So I am about to do something I’ve never seen a mainstream author do before, which is to criticize my own work for negative discourse.
You might be wondering, “What the hell does that even mean?” since “discourse” is defined as “the use of words to exchange thoughts and ideas” and I am a writer and it sounds like I’m speaking in gibberish.
So, to clarify: when I say “negative discourse” I am talking about how text — in this instance, the text of a novel — can perpetuate ideas in support of racism, sexism, classism, ableism — or pretty much any kind of negative stereotype or slur humanity has ever invented. Not because the author wrote specific slurs into the text, but as a function of the plot of the story, or in the way the characters are described in a story.
The older I get, and the more I study the world around me, it has become apparent to me that the strongest forms of all negative stereotypes are really good at hiding in plain sight. The strongest forms are the most subtle, the most insidious, the most cruel, and a person has to have some very sharp eyesight indeed to notice these things. Because mostly, in combating negative stereotypes, what you’re learning to see is yourself — at least, that’s been my experience. The more clearly I see the world around me, the more clearly what I am really examining is myself — most especially, my own shortcomings, and the ways I constantly perpetuate problematic ideas that I do not agree with, but are readily promoted by society as a whole.
Now, you might think that since many fiction writers are self-identified liberals, progressives, moderates, or non-racist/non-sexist conservatives, then these creative writers would be analyzing their own work for negative discourse all the time. But in my experience (with a big thank you to social media, for allowing me to watch such drama unfold), writers don’t criticize their own books — their readers do — and when readers take books to task for being racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, classist, or anything else — the authors most often react with a mixture of silence and denial. Sometimes fury. And one of the most frequent defense mechanisms authors use to dismiss criticism of their work is to tell their critics, “It’s just a story.”
Which makes me narrow my eyes, and put down my snooty teacup with a growl. Just like this —
Hearing the statement “It’s just a story” reminds me of how many times I voiced an opinion as a kid growing up, and was immediately told, “You’re just a girl. What would you know?” Which is considered the polite way of telling a female to shut the f*ck up.
So let me say this: there IS no “just a” in life, especially not when it comes to story. All meaning and judgment are rooted in story. Secular or religious, nonfiction or fiction, nonverbal, spoken, or printed — story is the mechanism by which humanity creates meaning and judgment to order society. Which is also to say that every point in the hierarchy of power is rooted in story. To claim anything is “just a story” is a much bigger feint than to dismiss my voice by telling me I’m “just a girl.” Denying the power of story is to deny lived reality. The statement is thoughtless, cruel in its absurdity — and, to be blunt — a complete lie.
Now, it is true that people who read a lot of books tend to be people who like to seek out new ideas, and think challenging thoughts. Not always, but much of the time, book-readers give society the side-eye, and view the world at large with a healthy amount of suspicion.
And book-readers often turn into writers. Writers who then have to worry about sales, and reputations, and selling their next book. So when readers levy attacks on their work, it is understandable that authors often react with silence, denial, or — (a bit less common) — lash out with anger and attacks of their own.
Over the years, my readers have shared plenty of criticisms with me. Their comments most often stun me into silence a moment, and then I’ll say, “Okay, thanks for sharing that,” or some such acknowledgment of what they have said. I certainly don’t yell at these people and say they are wrong. They’re entitled to their opinions of my books.
As an example, here are some common criticisms readers have shared with me after reading my first novel, The Etiquette of Wolves —
1. “You wrote a book about wealthy, intelligent college students who attend a fictional Ivy League school, students who participate in gang rape, and that is completely absurd. Wealthy white men do not gang rape women. That is something only poor, uneducated people do. Intelligent men don’t behave like animals.”
2. “The college students in your book drink a LOT, and I don’t think you understand people can’t drink this much alcohol. It would just make people sick, and these college students would all fail out of school. You should have done some more research about the effects of alcohol on the human body, because no one could drink as much as your characters drink and stay in school.”
3. “It’s unrealistic that teenage girls would know as much about sex as the girls in your novel. For instance, you have your main character, Jimmy, taking birth control even though she is only eighteen or nineteen years old. What girl that age would understand how to take birth control to avoid an unwanted pregnancy? When I was that age, I didn’t know anything about having safe sex, and it would have made a lot more sense if Jimmy had just asked Alistair to use a condom, rather than planning ahead to have sex and taking birth control.”
4. “Fraternities are positive places that shape the adolescent characters of boys into upstanding young men. Frats are beneficial to society and all you did in your book was slander them. You don’t think the Greek system has enough people to bash it, you need to add your book to the mix? You should open your eyes to the fact that fraternities are excellent organizations designed to help people make friends, and do great things for society, and stop perpetuating the lie that girls get raped at frat parties. That’s just not true.”
For anyone who has read The Etiquette of Wolves, you can determine for yourself whether or not you agree or disagree with these criticisms. Each of those statements is an example of negative discourse in action — statements containing stereotypes/generalizations and slurs that exist in society. Each reader is expressing a judgment about men, women, race, class, biology, group think, and/or group behavior. In some cases, it is clear how much personal experience is shaping the reader’s particular criticism of the book. In other cases, you can probably assume the identity of the speaker based upon their opinion. Whether you agree or disagree with their stance might be largely based upon your own identity, and your own experiences in life.
And it’s probably obvious what my own beliefs are, given the statements being made in criticizing my first novel. But for those Thought Candy readers who have not read my first book, I’ll briefly state my positions:
I do believe that “wealthy white men” can choose to “behave like animals.” I do believe that many college students “drink a lot” but don’t fail out of school. I do believe that some teenage girls use birth control to avoid unwanted pregnancies. And I do believe that girls (and sometimes boys, or a person of any gender) are raped at frat parties — not at ALL frat parties, but my novel isn’t describing a rape at every frat party. Nor does the book portray every fraternity brother as a rapist.
And this is a big but.
There was one fraternity brother in The Etiquette of Wolves who was a textbook example of negative discourse — specifically, a textbook example of ableist discourse. One of the most ugly stereotypes any story can perpetuate. Even if most readers never recognize ableism in a story, or ableist discourse in prose, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
This character’s name is Bridgley Kingson. Of the 62 chapters in The Etiquette of Wolves, Bridgley appears in scene in only two of them — Chapters 43 and 45 — so he is a secondary character, but his role in the story is highly ableist.
There are seven major disability tropes (which I have typed up below) that Jack A. Nelson cited in his book The Disabled, the Media, and the Information Age — and I know of these seven tropes because I watched a TED talk by Ben Myers, which you can watch here. These seven tropes are all negative stereotypes that able-bodied writers most frequently use for their disabled characters, thereby removing agency from that person in the story. In other words, these stereotypes make the disabled character less of a person, or make them sub-human, or infantilize that character. In many novels, disability is also a shorthand way for indicating a person is “evil” — and if you have ever read about the process of fat-shaming in books, you will recognize a strong similarity between how the words “fat” and “disabled” are frequently chosen by authors to communicate that a character is “evil” or “corrupt.”
- The disabled person as pitiable and pathetic.
- The disabled person as super crip.
- The disabled person as sinister, evil, and criminal.
- The disabled person as better-off dead.
- The disabled person as maladjusted — his own worst enemy.
- The disabled person as a burden.
- The disabled person as unable to lead a successful life.
The character of Bridgley Kingson falls into six of those seven tropes. Bridgley is portrayed as pitiable and pathetic (#1); he did something evil in the story (participated in a gang rape) and was “punished” for leaving his organization, giving him a trope of being sinister, evil, and criminal (#3); the reader probably assumes he would have been better-off dead (#4); he is portrayed as being maladjusted (#5); he is a burden to his parents (#6); and he is unable to lead a successful life (#7).
While Bridgley is also portrayed as a member of a resistance group in the book, and he does help the able-bodied characters save themselves, I must also say this: characters with disabilities should not exist in stories for the sole purpose of helping the able-bodied characters do things. If the only reason a disabled character is in a book is to serve an able-bodied character, that is ableism. To strip all agency from a disabled character in order to serve the needs of an able-bodied character is the most glaring, and vicious, form of ableism a piece of art can ever contain.
So while it’s nice that Bridgley *does* perform good deeds in this story, he does so for disturbing reasons. Reasons that flow from his own need for redemption, as well as being unable to help himself.
But worst of all — for me — is that Bridgley was placed in this story to scare the (assumed) able-bodied reader by representing what could happen to the able-bodied characters if they are caught and mutilated by their enemies. So let me add a trope of my own to Jack A. Nelson’s list —
8. The disabled person as embodied horror — a projection of what the able-bodied hero might become if he fails.
Here is a criticism of The Etiquette of Wolves that no reader has ever shared with me, but I will phrase as if a reader is criticizing the book, the same way my real-life criticisms were worded above —
1. Your portrayal of Bridgley Kingson in this novel is incredibly ableist, and incredibly insulting. People who have disabilities should not exist in a story to serve the needs of able-bodied characters. You should recognize that people with disabilities shouldn’t be treated like stereotypes. Disability shouldn’t be treated like it’s a punishment, either. Grow up and educate yourself and quit being so ableist.
I have been trying to grow up and educate myself about ableism for the past year, and everything I have learned has come from my friend Amanda, who is also my Little Orange Monster, due to the fact she is small and orange and a monster. In other words, she is an alien from the planet Xenon. (Sorry, Amanda — I have officially outed you.) She answers my questions, she points me in the right direction for research, she has given me books to read and links to TED talks to watch, and she is always down for a discussion about anything. But she has never once taken it upon herself to point out my ableist failures, not in our discussions, and not in my books. Amanda just lets me come to my own reckonings. And that is why I wrote this blog post.
Amanda would point out that if you want to see an amazing character who is NOT a stereotype of disability representation, you should read the novel Mark of the Pterren and take note of Rafael Rennon. Rafael embodies his disability without ever losing his agency — or, as Amanda always says, “Rafael is a character in the round.” Not a two-dimensional stereotype, not a disability trope, not an infantilized sub-human who exists solely to help the able-bodied characters around him. Rafael’s body changes dramatically, but he never becomes less of a person, or less important to the story. In fact, his disabled body makes him even *more* central to the plot, and drives the book toward its conclusion — which is something most stories hardly ever do. (This is all according to Amanda, however. And she is from planet Xenon. But I do trust her a lot, even if she is orange.)
I wrote Mark of the Pterren before I learned about ableism — because it was only after I published Mark of the Pterren that Amanda came into my life. She loved that book, and thus began our friendship. I told Amanda that as a result of this knowledge she’s given me, I now have a new head. She laughs at this. Of course. Only someone so little and orange would laugh at my head. Sheesh.