Updated on July 9, 2018
On reading problematic books
Today I’d like to talk about something which I saw brilliantly summed up by @JamesSACorey on Twitter:
I read everything with a thought to the time it was written in. We can’t expect works of fiction to evolve with us while they’re trapped on the page. I hope in fifty years, people give me the same benefit of the doubt. https://t.co/89QMDV8ly2
— James S.A. Corey (@JamesSACorey) July 7, 2018
With my relatively newly discovered love of sci-fi, this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I’ve found it fascinating to read old sci-fi novels in which the author is able to imagine interstellar travel, alien civilisations and mind-bending science, but where the same old gender, sexual and racial politics exist. Oh yes, we can achieve near-lightspeed travel, but we still can’t understand women. We can fight a war in an entirely new galaxy, but only so long as the male characters are perfect paragons of 1970s toxic masculinity.
For the most part, I find it amusing, and I agree with @JamesSACorey that you have to read everything with an eye to when it was written. Discussions about social-political issues have really ramped up even in the last few years, so there’s no way I can expect to pick up a book from the 70s (especially a sci-fi book; that really was a male-dominated genre) and expect its politics to align exactly with mine. Of course, that’s not always what we go to books for anyway – sometimes we want to nod and feel seen, but a lot of the time I think we’re looking for new perspectives and fresh ideas. Reading would be boring if our own thoughts were just parroted back at us all the time.
But that’s not to say that we have to tolerate everything we read: if something in a book is problematic, then it’s problematic and you don’t have to agree with it just because you were looking to have your mind expanded. It also doesn’t mean that you have to chuck out the whole book: you can still enjoy parts of it (e.g. the hella cool science stuff) and find other aspects of it irritating. The decision really lies with you, the reader: can you put the dodgy stuff aside and still have fun with the rest of the book? If yes, carry on. If no, put it down. (And if the whole book is ‘dodgy stuff’, or you find it particularly upsetting or personal, absolutely put it down. You should read what you want to read.)
There is another layer to this, which affects reviewers like me, and also any reader faced with the question, “What did you think of that book?” Do you call out the book’s bullshit, or do you let it slide? Quite often “Oh, it’s a product of its time” is used as a hand-wavy way of saying, “I don’t want to criticise something I liked.” But as I said before, you can enjoy a book and still think parts of it are rubbish, so I think it’s fair enough to say what’s bad about it when you’re writing a review or making a recommendation. We can understand why a book has the problems it has (because it was a different time, because fewer people were talking about these issues back then, because established ideas have changed) without entirely dismissing the fact that it has these problems. That’s why I’ll always mention the bad stuff in a review, when I notice it. In fact, the only reason we’re now having these more complex discussions about gender/race/disability/homosexuality/etc is because more and more people are calling out the bad stuff when they see it. Yes, it might be annoying to repeatedly hear feminists complaining about poorly written or overly sexualised women, but there’s an easy solution: stop writing them like that.
@JamesSACorey has it right when he describes words as being “trapped on the page” and unable to evolve. Yes, the works of decades ago have their problems, but the societies that produced them have changed – I think it’s fair enough to still enjoy those works, and to learn from the things they did wrong. Sometimes I think back to things I’ve written on this blog and how I’d write it differently today (probably I’ll look back on this post in a couple of years and no longer agree with everything I’ve said), but that’s OK. What I or anybody else writes might be trapped, frozen in time, but the people behind the writing will change and grow, and we can learn from our imperfections and try to do better next time. In the meantime, we can enjoy the stuff we did well.
What do you think about reading problematic books? Have you ever put a book down because it was too ‘old-fashioned’? Let me know with a comment down below!