This is somewhat random, I realize, but I’ve been thinking a lot about political correctness in literature. I’m not talking about things like inclusiveness in regards to awards ceremonies, or authors calling each other out for being sexist in real life, and so on. I’m talking about when I see, for instance, a tweet from a reader calling John Updike misogynist. Or a book review where someone wishes that certain characters in books behaved more in line with certain principles: for example, young girls who must be strong and independent at all times, or characters who are accepting of homosexuality.
Don’t get me wrong, now: I am a great believer in equality, and I would love nothing more than to see things such as racism, homophobia, and sexism eradicated. However, I don’t necessarily want that from literature. To me, to be angry at someone such as John Updike for essentially being a product of his time, or for writing about the world as he experienced it–well, it makes no sense to me. It’s one thing to say his work doesn’t appeal to you; it’s another thing to start calling names. Writers are people, and people are flawed. Writers write about people, and people are flawed. Writers writer about the world as they see it, and the world is flawed.
At the base of the argument is whether or not one believes literature to be prescriptive–in other words, literature is responsible for telling us how to live. This is not something I believe, although I think it offers a lot of possibilities, a lot of different point of views. In literature, I can safely explore the values and actions of people I don’t like or agree with, and very possibly come away with more empathy than I could when, say, watching a political debate. Reading John Updike may help you to understand why your father, grandfather, uncle, or other older male figure in your life is the way he is–the same way reading Invisible Man gives us perspective on being black in America in the late 1940s. (And yes, I know, there are more white male writers who’ve been published, but again, I’m not talking about the numbers, I’m talking about a reaction to content.)
Or maybe I’m not talking about political correctness so much. Maybe what I’m really talking about is a weird lack of empathy, or believing that every book we read should align with the way we see the world. I recently read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild (which I loved, by the way). On Goodreads, I saw a lot of complaints from reviewers that she was whiny and shouldn’t have been grieving after four years and why didn’t she just get over her mother’s death already?
She wasn’t over it because she wasn’t. Because she was Cheryl Strayed, not Cheryl Kowalski or Cheryl Ramirez or Cheryl Smith. Because it was her experience, her world as she saw it, her grief. It’s all the picture of all her little synapses firing in her brain right there on the page. To say they should fire differently because they don’t follow someone else’s guidelines for grief is preposterous.
Some writers do write to try to eradicate the wrongs of the world, or to hold a mirror up to society and say, “See. You are really, really getting this wrong.” I commend those authors. But I don’t think that every writer should be required to present us with those things, and I most certainly don’t think that we should hold authors who are not “of our time” to our modern standards. Exclusivity is exclusivity. When we begin to push people outside the circle, we are doing the same thing we accuse the racists and the sexists and the homophobes of.
What you read is your choice. Unless you are assigned reading for a class, you have free will. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. But be careful of accusing authors and their work of somehow not living up to your standards. Simply accept that you are not the right audience for that book, and move on.