(This is an expanded version of a Twitter rant I went on this morning.)
This morning on Facebook a friend shared, critically, this story at the Guardian about a crank objecting to the pleasure others’ find in diverse literature:
Campbell had said that “there are so few books for queer black boys, but there are just too few books for all our marginalised young people”. Rosoff, author of How I Live Now and other bestselling titles, responded that “there are not too few books for marginalised young people. There are hundreds of them, thousands of them”, and that “you don’t have to read about a queer black boy to read a book about a marginalised child”.
“The children’s book world is getting far too literal about what ‘needs’ to be represented,” wrote Rosoff. “You don’t read Crime and Punishment to find out about Russian criminals. Or Alice in Wonderland to know about rabbits. Good literature expands your mind. It doesn’t have the ‘job’ of being a mirror.”
On the commute to work I couldn’t stop thinking about this notion that advocates of diversity are being “too literal,” and that what we expect is “a mirror” in literature that maps one-to-one against our own personal life experiences. I kept thinking about how, elsewhere in the Guardian piece, the Ms. Rosoff is quoted as saying (in response to social media pushback:
I really hate this idea that we need agendas in books. A great book has a philosophical, spiritual, intellectual agenda that speaks to many many people – not just gay black boys. I’m sorry, but write a pamphlet about it. That’s not what books are for.
This framing of increasingly-diverse participation in the world of literature and public speech as agenda-driven and somehow antithetical to “Good literature [that] expands your mind” is a tired, reactionary position. And it tells us far more about the speaker than it does about the individuals who are busily creating an ever-more-diverse literature that fully represents our human experience is all of its’ myriad universal-yet-specific particulars.
My very first creative writing professor in college impressed upon her students the importance of using the particular to gesture toward the universal. All of us are time- and place-bound human beings; the texture of our lives in inextricably sociopolitical as writers, as readers, and as characters. The only way one can imagine books like Crime and Punishment or Alice in Wonderland to be self-evidently more representative of human experience than Large Fears is if one believes that the narratives told by 19th-century white European male authors are more universal than the narratives told by 21st century authors writing a story about a queer black kid.
What that tells me about the speaker/reader is that they believe stories about queer black kids would only or primarily be told by and for queer black people. That it’s somehow a benevolent service provided by authors to those who are, sadly, unable to see themselves in “Good literature.” If only we were “good” readers able to identify with these timeless characters.
To believe that Carroll or Dostoevsky were apolitical writers, whose characters and fictions are somehow timeless is to believe a) that it is possible to be apolitical and, b) that literature that has historically resonated with the culturally politically and powerful is less identity-bound, less agenda-driven than stories told by and about people whose narratives have historically been refused for consideration as works of literature.
So that’s one issue: That Ms. Roskoff’s framing falsely represents only certain (historically marginalized) types of stories, featuring certain types of (marginalized) characters as having a crass political agenda. And furthermore argues that having a political agenda is antithetical to good literature. All literature is imbued with political dimensions. It is simply that we have been groomed to believe some politics are more universal than others, and thus they become depoliticized, the “common sense” of our era. It is only an “agenda” when it is something we dislike or fear. Literature that tells stories about the human condition in new ways, with uncommon characters, can remind us that all literature is political — and those politics matter.
Which brings me to my second issue with complaints like Ms. Roskoff’s, and this is the notion that the project of representing the full diversity of the human community in the stories we tell, and in the ways we make meaning of the world, is somehow a project undertaken solely out of an attempt to “include” the marginalized.
Do I care about having a literature that joyfully and fully speaks to my experience as a queer cisgendered Midwestern-born white woman? Sure. There’s a reason I look to fanfiction more often than mainstream narratives for satisfactory reading. There’s a reason that I found Carry On a deliciously satisfying response to Harry Potter. And part of that reason is that Carry On centers queer desire and other forms of human diversity in a way that feels more real, more meaningful, to me than the world J.K. Rowling created.
But queer folk, people of color, marginalized people of all kinds … we’ve been telling our stories to one another since forever. Subcultures create vibrant meaning for ourselves, and we don’t need that meaning represented in popular mainstream spaces primarily to validate our existence. Instead, it’s straight people, white people, able-bodied people, people like Ms. Roskoff who seem unable and unwilling to identify with “diverse” protagonists who are the invisible and reluctant beneficiaries of diverse narratives in literature.
They are the people who need to read diverse narratives in order to learn how to identify with, empathize with, learn from people who are unlike themselves. Because they have never had to identify with people who don’t fit their narrow description of what counts as a “universal” person. Yes, I should be able to find characters who are “like me” in literature. Yet, ideally, I should also find it unremarkable — commonsensical, in fact — to read about characters who I imagined were not at all like me. And to learn, through literature, that their stories resonate, that they teach me something I needed to know (but didn’t know to ask for).
As a reader and writer who is socially privileged in many ways, I very much want my literature (fannish or otherwise) to “mirror” back to me a world more gloriously diverse than I ever could have imagined on my own, within the confines of my own lived experience. The more, and more different, particular stories we tell to each other, the more accurately we will collectively gesture toward the universal experience of being human.
Great post. Thank you.