Mr Litlove decided, quite at the last minute, to take a week’s holiday this week. We have an assortment of plans and half-plans and I’m not sure of our final program, but I will be absent from the blog for the week. Whatever else we do, I’ll be working my way through the last batch of reviews for our second edition of Shiny New Books. There’s going to be a new colour scheme, a brand new competition and masses of reviews of new books.

Before I go there’s a question I’m curious to hear people’s thoughts on. I read a review a little while back that became very angry with a certain novel because of the way a secondary character was portrayed. This was a gay man (and the book was set back in the early 70s when homosexuality was not considered to be publicly acceptable) who behaved quite badly towards his wife; their relationship was complex in many ways, but he could at times be quite mean and unkind towards her and there was a sadistic element to their sexual relationship. There was also deep attachment between the two of them, even if that was not always healthy. Well, the reviewer said that such a portrait of homosexuality was not acceptable, that it ruined the book for her and that no one wanted to read such a thing in the 21st century.

So my question is two-fold. The first part a) is whether as a reader you find you can be completely put off a book by a relatively small part of it? The second b) is whether you feel writers should not portray once marginalised identities in a negative way? I’m most curious to know what people’s instinctive reaction is to these issues….


ETA: It occurred to me that it wasn’t fair not to mention where I stood on the questions. Although it doesn’t happen very often, I can be completely put off by a small thing. I remember reading a novel last year where the excessive repetition of the speech tag ‘whispered’ really irritated me, to the point where I could barely concentrate on the story. Then Mr Litlove read the same book and said he hadn’t noticed it at all. As to the other question, I don’t think special pleading is a very good idea; to my mind, equality is about treating everyone similarly, which is to say understanding that first and foremost we are all human and all human beings do good and bad things, and often behave badly when their vanity or safety is in some way threatened. Plus, in novels, I think paragons of virtue are boring and implausible. But this is not a fixed view and I’m more than open to hearing other sides of this particular argument. I’m very curious about it.


22 thoughts on “Holiday!

  1. My reaction is that it entirely depends on the quality of the writing including the characterisation. If there is truthfulness in the people portrayed then that is what matters, what counts. When I published and edited a literary magazine I included a story that upset one of our highly respected doyens of writing, and many including me defended it so.
    S**t happens, it is how it is written about and transformed into literature that matters. In this short story I pointed that the ‘victim’ eventually took on his power.
    Bad writing and certain cliches upset me eg ‘ he cupped her breast’ grrrrrrrrrrr. When I mention this to others they claim never to have read the phrase. That is a stopper for me. On the other hand when I was young I threw a novel by Sartre across the room because he was sickening me by his portayal of a foetus. BUT I picked it up and read on. All his fiction.
    I myself don’t enjoy glorying in the sordid and generally don’t read work that glorifies war but these themes are popular. I’m curious which novel and which critic you’re writing about here???
    Interesting question, I’ll go on thinking about it!

    • I hate the “he/she cupped her breast cliché” too and have most certainly come across it! Your comment about quality is absolutely a critical point but also surely the writer’s motive too.

  2. A+B = she’s an idiot living in her own PC dreamworld, and has clearly never met an angry queen hell bent on revenge.

    If we ignored our human truths, all of our literature would just be religious texts of fantasy and denial. Why would we bother? What would be learned?

  3. What interesting questions… a) I nearly got derailed by a reference to ‘plastic’ in a WWII novel when it seemed out of place – and wrote a whole blog post about it, but was glad I read on on that occasion. b) Difficult to put into words… In real life of course I support equality. In a novel however, you need drama to drive the plot, and this often comes from bad things – if the book is set in the 1970s, I’d rather it truly reflected the period, rather than airbrush it with 21st century sensibilities. You can always choose to abandon reading a novel if it is upsetting to you. And what about novels written in the period which may now be considered classic, but may be full of casual racism or homophobia – should we not read them now? Don’t forget they are fiction though – We know that we have moved on in real life.

    Have a great week. 🙂

  4. I definitely can get irritated by small things in books. And I’m with you all the way about equality vs special pleading. Hope you have a great break!

  5. Well, for me it depends on the quality of the writing and the attitude of the author. Does he reproduce dangerous and hostile clichees because he doesn’t like homosexuals etc.? Then obviously I would put the book in the rubbish bin. But if on the other hand he (or she) simply treats his protagonists as human beings with flaws etc, then the author takes his protagonists seriously. Everything else would be simplistic or – even worse – condescending. Have a lovely time!

  6. Yes, I can turn against a book because of some relatively small issue, especially if it touches on something that I care deeply about.
    And yes, I think authors should write about everything even if I chose not to read their books. That seems like a contradiction, but it is true. As you said in yours last post, we may some blind spots in order to survive. I do think that an author can write about hateful topics and people in ways that do not condone it and re-enforce the hatred that exists. That is not easy, of course, but possible. With use of voice, for example. My favorite example of doing this is The Moor’s Account, by Laila Lalami. Spanish Conquest from the view of a Muslim slave.

  7. Interesting questions! a) I can sometimes get put off by relatively small parts in books to the point where it can affect my whole perception of the book. This doesn’t happen that often, although when it does I wonder then if it is more my fault as a reader rather than the author’s..b) In everyday life I support equality, but I’d like the books I read to be historially accurate, even though this may make for uncomfortable reading. Enjoy your week!

  8. You know I am a pretty forgiving reader, though certain things can always irritate me and put me off. Most of the time if I can manage to get through the book I will often look back on it with a less critical feeling, so it all depends. I struggled with the first J. Tey mystery as Insp Grant kept calling the suspect Dago and it just got on my nerves. I even set it aside but was prompted by another reader to keep going and I am so glad I did. Either he chilled out on the reference or I just got caught up in the story. I can look beyond it knowing that I have a 21st sensibility and am reading something written in the 20s when such a reference wouldn’t likely have raised an eyebrow. I certainly won’t be put off from reading more of her work knowing the context she writes in–and in the end I loved the book. As for the characterization–sometimes people are just not nice whatever their orientation and it says less about someone’s choice of lifestyle I think than their personality. Anyway, I am very curious now about the character and am more determined to get on with the book—I left it at home but can’t wait to get back and pick it up tonight! 🙂 As for the holiday–hurray! Have a wonderful break and I hope you get to relax and do something fun!

  9. a) Not totally put off, but although everyone raved about The Tenderness of Wolves, I couldn’t get over the fact that it seemed historically and geographically mismatched. Eg if they were really out there in that weather, they’d have been dead within a day. But I will eventually get round to finishing it.
    b) Once marginalised communities might actually have had many more negative things going for them than the mainstream because of the pressure of being marginalised. A kind of defensiveness. But it takes a brave writer to tackle that situation and a good writer to bring across the nuances.
    c) Enjoy your holiday!!!

  10. Not ever to portray the once marginalised in a negative way is not being true to reality. It is not the case that all ‘once marginalised’ people were pure and kind and never put a foot wrong. To suggest such a thing is misunderstanding the nature of both fiction and humanity. Women have been marginalised – does that mean there should be no unpleasant female characters?

  11. I can certainly be put off by a small part in a book. Torture often does it.
    On the other hand, I don’t like it when I see anyone indulging the urge to tell an author how to write his characters. It’s almost as bad as when I see people quoting “Shakespeare” when in fact they’re quoting one of his characters.

  12. I agree with Annabel really – you shouldn’t airbrush the past and you need to be an intelligent enough reader to put this kind of thing in context. We think differently from all of our ancestors but we shouldn’t re-write history because of it.

    Have a wonderful break!

  13. I’m not often put off by little things in a book but now and then it happens. I guess it is mostly obvious sexism that will ruin something for me. I can be forgiving depending on when the book was published but the more current it is the less forgiving I am. As for your second question, I think if the author is writing from a truthful place and not one of prejudice or hate I think it is totally valid to write about ugly truths. To say it is never acceptable is censorship which is even more reprehensible.

  14. Okay, I have to admit that the editor in me is incredibly picky about factual detail. Don’t tell me something happened long before it did, or screw up some geographical fact, or the book will be ruined for me. Case in point: Donna Tartt, no matter how much of a darling she was with the literati, lost me in The Secret History, when she had her characters, who were college students during the exact same years I was a college student, listening to CDs. Granted, I didn’t go to a private New England college like the one portrayed in her book, but not a soul I knew had CDs until I was nearly graduated, and even then, I only knew one who was a complete audiophile. I was annoyed that she hadn’t got that little detail right, which fed the fact that I was, really, annoyed with all her annoying characters.

    As far as whether or not to portray those in marginalized groups poorly, I’m very torn. On the one hand, I agree that unless we can write all people as realistically as possible (yes, women can be as big bastards as men, e.g.), then I don’t think we’re being honest, or that we’ve conquered stereotypes. Nevertheless, I’ve recently started watching (yes, I’m way behind) the first season of “Downton Abbey” and have found myself thinking, “Why, of all the characters, did they have to make the gay guy (Thomas) so evil?” It may be that, after all the years and years of portraying marginalized people in negative ways, we need to make up for it a bit and to be on sturdier ground with everyone convinced they’re only human, just like themselves, before we make them truly human? I’m just not sure, though, because that takes the honesty out of fiction doesn’t it?

  15. Have a great break. Writers should be true to their period, place and time, grot and all – fantasy can do as it pleases I suppose.. Often found Agatha Christie’s overuse of ‘said’ a bit numbing – lots of speech in her books!

  16. Small things can definitely put me off a book. A friend of mine one time mentioned that all the characters in this one TV show say each other’s first names way too often, like unnaturally often, and now a) I can’t watch that TV show at all; and b) ALL TV SHOWS DO THIS (though not all of them to the same extent as the one my friend mentioned) AND I CAN NEVER UNSEE IT NOW.

    To your second question, I would say that it’s fine to portray a character from a once- or currently marginalized group in a negative way. However, if the specific negative portrayal you’re going with plays into an old old stereotype about that group, you’ll want to be much more careful about it. The sexually sadistic queer character thing has been done a hundred times, and it’s a very ick cliche.

    I thought about this when I read Francine Prose’s book Blue Angel, which is about a young female student who takes sexual advantage of her older male professor, in order to advance her career. Just ick, Francine Prose. Like there aren’t enough portrayals out in the world of young women as sexual victimizers when in fact they are far more likely to be sexual victims. It made me angry.

  17. Hmmm. I think it depends a great deal on why the stereotype is reinforced/portrayed. If one is writing a book set in the 1950s, there are stereotypes that existed, and it would be somewhat unrealistic to ignore that fact. One of my pet peeves is what I call “revisionist historic fiction,” in which someone sets a story a hundred years ago, but attributes motives and thoughts to the characters that would have been extremely unlikely. It does not, for example, seem unrealistic to me that a closeted gay man in a sham marriage in the ’70s would be an angry person who took out his frustration on his wife, any more than it would seem unrealistic to me to write a story in which an unhappy and repressed wife in the ’50s took out her frustration on her children. If the intent is to illuminate problems of the past, I think it’s fine. If the intent is to be unkind toward a group of people, then no, that’s not all right.

  18. Interesting questions. (a) Not often, but every once in a while. If the writing is good and the story is compelling, I can overlook it. (And I DO remember your “whispering” post!) (b) Writers should feel free to write characters as they see them, without worrying about political correctness (which can run amok in ridiculous ways).

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