they also carry away all the dehumanizing stereotypes that are perpetuated in Jim’s character. Modern readers also look back and see similar problems with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and similar. This is not to take away from the good intentions of these writers, or to undermine the positive impact these books have had; it is just a very extreme example of the unconscious prejudices carried by even very well-intentioned activists. I think this problem is just exacerbated by “flipped discrimination” books. In the end, I think it is problematic to assume that you can speak with the voice of a minority group and create a perspective that is completely free of yiour own prejudices.

  4. […] PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical, Politics, YA and Narrative, Racism, Revealing Eden and STGRB, Rape Culture in […]

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