The Dragons of Literature

The Dragons of Literature

So there’s been quite that kerfuffle in the social medias of late about “Keeping YA Kind.”

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? We should all be kind.

But perhaps some background is in order.

A certain YA author, who famously writes about children who deal with violence, horror, and other traumas of identity, but who equally famously does not include many women, commented in an interview that he did not understand women.

This may seem innocuous, but put it back into context. It means he finds dealing with shape-changing monsters more easily understandable than women.

The author, almost certainly, meant nothing offensive by his statements. But in a way, that compounds the problem. It seemed so innocuous, so innocent to make women more unknowable than a monster.

And that’s why some women had a problem with it. And they pointed it out. They didn’t call for boycotts. They specifically called for more discussion as the answer.

But people were so upset! How dare you say that an award-winning author does or said something problematic? That’s unkind! And we need YA to be kind!

And that’s the origin of the movement. Really, it’s about silencing people who would indicate that things are not perfect. It’s about not making a fuss. It’s about not saying that things could be better.

And here’s the thing that really gets me about it.

Art and literature were never about kindness. Art can be kind, to be sure, but when you insist that art be kind, you are closing off the great majority of art’s beauty. Art and literature are about changing the world. Art often shows us what is ugly in the world. It shows us the monsters. And when we understand what is real about the monsters, we can defeat them.

Neil Gaiman paraphrased G. K. Chesterton by saying “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

But if we never face those dragons, if we pretend those dragons don’t exist, we can never beat them.

So yes, a famous author said something problematic. Does that make his writing bad? Does that mean you should never read him? No it doesn’t. H. P. Lovecraft was a vile racist. His stories are still worth reading. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned human beings; but they still did great things that we benefit from today.

But if we revere those people without a thought to the problematic aspects of their lives, we become complicit. We say that owning slaves was irrelevant and being racist is unimportant. And despite what the people accomplished, those things aren’t true.

So when an author, even a good one who has written things that helped people, says something problematic, it does no one any good to ignore that he said that thing. It doesn’t diminish the good he did, but the problems must still be seen for what they are.

Otherwise we’re all food for dragons.

2 thoughts on “The Dragons of Literature

  1. I love this post. I think being kind is awesome (and essential), but it’s also not the same thing as ignoring the problem or staying quiet. You can still be kind and talk about why these issues matter. It’s one of the things I love about fiction–it can talk about society in a bigger, more real way than almost any other medium. If we ignore social implications of the work or the author, then it becomes problematic. You’ve made a fantastic argument for why these discussions matter. Thanks for the great ideas!

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