Criticism, Reader Shame, and Problematic Books

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice. And I give absolutely no fucks.
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May 29, 2013

Shame grafitti

No reader should ever feel like this.

The speculative fiction community has been having, for many years now, conversations on how to be a fan of problematic things (too many posts to actually link, hence the LMGTFY link–I promise, I am not being an asshole–it was either do that or spend all evening vetting links and not writing this post; however if you read only one link, read the first one). In fact, there was a panel on this subject at WisCon this past weekend.

I’ve been thinking about this issue because of this post over at Dear Author–Robin takes a close look at E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey and Kristen Ashley’s Motorcycle Man. For the record, I have only read the first two James books and I have never read Ashley and I likely won’t for a variety of reasons.

I thought Robin’s analysis of the two books was really interesting, especially her insight into how the books are about control and negotiation of control–and the post sparked a bit of a discussion on Twitter about reader-shaming and liking problematic things.

The idea of reader-shaming is really interesting and the first thing I thought of was Shelley’s great post about librarianship and reader advisory at Wonk-o-mance, specifically this part:

 There is a great debate, repeated endlessly in the profession, about whether we should give the public what they want, or give the public books that are “good for them.” As if we, the educated readers, are the only ones who can decide what makes a book great. This isn’t to say that I don’t think there’s plenty of room for critique, and I think it’s very important that romance not be exempt from cultural study. In fact, I think popular books need to be at the heart of cultural studies, because those are the books that reflect and shape our societal values. However, it’s vitally important that we remember that there is no one right way to be a reader, even if that’s what we learn in school.

And then I thought about my post from a few months ago about the id vortex.

Then I thought about problematic books that I have loved.  Two specific books, both by Anneke Jacobs, came to mind: As She’s Told and Owned and Owner.  Both of these books are erotica and on the very extreme end of the spectrum–they deal with hardcore BDSM, specifically total power exchange (TPE) and dehumanization. Both these books are intense, difficult to read, extraordinarily problematic, and yet: they are beautifully written and they each are complete stories with a narrative arc and characters that I found myself fully invested in.

These books aren’t endorsing TPE as a lifestyle–except when they are for people who have thoroughly interrogated their desire for this type of lifestyle.  In both books, it is not a normalized behavior and, in fact, in Owned and Owner it is presented as deeply deviant (and in a SFnal context which was consistent enough for what it was; parts of the worldbuilding made me think of Bujold’s Ethan of Athos, to be honest). The reason I haven’t written about them in more detail is that it’s hard for me to explain why I loved them  and because I know that they are books with a very specific audience–and that they have the potential to be very upsetting to readers who are not part of that audience.

Stories are a fundamental part of human nature. We have always told stories to each other. Not every story is going to be for everyone and there are always going to be stories out there that someone else is going to find problematic in one way or another. No story is perfect in that respect. And not everyone is going to be willing or able to look at works through a critical lens–and that’s okay.  It seems to me that The Distress of the Privileged is a good thing to point people towards right now.

Because one thing that is brought up almost every time there’s a blog post or essay that’s overly critical (or perceived to be overly critical) about a romance or erotica novel is the idea that those who are being critical are trying to shame readers for liking the work in question. In my experience, this is not the case–the interaction between reader and text is often  act of transmutation and is very difficult to predict.  If it could be predicted, well, publishing would be a more profitable industry.

To steal a phrase from Shari Slade, not every story has to be an after-school special. I think it is definitely possible to choose to not look at a book too closely–I know I do that with some of my reading and other media consumption (I adore NCIS; enough said). However, for me, it’s not possible to do that for all the media I consume which is why I tend to seek out books–particularly romances–that are aware of their problematic aspects and attempt to interrogate those aspects, even if they’re not always successful. But again: that is my personal taste and someone else may make different choices in reading material.

It is important that we have these discussions about books. We all make mistakes and have the potential offend or upset other people. It’s how we react that’s important–do we learn and move on to the next set of mistakes or do we dig in?  It seems to me that this is one of the ways that we grow as writers and as readers–by questioning what we’re reading and writing.

I don’t believe anyone involved in this particular conversation is saying that people who consume stories uncritically should be ashamed of themselves–instead, they are saying that there is another way of reading and that this way of reading may help explain why some of these stories are so popular and why they resonate with so many readers.

I also think this is a conversation that the romance community desperately needs to have–it’s an important conversation and one that should be ongoing. I think it’s fantastic that the community is becoming more critical of itself–it doesn’t do the genre any favors if the only voices are those that are relentlessly positive about everything.

Our reasons for seeking out stories are complex–the human appetite for stories is deep and boundless. Criticism doesn’t diminish that, it can only enhance it.

 ***

And on a completely different subject, writing this post made me remember that I was going to put out a call for crit partners a few weeks ago and then forgot. I’m looking for 2-3 people willing to read drafts of blog posts like this one and give honest criticism.  I would, of course, be willing to read your drafts as well.  If you’re interested, let me know!

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