Growing in Depth and Disappointment in Our Reading

My oldest son has been wanting me – or anyone else in the family, really – to read The Night Angel Trilogy (Brent Weeks) for like, ever. In his esteem, it reaches the top fantasy honors spot next to The Kingkiller Chronicles (The Name of the Wind/Wise Man’s Fear) by Patrick Rothfuss. We do this with each other – try to get others in the family to read a favorite book and hope that they will love it as much as we do, or at least like it enough so we can talk about it. My middle son waited forever for me to read Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series (conveniently, I waited until just before the last book was to come out to read all of those – I enjoyed them and my son is happy-happy). My husband is still waiting for me to read Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor. I think that “promise” of mine to do so dates back, um, a few years… Considering that he has now read three of my own manuscripts, I suppose the least I could do is finally read that book. (Dang, it’s long though! Maybe this summer?) With no deadlines looming over me to edit, write, or even read anything else, for that matter, I decided now was the time to delve into the Weeks book.

I read the first book (The Way of the Shadow) and for the most part, enjoyed it. Intricate plot. Some complicated cultural structures. Protagonist and his mentor are multi-layered characters. So far so good. My son is happy-happy.

Here’s the catch. I start the second book (Shadow’s Edge) and I get through 25 pages and think, oh, wow, I’m not happy. 50 pages – crap, it’s even worse. 100 pages (instead of closing the book), because this is my son’s rec, but at this point all I can think is this is some of the worst writing of women that I have ever seen. (It ain’t great on LGBTQIA issues either.) I mean, basically, women are either whores or virgins. A woman is considered “strong” if she is also willing to use her body to achieve her goal. If she is a virgin, she is a flat character with no agency. Men, on the other hand, have no such issue, and also score extra points for being virgins while also facing complex moral issues.

What to do?

I was honest with my son. I told him I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to finish this book and told him why. I could see this bummed him out.

I kept reading and though I am not finished quite yet, I will say that the second half of the book is much better (which is why you see me being more open and specific about my criticisms). Brothel women play an important role in fighting back with the enemy (and are later honored for it). A female assassin changes sides. We learn more of another region that has matriarchal rule and the women are smart and powerful. For me, it’s not enough to make up for the first half, but enough that I can see how it met with editorial approval. The hard part is in not loving it like my son does. He is disappointed, I know.

It would be one thing if I just didn’t like the story all that well, but it’s the fact that I see inherent issues with the broader writing as a whole that complicates everything.

What happens when we discover that something we have loved so much actually turns out to be offensive or morally dubious? Do we still keep it a secret favorite? Defend it vociferously?

Or do we change our opinion? Allow ourselves to release our hold on it?

When the Twilight series came out by Stephanie Meyer, I not only read them all as they came out, but bought the books, too. So yes, I loved the books – tore right through them. And yes, I was a well-established adult (and parent) when they came out. Later, many started to criticize the writing. Didn’t bother me because my reading is varied enough that I’m not going to worry about that sort of judgment on my tastes. Then I started reading about the criticisms about the message being sent to teenage girls about Bella’s actions (the protagonist). Basically, Bella is a terrible role model for basing her happiness on a boy who is domineering and manipulative. Critics are not wrong. I could argue some of the points, but in the end, am I doing so because I am defending the story or am I defending myself? I’m not really sure, to be honest. Many people I respect would criticize me for defending it, and in truth, that means something – it means maybe I should listen to that criticism.

When Kathryn Stockett’s The Help came out, I joined the ranks that loved this book. It seemed like it was portraying a good message, right? Giving voice to black women whose voices were stifled in so many awful ways in our country. But then I read about those who thought those same women were given a false voice, that truly, The Help is about white people patting themselves on the back for the good that they’ve done. You know what? I totally see their point because there’s a difference between a white author writing empathetically – or even sympathetically – about history (or social issues from any time period) and a white author showing a white protagonist as hero in that same situation. From a white author to white readers, there might be some value to shedding light on something some white readers still refuse to acknowledge or fully understand, but beyond that, maybe this book isn’t all that I thought it was.

And these are just two examples that catch me. The criticisms of these books touch on important issues that affect marginalized populations, so I determine that I need to listen in order to continue to grow and learn.

So where does this leave me? Or my son?

Do I have to let go of my hold on books that I used to love? In truth, I loosened my hold on Twilight and The Help long ago, but what about books that I’ve really loved? (To Kill a Mockingbird, Animal Dreams, and probably others) What about this trilogy that my son rates above all others? It’s hard to let go of books we loved and learn later that maybe we shouldn’t – or that we feel a little embarrassed that we did (or still do!). Sometimes our defense of those books might be justified, but other times… maybe we should listen to ourselves as we make our defense. My son is young, yet, and will learn and grow in his reading and what I’ve done (besides crushed him for criticizing something he loves – MOTHER OF THE YEAR, Y’ALL) is plant a seed in his brain to help that growth.

I can’t deny that our hold on a book, no matter the content or theme, might necessitate a fierce defense. For some, a book might literally have saved their lives – gave them hope, gave them courage, gave them strength – whatever. But maybe we can also honor the memory of the book vs. the reality of it.

I turn it over to you all. Is it too hard to let go of a book, in spite of new or different knowledge? What might draw the line for you?

Since I need a song… what about finding out that the “Ghostbusters” theme came almost directly from Huey Lewis’ “I Want a New Drug”? Check out this abbreviated version of the lawsuit from MentalFloss. Curious about the similarities? Here’s a mashup of the two together:

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11 Responses to Growing in Depth and Disappointment in Our Reading

  1. Great, great post. The Help would definitely be one of my examples too. This is something I think about a lot. Some criticisms will forever change the way I see a book, there will be no going back. Other times I can see someone’s point, but will still love the book. I don’t know if you have this issue, but sometimes there’s also an element of shame about it for me- “What’s wrong with me that I didn’t see how problematic this is?”

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    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      Oh yes, definitely an element of shame – we’re supposed to be smart, right? And aware. I’m still a work-in-progress.

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  2. MJ says:

    I think it depends on how much we love the book. I recently read the “Little House” series for the first time since grade school (about three decades ago!) and while I cringed at certain points, I don’t love the books any less. I choose to see past that to the heart of the story.

    I also read mostly to be entertained, so sometimes what others raise a hullabaloo about, I just don’t see or I think of it as a little too much English 101/why did the author paint the walls blue-ish. “Twilight” is a good example. I enjoyed the books, I didn’t think they were great literature but I was entertained and that’s all I expected out of a series that included vampires and shapeshifters.

    On the other side of that coin, though, is something like ’50 Shades,’ which I haven’t read and won’t read and includes (what I see as) a message about sexual assault and domestic assault being a love story.

    Which I guess circles right back to my original point – for me, it depends on the book in question.

    (Great post, btw! Lots of food for thought!)

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    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      Yes – and I suppose that is a lot of my point – that it does depend upon the book and our relationship with, which is why it’s hard, right? Are you choosing to see past the cringe-worthy aspects in order to protect that relationship with the story? And if so, is it bad when we do this? I don’t know. I feel like I do a little of this when I think of To Kill a Mockingbird since I can’t actually explain away all of what Lee writes as simply characterization.
      Sometimes it’s a matter of balancing era with theme and purpose. Other times those two might clash.

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  3. Cheryl says:

    You have made my day. I also tore through the Twilight series then started reading criticism and could also see the validity to the criticism. Twilight became my secret shame. I have certainly let go of the series as a favourite but can’t deny that for awhile it held me in its sparkly grip. Thanks for making me feel not quite so alone

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    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      And it really does have a sparkly grip, right? Regardless of criticism, Meyer wrote a story that pulled millions in. You are definitely not alone!

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  4. Chris Adler says:

    I love this post, Janet, and that your family shares books and talks about them the way you do.

    As a child, I remember reading to learn about myself (and that I’m not alone in my feelings, thoughts or fears). As an adult, I read partially for entertainment and partly to be educated. The educational takeaways from books are, for me, great writing/voice or putting a face on cultural/historical details about a time or place I didn’t live through. If I’m not gaining any of this from a book, I tend to put it down. That’s why The Help, Memoirs of a Geisha and Pride and Prejudice are and will always be some of my favorite books. I’ve heard criticisms of all, but I stand firm in my love because of what the books gave to ME. Maybe that makes me a selfish reader, but that’s the beauty of books: we each get something different from them, as with any art form. Sharing those ideas and viewpoints (opposing or not) gives life to the story, another dimension beyond the individual reader. 😀 Thanks for the great food for thought!

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    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      That is certainly important – the value given to the reader. Maybe I hope that we are willing to accept the criticisms though, too, especially when they reflect the questionable treatment of themes surrounding marginalized populations. Hence still feeling moved by some of the scenes in The Help and feeling entertained by vampire stories. 🙂

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  5. jillhannahanderson says:

    Many good points here, Janet! There are so many “best-sellers” out there that I have no interest in reading (Hunger Games, Twilight, etc. etc.) so I don’t know if I’m too narrow-minded with my books, or what because I do pick up a wide range of novels to read. And yes, some that I love have been criticized and then I have questioned my choices. But ultimately, I guess that is why we need so many diverse books, for all our diverse interests!

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