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: