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Monday, October 23, 2017

The Principle's Not The Problem, The Method Is

As I sat down to review Max Headroom episodes, one line from Edison Carter keeps popping into my mind: "I agree with the principle, but the method stinks."

Carter's line is directed at Blank Reg, one of a number of people who, in the futuristic world of Max Headroom, disagree with the decision to have everyone's personal information kept in computer databases and have all such information erased. Reg is working on behalf of fellow Blanks who seek to sabotage the networks because other Blanks are being detained by police without charge, at the behest of a government leader who doesn't like that Blanks had their personal info erased.

Certainly the idea of detaining a person without charge simply because the person disagrees with a government's directive is problematic, but the decision to sabotage something in response brings problems of its own. And though Carter is symapehtic toward Reg and his fellow Blanks, he believes there has to be a better way to get the point across.

Which brings me to the latest in debates surrounding young adult novels, this one concerning American Heart, a novel written by Laura Moriarty and set to be released in January. The novel's premise is that Muslim Americans are forced into concentration camps and the protagonist, a white teenage girl, encounters a Muslim professor and, while originally not concerned about the plight of Muslims, decides to help this professor escape to Canada.

Kirkus Reviews published a starred review by a reviewer who, while not identified by name, was identified as Muslim. That was followed by a number of individuals who wrote scathing remarks about the book and Kirkus, in a rare move, changed the review and took away the star.

There are two reviewers who aren't connected with Kirkus who both note the attempt by Moriarty to write a homage to Huckleberry Finn. Cathy Day believes people should read the book because she thinks the portrayal of American Heart's main character should get people to reconsider their own casual prejudices. Justina Ireland, though, is more critical of the book -- her praise for Huckleberry Finn is similar to Day's (and both note important flaws in Huckleberry Finn), but Ireland finds the portrayal of American Heart's main character problematic, along with the portrayal of the Muslim characters and others along the way, plus the way the story unfolds.

Though Ireland makes her dislike for the book known, she does it in a thought-provoking manner, detailing why she doesn't care for the characters and why she finds the storyline flawed.

But reviews such as Ireland's are not what appear to have prompted Kirkus to change its own review. Instead, Kirkus is reacting to online backlash by people who haven't read the book, but either read the blurb or read reviews by others who wrote the book and leave scathing remarks on Goodreads, as if they are solely interested in sabotaging the book, the author and the publisher rather than engaging in an open, honest discussion such as about points Ireland raised and what could have been done to make the book better.

And while I agree with the principle that writers shouldn't fall into lazy tropes and stereotypes regarding people of different races, ethnicities or religions, the method of bashing and insulting the author stinks.

Such bashing and insulting doesn't serve any means to advance discussion and get writers to learn about what to do better next time. It only serves to convince writers they shouldn't bother trying to explore certain themes, ideas or characters -- or even to write future novels at all. More importantly, the bashing and insulting diminishes what Ireland set out to do -- get writers to do a better job with such character portrayals. Because when bashing and insulting takes place, that gets all the attention, when attention may be better focused on reviews such as Ireland's.

And when the attention only focuses on the bashing and insulting, people who might be open to reconsidering their views are more likely to be convinced there is no reason to do so. Nobody, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or other factors likes to be bashed and insulted, so how can anyone think such bashing and insulting is going to cause people to change their minds?

While I understand the need to get writers of all types represented, I have previously written that it's difficult for new writers to break in with publishers for several reasons -- one of them being that major publishers tend to fall back on writers who have had successful works rather than giving new writers a chance. Increasing representation for all types of authors is good, but when major publishers would rather rely on established authors before new authors, groups that are underrepresented remain that way. And I agree that it's a good idea to get characters of all types represented in novels, and that such portrayals shouldn't just fall into stereotypes. But that means that writers of all backgrounds are going to have write about characters of all backgrounds, whether the character's background matches the writer's background or not.

And considering that it's white Americans who may need the most educating about what casual prejudice is all about, I believe it's important to have novels in which a white protagonist is forced to confront casual prejudice. One is free to argue with how such a concept is executed and one is right to point out that the writer must do plenty of work to ensure an accurate portrayal of non-white characters. But arguing the attempt shouldn't be explored is problematic. Yet that's the message sent by those who bash and insult, and is hammered home by Kirkus changing its review.

It's easy for writers to fall into the trap of keeping their protagonists as ones who fit the writer's beliefs and experiences. That's not to say the writer should never create protagonists who share the writer's beliefs -- such exercises can be useful. But the real challenge for a writer is to write a protagonist that the writer doesn't agree with and, in some cases, may not be likable. And when such attempts are made, those who review the books should focus on whether or not the execution worked, even if the reviewer may not be a fan of the premise. That's how writers learn to get better at their craft.

But if certain individuals spend more of their time bashing and insulting than offering critical analysis, it's only going to cause writers to stay in their comfort zones rather than explore new territory. And it defeats the purpose of what those offering critical analysis are trying to explain to writers who venture into new territory.

To paraphrase Edison Carter: It's not the principle that is the problem, but the method is certainly a problem.

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