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?