WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Who gets to write about what

This was an interesting piece by Francine Prose, about the Kirkus Review’s take-back of a starred review because of a “sensitivity backlash” (my term) to the YA novel, American Heart, by Laura Moriarty. It’s not even out yet, but the book has received plenty of negative reviews on Goodreads because some readers of advance copies are offended by its “white saviorism.” Which is a thing.

What I never knew, and Prose outlines, is that publishers will put some books through a “sensitivity reading” to identify and presumably root out “problematic” issues. Most often, I guess, that involves racial or sexual matters, things that would offend large groups of readers and therefore hurt the book’s chances. And in this case, for a book that involves a dystopian society where Muslims are being herded into concentration camps, the editorial reads must have given it a good enough grade to proceed. The Kirkus reviewer who starred the book was even “an observant Muslim person of color.”

The reaction on Goodreads was so strong that Kirkus took away the star from its review. It basically smacked down its own reviewer and tossed the book into a category of “Gosh, there might really be something wrong with this.”

I glanced at some of the Goodreads reviews, and it looks like many of the one-star reviews are by people who didn’t read the book but who hate the idea of it. They seem young and adamant. Maybe they have a point about “white saviorism,” and maybe publishers are to blame in part for publishing books by white authors with white heroes who save the day for characters of color. But, political correctness aside, at this time in our nation’s evolution, isn’t it a reasonable premise to explore the idea of Muslim concentration camps as a cautionary tale? This particular writer, a white woman, is the one who conceived of such a story. And while it might have been interesting (and challenging) to make the protagonist a “Muslim person of color” instead of a white girl, I can imagine a ton of criticism coming down on her for presuming to know what it’s like to walk in those shoes.

In other words, damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t.

I have a couple of novels in early drafts in which the protagonist is something I’m not, a transgender man in one, a black man in another. I’ve approached them both with apprehension because of this kind of reaction, that as a privileged white man I have no right to represent such characters. Yet, I imagined them. I wrote about them with all the sensitivity I could summon, and as much realism. And while there might be transgender writers out there and black writers who could write similar stories, I happened to be the one who came up with these books.

It sounds like there’s plenty to criticize in American Heart. But Kirkus was wrong to remove its star, and publishers are wrong if they let potential sensitivity issues dictate who gets to write what book. Take the text for what it is and either support it or pass on it. Grow a pair.

White saviorism will fade away eventually. It should. But I long for the day when we read a book before we review it, and when we do we judge it on its merits. The market takes care of “problematic.”

18 comments on “Who gets to write about what

  1. Priscilla
    November 9, 2017

    White saviorism is a thing? I agree we need to read a book (listen to a speech, talk with the homeless lady) before we review.

    • Kevin Brennan
      November 9, 2017

      Seems to be a thing, at least to the people who are sensitive to such things. Huck Finn gets a bad rap.

  2. kingmidget
    November 9, 2017

    Really, really getting tired of political correctness that has turned into intolerance and rage.

    • Kevin Brennan
      November 9, 2017

      I didn’t realize the pitch that this stuff has risen to. To hear Sullivan talk, it’s like they stage riots on campus every time they’re affronted by … life.

      • kingmidget
        November 9, 2017

        A friend’s daughter started at Univ of San Francisco this semester. She is very liberal, but Midwest liberal. She was stunned when her her English professor criticized her use of sexist pronouns in her writing. You know, like “he” and “she.” You’re supposed to use gender free pronouns like “they” even when referring to one person. There are a lot of stories out there about the intolerance of the politically correct left, particularly on college campuses. Read enough of them and you can begin to understand how President Trump came to be. There is a whole segment of the left that has, in search of tolerance, become the model for intolerance.

      • Kevin Brennan
        November 9, 2017

        So they’re sacrificing good grammar for the sake of PC, eh? I don’t understand why pronouns are sexist when they’re used with the appropriate gender, but I can’t abide they for a singular! He/she was bad enough.

        I think the sensitivity movement has made the mistake of skewing toward violence too, which doesn’t do anybody any good.

      • kingmidget
        November 9, 2017

        You don’t understand … their objective is the elimination of gender. A friend of mine, a member of the younger generation, refers to herself as cisgender. If you don’t know what it means, look it up. I had to. I was blown away by the definition. Basically, she acknowledges that she is female, but refuses to be referred to as a woman, lady, girl, female, or anything else that is gender specific.

        I followed a blog for a while. It was written by a woman who is a feminist. I stopped following it when her blog became a one note scream of rage against men. And very generically made with virtually no acknowledgement that most men are not monsters. To read her recent posts is to believe that all men are as bad as Harvey Weinstein. At one point she said that the problem is that we don’t raise boys the way we raise girls.

        I don’t consider either of these two individuals to be true radicals on the issue of gender and feminism, But when the more level-headed are taking the positions those two are taking, you can see how far down the path the more radical thinkers likely are.

        And you’re right about the problem with the sensitivity movement moving toward violent reactions — not exactly sensitive is it?

      • Kevin Brennan
        November 9, 2017

        The elimination of gender. Well, good luck with that.

        Yeah, I’m aware of the whole “cis” thing, and it’s starting to appear in print here and there, so there’s definitely some push behind it. I’m not sure it has a real future, since, you know, gender exists, but maybe I’ll be long gone by the time it really takes off. 😬

  3. pinklightsabre
    November 9, 2017

    When I worked at Starbucks they had a sensitivity panel, which I kind of always made fun of, but was intensely important after a few gaffs…my we’re sensitive, aren’t we? Think of the idea 100 years ago. We’ve gone soft. Go live in the woods, wipe your butt with leaves.

    • Kevin Brennan
      November 9, 2017

      Not sure when we got so touchy, but that’s what I get for not hanging around universities for the last 40 years, I guess. Seems to be our generation’s kids with the super sensitivity.

      But if you do wipe your butt with leaves in the woods, make sure it’s not poison oak! Talk about sensitive …

      • pinklightsabre
        November 9, 2017

        Good one.

  4. christineplouvier
    November 9, 2017

    When will the madness stop? When all the books that were ever written are banned, just because in “antiquity” (meaning up until the last quarter of the 20th Century) women freely wrote stories featuring male main characters, men freely wrote stories featuring female main characters, and men and women both freely wrote stories about non-human main characters, until somebody cloistered in some ivory tower decided that nobody should ever write about anybody or anything of which they are not card-carrying members or with which they don’t share exactly the same genome? Yikes!

    • Kevin Brennan
      November 9, 2017

      So right, Christine. This never seemed to be a problem “back in the day.” And as someone who has written quite a few things from a woman’s pov, I certainly don’t like being told that’s a no-no.

      Yikes, is right!

  5. Phillip McCollum
    November 9, 2017

    “In other words, damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t.”

    That seems to sum it up. I think this has oddly been a source of constipation with my writing in the past. It wasn’t until I realized the truth of the statement that I decided I just shouldn’t give two shits! Some people are just obscenely dedicated to shaming others for whatever cause they’re championing (“Not diverse enough!” “Stop your cultural appropriation!”).

    • Kevin Brennan
      November 9, 2017

      “Check your privilege” is another one.

      I checked. My privilege is doing just fine. 😝

  6. John W. Howell
    November 9, 2017

    Good points, Kevin. I long for the day when the words white and black only refer to the inanimate colors. Won’t be in my lifetime but the longing is still there. To say a white person cannot write a story with a Muslim person of color as a protagonist is to leave open the idea that if you are not a child, gay person, murderer, dictator, lover, drug addict, or animal you can’t write about these either. A pretty slippery slope of political correctness here.

    • Kevin Brennan
      November 9, 2017

      For sure, John. Assuming, of course, that the white writer portrays the Muslim character accurately, with dignity and sensitivity, and doesn’t rely on stereotypes. That would bug me.

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