Original Photo: Norm4lNorm4l, CC BY 2.0, Final Image: This Week In Tomorrow, CC BY-SA 2.0
When I was growing up, YA fiction had a very interesting temporal and even physical location for me. I read “young adult” fiction from basically the age of 8 to…. Well I’m still reading it. (Keep any “prolonged adolescence of the millennial” comments to yourself, because Tamora Pierce and I don’t wanna hear them.) And in my local library, the young adult section shared a wall with the children’s section but was in its own little space, and on the other side of the shelf where the young adult collection ended the adult section began. It was literally bridging the two age ranges. I’ve always liked young adult fiction, for this and for multiple other reasons: it treats adolescents as grown-ups in training rather than porcelain figures who must be protected from knowledge, it dares to address topics that mainstream literary fiction is usually a bit stuffier about, and it’s a genre that is largely dominated by female authors.
(Note: what you have just read is how much of my document was recoverable after I wrote 2,500 words and Word crashed. So apologies if what follows is less good than what I originally had. Also, please give me head pats for not tossing my computer across the room and drinking heavily. Also also, if you smirk and tell me to always save my work I will find creative ways to hurt you with a spork.)
So when I heard about a kerfuffle in YA fiction that involved diversity, callout culture, and my favorite word, “problematic” (you can take the word “problematic” out of my cold dead hands) I definitely needed to investigate.
The controversy circles around the work named The Black Witch by a newbie author, Laurie Forest. The book follows a young woman named Elloren, a magic user in a fantasy world of stratified races who is part of a higher, “purer” caste than other magical races. She goes to a magical university and has to start rubbing elbows with other races, and hijinks (and racism!) ensue.
This is the way the book is described by Kat Rosenfield, a Vulture author who is obviously on the side of the author and the book:
The Black Witch centers on a girl named Elloren who has been raised in a stratified society where other races (including selkies, fae, wolfmen, etc.) are considered inferior at best and enemies at worst. But when she goes off to college, she begins to question her beliefs, an ideological transformation she’s still working on when she joins with the rebellion in the last of the novel’s 600 pages. (It’s the first of a series; one hopes that Elloren will be more woke in book two.)
This is how the book is described by a blogger and reviewer named Shauna (though Rosenfield uses her last name, there have been legitimate discussions of safety concerns and so I am declining to do so):
Before I get into this review wholeheartedly, I want to address the supporters of this book. Yes, I read the whole thing. Yes, I understand that it’s supposed to be a redemption story in which deeply seated prejudices are uprooted and the main character learns. But here’s the thing. She doesn’t learn. Even with 100, 50, 30, pages left, Elloren Gardner was still saying and doing racist things. Additionally, it takes 350+ pages before that redemption arc even starts, and those pages before it are filled with some of the most vile hatred and vitriol I’ve ever seen from a protagonist.
This book was ultimately written for white people. It was written for the type of white person who considers themselves to be not-racist and thinks that they deserve recognition and praise for treating PoC like they are actually human. It holds no regard to the feelings of marginalized people, which is evident in the way that the book portrays racism, homophobia, and ableism.
I have to admit, I take great pleasure in a well-written critique that savages a book and brings the receipts, and Shauna savages the book and brings receipts. Her review and discussion is about 9,000 words long. The tl;dr version: Elloren is racist, homophobic, entitled, ableist, childish, and entirely lacks self-awareness. The book presents multiple instances of oppressed races “deserving” their oppression by being mean to poor, innocent Elloren, who can’t understand why her race’s oppression of other races might mean that others would be somewhat salty to her. There are instances of sexual assault, coercion, blackmail, and cruelty to animals that basically go without condemnation. It takes Elloren almost the entire book to buy part of a clue, and then she spends the rest of the book still being shitty but now also being mad when people assume that she’s going to be shitty. Also, this is a literal sentence in the work: “The Kelts are not a pure race like us. They’re more accepting of intermarriage, and because of this, they’re hopelessly mixed.”
The author also names and describes characters and performs worldbuilding like a Hot Topic addict writing fanfiction.
Altogether… woah. That sounds bad. Like, really, really bad.
According to Rosenfield, Shauna’s review created a wave of negative criticism, including would-be readers changing their mind about reading it, the book’s detractors criticizing the book’s supporters, and people asking the publisher and Kirkus (who gave the book a starred review) how they could endorse a work that had such terrible ideas. Rosenfield paints these individuals as a vocal minority, pointing out that the book has relatively good reviews on Amazon, and contains complaints that the pro-diversity message is actually too strong. She also reprints Forest’s defense of her own work:
But she also says her book’s pro-diversity message is genuine: “I think there is a need for diversity in all phases of publishing, and it’s exciting to see that happening. The Black Witch explores what it’s like to grow up in a closed-minded culture, and its message is that people who may have been raised with prejudiced views can change for the better. But it takes time and education.”
Rosenfield’s overall argument is one against callout culture. She states that the bullied have become the bullies, suppressing thought, encouraging censorship, policing the culture wars, and essentially trying to silence those who disagree with them through callouts and public shaming. However, this comes off as disingenuous at best and absolutely hypocritical at worst when you consider that Rosenfield allows the sources that she agrees with to remain anonymous, while “hatelinking” those that she disagrees with (aka purposefully driving angry traffic to those who disagree with her). She takes umbrage with a queer reviewer who is upset that a book with direct homophobic content is homophobic. She also didn’t warn those that she was linking to that they would be subjects in her work, and quoted sources out of context in order to make them seem worse. There are also accusations that she went back through her own tweets to clean up her own material before publication.
Now, there are some problems with callout culture, and those problems are addressed very ably in this article by Asam Ahmad. Personally, I still think there is a definite place for callouts, including public discussions and sharing information. I believe that a lot depends on whether one is punching up or punching down (in emphasizing that The Black Witch is “a book by a newcomer with a minimal presence online” it’s clear that Rosenfield is trying to make it appear that critics are punching down.) I also have problems with the idea that people who have been oppressed have the duty to calmly and rationally explain to those that have upset, offended, or insulted them how to be good people. (You can see my discussion of the Heineken ad for my further thoughts on that one.)
Rather than focus on the callout culture aspects (which, again, I think are addressed between Rosenfield’s hypocrisy, Ahmad’s article, and Shauna’s original post) I’d like to focus on what I feel are two other important threads of Rosenfield’s critique: the idea that critics and detractors cannot and should not criticize the book without having read it, and that the criticism is somehow leaving no room for complicated protagonists or protagonists that undergo a character arc.
It’s clear in Rosenfield’s article that she believes that the people who criticize the book without having read it don’t really deserve a voice or opinion, and thinks that those who have read it are pretty universally in favor of it. Take a look at the following quotes, contrasting those who have not read the book with those who have.
“Based almost solely on [Shauna’s] opinion, the novel became the object of sustained, aggressive opposition in the weeks leading up its release.”
“The Black Witch’s Goodreads rating dropped to an abysmal 1.71 thanks to a mass coordinated campaign of one-star reviews, mostly from people who admitted to not having read it.”
“Still, the interpretation of Forest’s novel as a 600-page paean to anti-miscegenation seems rare among those who’ve actually read it. On Amazon, where the book is currently rated 4.3 stars out of 5, reviews generally agree that the book is firmly anti-prejudice, and that Elloren’s long slog in the direction of enlightenment is a realistic depiction of the process by which an indoctrinated person begins to expand her worldview. (There, the most common criticism is that the book’s message of tolerance is heavy-handed.) However, just reading a so-called problematic book in order to judge its offensiveness for oneself is considered by many to be beyond the pale.”
Basically, her message is that this is all overblown, a nonsense controversy created by one person who has read the book and continued by many more who haven’t, while all the “real” audience members for the book read and enjoy it.
To address this misguided notion, I think it’s useful to actually turn to a different controversy that is also currently happening: the discussion behind HBO’s proposed show Confederate, which rests on the idea that the white, racist Confederacy never officially lost and has remained in power, causing a split country and a continuation of slavery. After the idea was released, there was a large outcry. HBO’s spokespeople, producers, and writers responded to the criticism by asking for patience, and asking people to give them the benefit of the doubt. Ta-Nehisi Coates gives an excellent response to this (It’s long but totally worth reading. I’ll wait):
This request sounds sensible at first pass. Should one not “reserve judgment” of a thing until after it has been seen? But HBO does not actually want the public to reserve judgment so much as it wants the public to make a positive judgment. A major entertainment company does not announce a big new show in hopes of garnering dispassionate nods of acknowledgement. HBO executives themselves judged Confederate before they’d seen it—they had to, as no television script actually exists. HBO hoped to communicate that approval to its audience through the announcement. And had that communication been successful, had Confederate been greeted with rapturous anticipation, it is hard to imagine the network asking its audience to tamp down and wait.
HBO’s motives aside, the plea to wait supposes that a problem of conception can be fixed in execution. We do not need to wait to observe that this supposition is, at best, dicey. For over a century, Hollywood has churned out well-executed, slickly produced epics which advanced the Lost Cause myth of the Civil War. These are true “alternative histories,” built on “alternative facts,” assembled to depict the Confederacy as a wonderland of virtuous damsels and gallant knights, instead of the sprawling kleptocratic police state it actually was. From last century’s The Birth of a Nation to this century’s Gods and Generals, Hollywood has likely done more than any other American institution to obstruct a truthful apprehension of the Civil War, and thus modern America’s very origins. So one need not wait to observe that any foray by HBO into the Civil War must be met with a spirit of pointed inquiry and a withholding of all benefit of the doubt.
…The symbols point to something Confederate’s creators don’t seem to understand—the war is over for them, not for us. At this very hour, black people all across the South are still fighting the battle which they joined during Reconstruction—securing equal access to the ballot—and resisting a president whose resemblance to Andrew Johnson is uncanny. Confederate is the kind of provocative thought experiment that can be engaged in when someone else’s lived reality really is fantasy to you, when your grandmother is not in danger of losing her vote, when the terrorist attack on Charleston evokes honest sympathy, but inspires no direct fear. And so we need not wait to note that Confederate’s interest in Civil War history is biased, that it is premised on a simplistic view of white Southern defeat, instead of the more complicated morass we have all around us.
To borrow Coates’ language, Rosenfield’s implied demand to read the book before criticizing it supposes that the problems of conception pointed out in Shauna’s article can be resolved by reading the execution in context in the full text. And honestly, if you have read Shauna’s article, you have read a lot of the book. She quotes liberally from the text, and even takes photos of pages. You are seeing a good sampling of the book by reading her article. And again, as Coates puts it, The Black Witch is the kind of thing you can indulge in if other peoples’ problems are fantasies to you. This is obviously an actual fantasy, but the problems it is discussing are real. There are already instances of homophobia, racism, ableism, and sexual assault. I don’t need it to be performed by elves in order to consider it. And I don’t have to spend my time and energy reading a 600-page book in which the inherently terrible protagonist doesn’t start buying a clue until 300 pages in, and remains deeply, deeply unaware of her own privilege for the remaining 300 pages. The supposedly reasonable premise, “don’t knock it until you try it,” is really a plea to put up with bullshit in order to earn the right to criticize said bullshit. And in this case, the bullshit replicates harmful, existing problems that we are already having to deal with.
The second underlying premise is that by asking for less problematic stories, critics are hurting literature. One of the opinions that Rosenfield likes and thus allows to remain anonymous is a book agent who thinks that such criticism is basically killing the character arc:
One prominent children’s-book agent told me, “None of us are willing to comment publicly for fear of being targeted and labeled racist or bigoted. But if children’s-book publishing is no longer allowed to feature an unlikable character, who grows as a person over the course of the story, then we’re going to have a pretty boring business.”
Without having read the book (ha! I am part of the problem!) I don’t think that this concern applies in the case of The Black Witch for a few reasons, and I’ll pull from other stories and other media to try and explain myself. No one is saying that fiction isn’t allowed to include unlikeable characters. We’re not even saying that you can’t have assholes in your fiction. But there are a few things that make other unlikable characters different.
First, other characters actually have an arc. From what I can tell based on Shauna’s article, Elloren stumbles into the idea that maybe her race isn’t supreme, that maybe other races have been treated unfairly, about 300 pages into the book. That means for the length of a standard novel, we have been following a racist, homophobic, abelist jerk who is completely unaware of anything about the context of her surrounding world. And even after she has her epiphany, she continues to frequently act like a racist, homophobic, abelist jerk. And she exhibits little to no self awareness of her own position and her own culpability in perpetuating these harmful things. It is always others of her race who are more racist and thus worse, and in contrast her 600 pages of microaggressions are supposed to be totally fine. That’s not an arc, that’s a halfhearted shrug, a Facebook like of a Black Lives Matter post, and talking about how other white people are super racist, isn’t that terrible, while still calling the cops when your black neighbors have a party and talking about how “those people” are making it hard to get a job in the service industry.
Second, other characters have redeeming features. Sherlock and House (aka Medical!Sherlock) are antagonistic, misanthropic drug addicts with no tact and a tendency to screw up the lives of everyone they get close to. They are also brilliant people who solve problems and save lives. Elloren’s redeeming qualities are that… she’s pretty? She’s inexplicably better at magic than everyone else and might be the subject of a prophecy? She’s slightly less racist than literally everyone else of her race? She kinda felt bad when she got her pseudo-boyfriend to murder her roommate’s familiar in a grisly way? (I’m not even fucking kidding about that one.) There’s basically nothing about Elloren that makes it worth putting up with her bullshit journey. And I’m not asking for a perfect character, or a character with exactly one flaw (looking at you, Bella Swan). There’s still a major difference between a “perfect” female character and a “strong” female character. I want the latter. But even the most screwed up strong female characters need to give me some reason why I’m on their side.
Third, we are usually not asked to identify as much, or as closely, with unlikable characters. Even in shows or media where the unlikable character is frequently framed as the protagonist or as sympathetic, we are given distance or escape options. Dexter legit kills people, but we’re watching him do it, not experiencing him do it. And there’s enough narrative distance and self-reflection that we can be like “hey, this whole killing people thing is probably not great.” But The Black Witch is in first person, and its protagonist has the self-awareness of David Avocado Wolf. Which is to say, none. No self-awareness. We are literally in Elloren’s head as she goes on her merry journey of fucking people over, and thus we are also intimately familiar with how little she cares about others or is aware of her own shortcomings. It would be like if Game of Thrones was entirely told in the first person perspective of Cersei Lannister, and it was all about how those nogoodniks the Stark family kept trying to destroy her happiness and then like, 400 pages in in Cersei starting to realize that maybe incest and murder is bad. But that Stark kid spied on her and her brother so he probably still deserved to get pushed out a window.
There was honestly one simple way to make The Black Witch about 200% better and way, way less racist, homophobic, and ableist: don’t fucking make it about Elloren. Pick one of the other characters who are from one of the oppressed races. Turn it into the story of them pushing past oppression and forming a resistance, and eventually swaying the scion of the most powerful family in the racist upper caste to your side. Elloren still gets her quasi-redemption arc, we still get to see someone who grew up in a close-minded culture getting an education. But you aren’t asked to identify with a bigot.
And really, in our current political era, “please don’t make us identify with a bigot” seems like a pretty small but still important ask of our young adult authors. Young people are going to have to do that enough already when thinking about politics.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not responding to callout culture thinkpieces that take part in callout culture themselves, she studies gender in popular culture.
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