Sunday Salon: Taking Offense

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, which I reviewed yesterday, contains some extraordinarily offensive content. The anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic propaganda in the book was vile, but aside from some vague qualms regarding whether Eco was treating a serious topic too lightly, I didn’t find the book particularly offensive. Why not? Because it was clear to me that Eco wasn’t endorsing any of these despicable views but was demonstrating how such disgusting opinions and lies might be spread.

Not all instances of offensive material in literature are as clear-cut as in Eco’s novel, however. Sometimes I’ll read a novel and be unsure whether an author supports a character’s offensive views or actions. An otherwise sympathetic character might express some sexist views, but does that mean the author agrees with the character? Or a character’s racist ideas might pass without comment or condemnation. Does a lack of an alternative view constitute an endorsement? It’s not always easy to tell. In life, people are complicated. We all carry a mix of fine and not-so-fine notions in our heads, and our beliefs change over time. The best fictional characters do the same. Wouldn’t it be boring if our fictional heroes and heroines were always right?

At times, I may have a sneaking suspicion that the author does support views I find offensive, but those views either don’t show up or are relatively minor points in the novel and so don’t bother me much. An offhand remark or odd thought quickly fades into the background if a book is otherwise unproblematic. And if a work does seem to take a sexist and racist or homophobic or classist position, I might consider whether the view was typical of the time in which it was written and also look at what other ideas appear in the novel. Is the sexism overwhelming? Does it seem to drive the story? Are the sexist views off-set by some progressive ideas regarding race and class?

In looking at books in this way, I rarely end up being offended by offensive ideas I find in books. Or if I am offended, I don’t always let my annoyance color my actual opinion and enjoyment of a book. Basically, unless a book is out-and-out odious on every level (if Eco’s anti-hero were treated as a hero, for example), I’m unlikely to dislike it simply because some of the ideas in it are offensive. I might be bothered enough that my feelings become ambiguous, or I might decide that the good outweighs the bad to the degree that the bad scarcely bothers me at all. It just depends on the book. (See Ana’s great post from last week for a discussion of how readers might have mixed feelings about an otherwise good book.)

As someone who writes about books, I often find it difficult to express these sorts of mixed feelings. If I mention sexist ideas in a book, will it turn readers off the book entirely, even though the sexism is fairly minor when considered against the work as a whole? Sometimes, too, the problematic aspects of a book are, to me, so trivial that I either don’t notice them or don’t see a need to point them out. But then I’ll see others write about a book and express surprise and even alarm that others haven’t pointed out the problematic sociopolitical views within a book. Mentioning the problematic ideas becomes the mark of a “responsible” reader. But is it irresponsible to remain silent? The thing is, everyone has his or her own hot buttons and what seems trivial to one person will be hugely significant to another, even when they agree on the issues, which they may not do. Just as I don’t want to be quick to make assumptions about an author’s views on the basis of his or her characters, I don’t want to be quick to make assumptions about the views of people who write about books on the basis of what aspects of a book they choose to address. We can’t address everything, and different things are important to us all.

So how do you react when you come across an offensive idea in a book? How does it color your opinion of the book overall? If you write about a book, do you make a point of mentioning problematic ideas within it?

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19 Responses to Sunday Salon: Taking Offense

  1. Nymeth says:

    So much to think about here! I completely agree that a book not outright addressing a problematic plot point or an idea expressed by a character doesn’t mean it’s endorsing it. It always troubles me when readers assume that representing something is the same as condoning it. Letting things stand or speak for themselves can be the mark of a subtle author; of someone who trusts their readers’ intelligence, and those are the authors I generally prefer.

    I also absolutely agree about not making assumptions about readers because they didn’t point out this or that aspect of a book in their review. It doesn’t mean they didn’t notice, that they don’t think it matters, or that they’re stupid (which I’ve certainly seen people imply). My own blog’s focus is on the sociopolitical side, especially when it comes to gender issues, but I’d never dream of resenting other readers for focusing on different things. In fact, the huge variety of perspectives and interests is what makes the book blogging world so appealing to me.

    On the other hand, I’m also not a fan of people assuming that any sociopolitical discussion is a thinly disguised plea for the book to be banned and for anyone who enjoys it to be shamed. As I was saying last week (and thank you for the link and kind words!), there’s no reason why these conversations can’t be accompanied by an appreciation for everything else a book does achieve.

    • Teresa says:

      I definitely agree that pointing out the problematic aspects of a book shouldn’t be taken as a plea for banning or shaming the book’s fans. I’ve seen posts that do come across that way, but that’s not always the case. Your posts, for instance, do a wonderful job of raising issues without seeming to judge a book or its fans.

      And like you, I love that different bloggers are interested in different aspects of what they’re reading. I think it’s great to see bloggers looking at books through a feminist lens or a queer lens or a Christian lens or an artistic lens or whatever, readers do come to know what to expect. And looking at blogs that come from a variety of perspectives widens my own way of reading considerably. I wouldn’t want us all to have the same concerns.

  2. Jenny says:

    This is such an interesting question. I find myself mentioning sociopolitical issues more when they are addressed in interesting ways than when they’re handled badly, mostly because the latter’s much more common. An exception I can think of is The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. That stood out to me as such a misogynist nightmare that I couldn’t leave it unsaid, especially since many people seemed to be reading it as a feminist book with a strong woman character at the center.

    The question seems related to a need for sympathetic characters. I don’t need all my books to support all my political issues, and I don’t need my characters to be nice. (I don’t need my authors to be nice, either.) What I want is for all of that to be complex and subtle well-written, and to allow me to form my own judgments. Rare enough, really.

    • Teresa says:

      If an issue is handled very badly I am likely to mention it, but only if it’s done so badly that I can’t enjoy the book, which doesn’t happen much. If it’s problematic but interesting, I’ll talk about it, unless there’s something that interests me more. It really depends on the book. What I don’t want is to feel obligated to mention every potential offense, because that’s an impossible standard!

      And I’ll take complex, subtle, and well-written over preachy and obvious, even when I agree with the ideas being preached.

    • You always say things so perfectly. ♥

  3. It truly depends. For instance, as you mention, there are characters who are awful people that we are explicitly not supposed to like, sympathize with, or agree with. But when the author assumes that I share a particularly distasteful view or a view that others in a very uncomfortable way, I do try and point it out. There are books I know I wouldn’t have read if I knew what was in them.

    But even problematic issues don’t tear down an entire work all the time. There are some books whose problematic elements prevent me from reading them; there are others whose problematic elements don’t phase me, although I do note them.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s fair enough. I find that the difficulty is figuring out whether an author shares—or expects me to share—a specific view. Then there’s the fact that different things make different people uncomfortable—but that’s why it’s so great that there are so many of us out there weighing in with our particular concerns. It’s not a fool-proof system (I’ve read books I’d rather not have, too), but it helps.

  4. Such a complex issue. Even beyond the question of whether an author shares a particular character’s distasteful view or expects the reader to share it (which, as you point out, is difficult enough to ascertain), there are also situations where the author KNOWS that most readers won’t share their views, but their internal calculus remains unaffected by that. I’m thinking in particular of Flannery O’Connor, whom I know we’ve discussed before. She’s obviously very much aware that her intense, dark Calvinist Catholicism will not be understood or appreciated by many people—most of her characters are just as hostile to those ideas. I find her worldview extremely problematic and she knows I will find it extremely problematic; I think she’s wrong and she thinks I’m wrong. But somehow I still find value and even aesthetic enjoyment in reading her work, even though I personally believe that her style of religion is harmful and her application of it to me (I am the grandmother; I am the drowning child) is very offensive. But offensive in a bracing way.

    So yeah, it’s an interesting dilemma. Like Jenny, I don’t need my characters or my authors to be “nice” or to agree with me, and I enjoy plenty of books with problematic themes. That said, I do sometimes get really weary of the constant barrage of background racism and sexism, and crave a vacation from it all. :-P

    • Teresa says:

      Flannery O’Connor is a great example of an author who can offend while still being interesting, I think. Maybe it’s that despite making her worldview clear, she still give readers latitude to make up their own minds. She seems to fit Jenny’s description of having characters who are complex and well-written (but maybe not subtle).

  5. I blogged about something similar recently – do people allow their knowledge of an author’s rascist/sexist/whatever the case may be personal views effect whether or not they will read books by that author.

    What you are referring to isn’t quite the same, but its just as complex a question. I don’t have an answer. I tend to read anything regardless of its content, and if I think that there is anything problematic in its content I will blog about that. I just hope that people don’t necessarily let my complaints about certain aspects of the book put them off reading it entirely if they otherwise might.

    • Teresa says:

      I feel the same, although if someone has specific hot-buttons that they can’t cope with, it wouldn’t bother me if my commentary kept them from reading. I just wouldn’t want people to assume a book is bad just because aspects of it are problematic.

  6. litlove says:

    Have you ever read Michel Houellebecq? This is exactly the element of narrative that he plays with. He writes books that contain really awful instances of misogyny and racism, and plays with the frame, so the reader doesn’t know if they belong to a dreadful character or the onmipresent narrative voice. And of course that makes a big difference. You can have an unpleasant character saying bad things, and it’s simply in keeping. But if the narrative endorses them, then that’s problematic. Houellebacq knows this and messes with the reader’s mind. He gets a lot of publicity, causes a lot of offense and frankly I’m amazed that he hasn’t been assassinated – yet!

    • Teresa says:

      I haven’t read any Houellebecq, but you’re got me intrigued. Any specific books you’d recommend?

      I find the whole question of how to respond to the omnipresent voice to be really interesting. We tend to assume it’s the author’s voice, but maybe it isn’t, and I enjoy with authors play around with that. (Eco does that to some degree in The Prague Cemetery. You can never quite get a read on what the third-person narrator things, and the narrator does feel like a person and not a disembodied voice.)

  7. Great post and really thought provoking. I always wonder about what to mention in books, and what will turn people off. I think if you know who you are addressing or who your general audience is, these things become easier. i.e. if a book contains a lot of anti-faith sentiments I’ll address that since my blog has a significant readership that will care.

    Also I guess there’s something to be said for how you frame things, but argh it really is complex.

    As far as being offended..I think you take a great approach, but it’s one of those things that you just never know what will bother you. Finding out why can be both great and a little scary. :)

    • Teresa says:

      That’s a good point about knowing your audience. I have to think about that a lot when I write about books my church book group discusses. Would the book be offensive or off-putting to someone who isn’t a Christian? That’s another reason too that it’s great that there’s such a wide variety of blogs because people who are sensitive about certain issues can seek out reviews from the bloggers who keep those things in mind.

  8. amymckie says:

    Interesting and thought provoking post. Personally I think we all will find different things in books and so I will mention anything that really stood out for me, or that I think my readers would be interested in. That means I miss a lot, but I rely on other bloggers to talk about other pieces. One of my favorite things of reading books in groups is that we all can highlight different points :)

    But yes, books can still be good, if they have bad in them, hard to talk about for sure :)

  9. Kinna says:

    I agree with you. Unless the ideas are particularly odious, I will not be put off. Plus, I’ve had to develop a thick skin since most of the revered male authors of African fiction cannot write a balanced female character if their lives depended on it.

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