On Political Correctness and Literature

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?

Um, what?

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.

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8 comments

  1. I too sometimes get frustrated when books are excoriated for telling stories of people who don’t align with a reader’s particular views. One recent example was when people got angry about The Marriage Plot because the main character (a 20-something woman) was too focused on her relationships and not enough on her career. It bothered me tremendously because that character reminded me soooo much of myself in my 20s, and I felt like people were saying stories of women like the one I was then shouldn’t be told. There were plenty of other valid criticisms of that book or even that character to be made, but the accusational tone of that particular criticism just hit me in the gut.

  2. Teresa, that’s so interesting. And until I read your comment it hadn’t really occurred to me that I too was a lot like Madeleine at that age. I was in grad school and looking to attach myself to something or someone greater or more serious than I was. I liked the book okay but didn’t love it, which was a huge disappointment because I’d loved his first two books so much, but I’ve been thinking about re-reading it because I know he’s taken a lot of flak for that character. You are so right–those women exist. And in chick lit, they exist in spades, and in less interesting situations. It seems to be the equivalent of “I can talk bad about my family, but outsiders had better not say anything against them!” when women get upset that a man picks up that type of character and works her into a book. It’s uncomfortable, maybe, but not wrong.

  3. I agree with what you say. The great thing about literature is that it allows the reader to get inside the head of people they don’t agree with – see things from different points of view and gain a better understanding of the world. I’d hate to eridicate bad/offensive things from literature. Even if I don’t agree with the thoughts of an author it is still helpful to explore these things.

  4. Jackie, exactly. I sort of dumped everything on the page yesterday, but I have been thinking about this a long time, and what brought me to it was that I see more and more people who seem to be reading with an agenda. I can understand being made uncomfortable by some of the things we read, or perhaps even disgusted, but when we start to make rules for how be believe writers should build characters in so on…well, that’s a slippery slope.

  5. I felt much the same way as Teresa about reactions to The Marriage Plot. I also feel that way when people say stuff like “I’m tired of rape in fiction!” I’m tired of lazy, facile, or exploitative depictions of rape too, but they can be critiqued in a way that doesn’t imply that we’ve had enough of the experiences of abuse survivors and can they shut up already. Unfortunately people aren’t always careful enough to note the difference.

    Anyway, I find this tricky – on the one hand, I want my fiction to interrogate the world, the status quo, the power structures that we take for granted. On the other hand, I DON’T want it to be prescriptive or to ignore uncomfortable things. The balance can be reached, but sometimes it’s harder than it seems.

  6. Ana, it’s definitely a tough balance. The other thing is, sometimes authors do interrogate the world, but I don’t like their questions! Again that’s when I try to remind myself that ultimately, any writer’s writing is shaped by their life experiences, even if they aren’t writing about their own lives per se. I know you know what I mean, so I won’t preach the choir. And I see nothing wrong in readers for asking more authors to do that sort of thing–especially in the US, where 50 Shades of Nonsense sells so well.

    Where it really bothers me is when reviewers are talking about older novels. I think as readers we aren’t always aware of or honest with ourselves about the lenses we might read through. To overlay present sensibilities on past works and then deem them lacking or “politically incorrect” makes no sense to me. It frustrates me to see readers get impatient, rather than to try and consider what a valuable thing it is to have evidence of the way things were, if only so they might never be that way again.

  7. So true about complaints about a character for being “whiny.” Or criticisms of books for kids that don’t show sufficient punishment for being “naughty” or talking back. You are to be much commended for formulating a rational response – I can’t even…..

  8. Jill, I promise you I had to take a moment (or several) before I wrote that post. It was definitely something that had been building in my mind over time. The sad thing is, it only seems to have gotten worse. For me, if everyone acted the way I expected or wanted them to in a book, I’d be bored out of my mind.

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