Somewhat naively I’m going to start this post by saying it’s going to be quite short because my current intent is to make a couple of brief points about something that mildly irritates me. It will, of course, inevitably wind up as a long, rambling essay full of pointless digressions and spurious analogies. But I thought you might like to know that I started off with the best of intentions.
So over the weekend I read The Garçonnière. I didn’t want to because, frankly, I was pretty damn sure I was going to find it annoying and as upsetting as you’re entitled to find something that you interpret as being harmful to a group of people to whom you do not, in fact, belong. And I did. The only reason I read it was to forestall the inevitable claims that I wasn’t entitled to say that I thought the book is misguided and inappropriate unless I read the damn thing. In fact, check that. It’s that I wanted to forestall the inevitable claims that I wasn’t even entitled to talk about the way that people were talking about the way that other people were talking about the book unless I’d read the damn thing.
I said I was going to include spurious analogies so here goes. I kind of feel that the prevailing wisdom which states that one cannot have an opinion on anything related to a book unless one has read it is the equivalent of the design philosophy behind raid attunements in early World of Warcraft. For anyone who isn’t a colossal nerd, raiding is basically the cool bit of WoW where you get to team up with your mates (or complete strangers) and do exciting content in groups of 10, 25 or (back in the day) 40. Being good at raiding involves knowing how to play your class in a very specific context, how to work at a team, how to follow a variety of complex strategies and, most importantly, how to look out for shit on the floor.
Raid attunements were long, often tortuous quest lines that you had to do before you were allowed to access a raid. The skills required to complete the attunement in no way overlapped with the skills required to actually raid. They were in the game for basically two reasons. One was to do with story and immersion and I’m going to skip over that because it’s not relevant here. But the other was, in essence, as a test of dedication. End game content in an MMO requires a certain level of commitment and, the theory goes, making people go on a long and grindy quest chain before they could do it meant that the only people who’d show up for a raid were people who’d take it seriously. The game has become a lot more accessible since then and there are, inevitably, hundreds of players who insist that this is the end of the world.
Anyway: the reason I feel that “you must have read the book” is the equivalent of a raid attunement is that people seem insist that you read a book before you talk about it even if there is no conceivable way that reading the book could change, colour or even influence your opinion. It becomes, in essence, a gating mechanism. A means to ensure only people with a sufficient level of dedication are allowed to take part in a conversation. It also, incidentally, preferentially selects for people who are inclined to like the book anyway for the simple reason that nearly 100% of people who like a book have read it, whereas a large fraction of people who object to a book may not have.
Now the thing is, I can obviously see that there are statements about a book that you should really have read it in order to make. I don’t think you can say with any kind of authority whether a book is well or badly written if you’d not seen any of the writing. You can’t comment on its characterisation or how effectively it handles its themes because these are all questions of interpretation and execution. On the other hand, there are some statements you can make about a book purely on the basis of second hand information.
On the most prosaic level, I have not read George RR Martin’s A Dance of Dragons but I can say, with as much authority as anyone else, that it’s an instalment of the GoT series, that it takes place in Martin’s invented world just like all the others, and that it’s about a thousand fucking pages long. If I wanted to write a post in which I declared that I thought A Dance with Dragons was too damn long to be worth my reading it, it would clearly be absurd to expect me to read it before I made that assessment. My complaint about the book is its length. I can tell how long the book is by looking at it. You might think that was a shallow reason for not reading it, but that’s neither here nor there.
A lot of the time, when people find a book offensive or insulting what they object to is its premise. This is true of stories set in the American civil war about slaves who fall in love with their masters. It’s true of stories set in the Second World War about Jews who fall in love with concentration camp commanders. It’s true of stories set in alternative universes in which the Native Americans are erased from history in order to allow white settlers to have exciting adventures with mammoths. If your complaint is “I do not want to read a book about this thing or in which this thing happens” all you need to know about the book is that it is about the thing or that the thing happens in it. There is nothing you can learn from reading the book that would address your primary concern.
Now it’s certainly possible that these sorts of concerns are, on a case by case basis, inappropriate. You might feel, for example, that it’s perfectly okay to write a novel in which a black slave falls in love with a white slave owner or a concentration camp inmate falls in love with a Nazi. You might think that the people who object to these elements are overreacting and need to stop taking little things like slavery and the Holocaust so seriously. I would disagree with you and possibly think you were kind of a dick but at least you would be arguing from a consistent position. What does not make sense is arguing that a person’s objection to the content of a text which does, in fact, contain the content to which they object is invalid merely because they have not themselves consumed it. This is the equivalent of arguing that vegetarians cannot think it is unethical to eat meat because they do not eat meat.
Of course, there are always exceptions and edge cases. It is, theoretically possible, that you could write a romance in which a black slave falls in love with a white slave owner that is actually a searing indictment of the way in which the history of slavery has been appropriated by white people in order to tell stories that make them feel good about themselves. You could write a love story set in a concentration camp that is about the way in which the Holocaust is used by people who never experienced it and were not affected by it to push agendas and narratives that personally suit them. Or the way that Jewish stories have historically been appropriated by Christian culture.
But, first of all, I’d probably only try to write a story like that if I was (depending on the context) black or Jewish and, secondly, the “you haven’t read it” argument is never actually used in this kind of situation. The objection is never “I agree that if the book was like you describe, it would be a problem but I don’t think it is”, it’s “it doesn’t matter if the book is like you describe or not because you haven’t done this arbitrary thing I’ve decided you have to do for your opinion to matter”. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, particularly problematic when you’re telling a black person they’re not allowed to think something is racist or a woman she’s not allowed to think something is sexist, or a queer person they’re not allowed to think something is homophobic or … well, you get the idea.
At least The Garçonnière was free. Otherwise a lot of the time what you’re saying to these people is basically “I will not accept your statement that this thing is harmful unless you not only take the time to experience it, knowing in advance that it will hurt you, but that you also financially support it”.
This is fucking absurd.
It is okay to disagree with people about a text. It is even okay to disagree with marginalised people about issues relating directly to their marginalisation (especially because marginalised groups are not monoliths). What is not okay is insisting that people, marginalised or otherwise, jump through an arbitrary hoop before you will consider what they say on its own merits.