you must be at least this tall

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.


16 Responses to you must be at least this tall

  1. darla says:

    Very well put Alexis! And, succinctly put too–bonus you!

  2. Beverley Jansen says:

    Love your *cough* succinct post….and of course you are correct, as you were about the similar ‘you can’t complain if you were not there’ debacle.

    This ‘pseudo outrage’ you are describing is really annoying on normal terms but terrifying if you have read ‘The Grand Ballast’ by JA Rock.

  3. Pam/Peejakers says:

    <3 <3 <3 Omg, how many times did I sit here & clap my hands while exclaiming "Omg, I love you!" as I read this? Err, this is a rhetorical question, as I really didn't keep count. *Hint*: It was . . . several 🙂

    As for your digressions and analogies, they were not the least bit pointless or spurious (says someone who would know), but on point & entertaining, as always. And by the way, this is awesome. And I completely agree (duh) 😉

    Also, wow, this makes *how* many posts in the past couple of days? O-o

    Haha, but you know I'm kidding. You could write one a day, I'd love it. Though hopefully there wouldn't be *material* for that many . . .

  4. Des Livres says:

    What Pam said.

    You could do a hierachy of like buttons. One could be “yair” (for us Australians), one could be “totally agree, hit nail on the head, this is fabulous, 10 000 times yes” one could be “sort of agree in a vague sort of way ” etc etc.

  5. Ellie says:

    You just HAVE to have that LIKE button!
    And a way to follow comments without commenting 🙂

  6. Lotta says:

    So well put, as always. And, you know, I felt it had the appropriate length, too.

    It is frustrating that the discussion doesn’t seem to be about the thing in itself, it’s mostly of the things surrounding it, like “I enjoyed this and I don’t want to feel bad about myself,” or “don’t censor any books, ever.” My theory is that the people who shout so loudly is trying to silence their own cognitive dissonance (I take this mainly from the similarly loud voices you hear when you happen to be vegetarian and spend any time with a certain type of omnivore). I do this thing that is bad, but I am not bad, ergo the thing must not be bad. People who say this thing is bad (or even hint at it by saing “I don’t want to do this thing”) are wrong and must be talked loudly at.

  7. Des Livres says:

    Also, a self righteous requirement that “you have to read the book to comment on it” completely erases the reality of the hurt caused by those books. To take it further, it erases the reality of triggers. As you said, it takes the people harmed by those works out of any discussion about them. Insidious.

  8. Dianna says:

    This is very interesting and has really made me think!

    I’m not very good at writing down my thoughts or commenting in a well constructed manner, but your blog posts are all extremely interesting and thought provoking and have certainly made me think about the relevant issues, so thank you for writing them.

  9. Kathleen Charles says:

    “…how to look out for shit on the floor.”


    Sorry, first thing that come to mind. The good ol’ days. 🙂

    Anyway, absolutely wonderful article. Thanks for sharing.


  10. Jody-Anne says:

    I felt this way when I first bought my kindle, nearly 4 years ago. After a while “50 Shades of Grey” kept showing up in my feed for Recommened Reading. I did not want to read this book. I had by this time read lots of others similar in the BDSM theme, but there was something about this one that did not sit right with me…..ana being a virgin, him being ack, can’t remember…..for me it was a no, not my kind of story. And then it went viral, and they made a movie! Still have not read it, nor seen the movie. …….”OMG, it’s soo good”. “Well you can’t make a judgement if you have not read it. I loved it!” So? I do not like this premise.
    But this disturbance is nothing compared to the synopsis of the last two books that have had you so riled up. The first one, about the nazi commander(?) and Jewish internee….did not even bother looking at it as that would be a NO read, let alone that I do not read historical romance.
    Read you article, which I, again, found thought provoking ( like censorship, freedom of speech,policing, what Is freedom of speech, what is just..NO, whether I have read it or not). So I Googled this particular book & found myself on Goodreads, and then immersed myself in the original premise, then the synopsis, and then the comments…..and well done you, for reading this to head off at the pass whatever criticism will come your way. For me the original premise of the story gave me pause.
    I am a white Western woman living in Australia, I am in a privileged position. I am married to a Chinese man, I have two handsome boys who are now living in the world of ‘adult’, one of who is gay. One of my sisters is married to an African man and has 2 children, much younger than my own. One of my sisters is married to a third generation Indian, South African Muslim man, and my brother s wife is of multiple ethnentisities (real spelling??? Read English Dutch with German Japanese black belt karate). I find a lot of things offensive, Towel head for Muslims, what people say about Africans, how they side eye my niece and nephew when out with me and my mum, what they have actually asked about the size of my husbands ….you can get it. Cause, you know ..I like Chinese, they only come up to my knee. (Even though he is taller than me by about a head), Yet, they are day to day things.
    What comes from a white mouth, with so much privilege, to romantasize another cultures holocaust…be it Jewish, African, AfricanAmerican, GLBTQI being killed for their sexuality. A Few years down the track we will have stories of love between a captured Syrian lass/lad and an ISIL dude, cause you know, that could happen!!!!! And we now have TV and newspapers and Internet to see how that looks, without a romantic filter.
    Some things are just OFF.

    • Jody-Anne says:

      PPS, could you add an edit button’ as well as a like! Not that I want to change my post, just to amend my comment about “what comes out of a white mouth”, because the author could be of any one, and I do not want to put a whiteface on any voice.

  11. Jody-Anne says:

    PS I do not the author of the books background, from which this original post came.

  12. Pingback: Links: 10/23/15 — Pretty Terrible

  13. Lila says:

    “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.”
    May I just add (and this is particularly jarring to me), it also very much doesn’t matter if you “showed it to your friend who is black/Jewish/queer and they don’t think it’s offensive”. Different reaction or emotional experience doesn’t exclude or make experience of someone else who is black/Jewish/queer less legitimate.

    I agree- “you haven’t read the book” argument doesn’t work when people are objecting to premise. Now, does finding the premise problematic give you the right to rate and criticize this particular book on popular review platform? I think yes. That way you are elevating problem above singularity; it’s not this particular book and this particular author. It’s not a point for MacLagan to say: “I am not writing something similar ever again, because I got so much shit flying my way with The Garçonnière” or some other author and publisher to say: “I am not touching that because of what happened with The Garçonnière or For Such a Time.” The point is: “We listened and acknowledged all the ways something like that can be offensive and we can do better.”

    Great post, Alexis.

  14. Susan Ford says:

    This particular event also underlies the whitewashing that is taking place in the US education system. Just recently a batch of textbooks were recalled (just two weeks or so ago) because they used the term imported African workers instead of the word “slaves.”

    I do not need to experience a thing to know it will disgust me and piss me off. I don’t need to hit myself with a hammer to know it will hurt.

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