On an Author's Expectations

I don’t usually respond to comments on anything I write on the internet, because it’s pretty much an exercise in futility.  But there was one comment on my post yesterday about the Hired Girl from a commenter named Bennett that I felt warranted discussion:

I have to say that it really bothers me that the author of this piece has not read the book in question. I think it's totally valid to avoid a book because of things one has heard about it, or because one senses that it's "not for you." I think it's understandable (even if it can be annoying for the author) when people have casual opinions about books that they haven't read, and participate in conversations about those books on places like GoodReads/Twitter/etc. But when it comes to professional criticism-- which I would consider this piece to be-- it really seems like reading the book should be a minimum requirement.
How does one know, for instance, whether a character's views are "redirected on the page in any meaningful way" when one hasn't read the entire book? (Mr. Sutton, and, to a lesser extent, Ms. Bird, seem to say that they are?)
If it seems like I'm not engaging with Ms. Ireland's larger points here, it's because I haven't read THE HIRED GIRL either. And although I have general feelings about some of the things this piece is saying-- most of which are informed, perhaps unfairly, by criticisms my own work has faced-- I don't think I can decide whether I really agree or disagree in the context of a book that I haven't read.

 

I’m going to begin by saying I read a significant portion of the Hired Girl but did not really finish it because I found it trite and offensive and catering to a very narrow worldview. Hence the conclusion:  not for me.  I spent a good bit of time skipping through the book to the end hoping it got better.

It didn’t.

As an author, I agree that it sucks when someone reviews a book and only gets your intent half right.  But I’d also say that readers know themselves better than an author does, so any thoughts an author might have on the matter are irrelevant.  Our job is to tell the story in the best way that we can, and when we fail we need to accept that failure and move on.

The part I wanted to discuss, in depth, was this:

How does one know, for instance, whether a character's views are "redirected on the page in any meaningful way" when one hasn't read the entire book?

Just how long is a reader supposed to endure problematic content before they decide it is offensive?  How long do they have to read and put up with tropes they find distasteful (slut shaming, girls as objects, racism, gross stereotypes, homophobia) before they decide that the story probably wasn’t written with them in mind?

I often say that problematic ideas, if intentionally placed in a story, have to be deconstructed on the page.  What I don’t say is how close in proximity to the offense the deconstruction has to be placed.  Can sexist ideology in chapter one be diffused in chapter twenty?  Yes.  But don’t expect a reader who feels personally attacked and marginalized by your words to survive that long.  Do not expect a reader to endure twenty chapters of pain and microaggression for some possible payoff, especially when you’ve done nothing to gain reader trust in the opening chapters.  That isn’t fair to that reader, and it demonstrates that the author clearly did not have that group in mind when they wrote the book.

Opening chapters are a covenant between the author and the reader.  The author tells the reader in those first few pages “This is the story I’m going to tell you, and this is how I will treat you, dear reader, as the story goes on.”  If those first few chapters are filled with racism and sexism and homophobia that personally attack the reader or make them feel othered, less than human, why should they continue reading?  Especially if the author cannot be expected to make the feeblest of attempts at a redirect?  Why should they put up with your (and yes, if you don’t do it well and clearly demonstrate that it is the character and not you, you do own it) personal bias in the hopes that at some later point in the story you’ll acknowledge their humanity?

What this conversation ignores is the fact that this kind of marginalization and othering isn’t new for those groups that are hurt.  They’ve experienced sexism and racism firsthand in the real world.  They know it sucks.  They don’t have to watch a character engage in it for twenty chapters in order to learn some deep and meaningful lesson, they’ve come into the story already having learned the lesson.  If you haven’t written a story to acknowledge THEIR experiences and emotions, then you haven’t written a story that is inclusive to them.  And you excluding that group means that your work in and of itself is a microaggression and a further marginalization.  It is one more way of telling that group that they are unimportant.

And that message isn’t any historically marginalized group’s fault.  That failure and shortcoming rests solely on the author.