tw: rape mention, racism/sexism mention
I recently picked up a book called Soul on Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver. He had been talked about in the same vain as James Baldwin, who is one of my favorite authors, so I ordered his book, and just now got around to reading it. A few pages in, I came across this line:
“I became a rapist.”
This, after many gross and vile descriptions of white women.
Part of me was outraged. How could anyone talk about a rapist in the same sentence as Baldwin? How could anyone like him, or read his writing? I’ve changed my mind three times since starting this article: first thinking that I shouldn’t even bother with Cleaver, then deciding to reading it as a historical document, and finally, just reading it.
It turns out, yes, Eldridge Cleaver was a rapist. He also describes himself, after many years in jail, as a new person. Of the rapes, he writes, “I was wrong, I had gone astray…I lost my self-respect. My pride as a man dissolved and my whole fragile moral structure seemed to collapse, completely shattered.” Does this absolve him from his wrongs? No. Does it give me the okay to continue reading his work?
I don’t know. But I read his book anyways. Should I cringe at myself for reading any of it? Am I a bad feminist for picking up a non-feminist text?
This problem, this guilt, isn’t new. The Magicians promotes sexism and rape culture. Eleanor and Park uses slurs, and puts down Asian men, but students and teachers alike have praised it, one coworker even saying, “I’ve never had an author so accurately remind me how it is to fall in love for the first time.”
What a beautiful thing to say about a book!
Does, or should sexism and racism stop us from reading, and, dare I say, enjoying books? Is there a certain amount of sexism we can take, and after that, we draw a line? At what point is literature dangerous? Is it more or less dangerous if, as with the Magicians, we don’t notice the sexism at first?
The more intuitive answer to the former is: yes, of course, we shouldn’t read racist/sexist shit. But what good does boycotting a book do, in the eyes of the public? What about Rainbow Rowell? Am I supposed to stop my students from picking up a book they will enjoy, and that, in some aspects, they may relate to? And what about my own reading?
I don’t think boycotting a book will do much good. But what will do a lot of good is illuminating the process we use to find the problematic elements of the literature we consume–whether it be assigned reading or our summer beach reads. And maybe just then, deciding if the annoyance of problematic elements is enough to make us put down the book.
Catherine Orr, a professor at Beloit College, recently described on NPR’s new podcast “intellectual habits,” which are “a set of questions that are going to work for you in just about every situation.” The more we learn about the intellectual habits of others, the more we’ll be able to talk about race, class, and gender. And one way to learn about those habits? And share our own?
Post about books. Post literary criticism. The more literary criticism enters social media, the more people will start to have those habits.
Now, I’ve seen a lot of literary criticism lately. But I’m a teacher. An English teacher. I notice and seek these things because I want to bring them into my classroom. But literary criticism isn’t in our collective social sphere yet–and I fully believe it should be.
Can we enjoy a book and still be critical of it? Can we love a book and still find aspects of it problematic? Yes, absolutely. The trick is doing both at the same time. I would argue, even, that doing both is the best way to love a book, to engage with it fully and thoughtfully.
And yes, this blog post is great, but, like any conversation, it is not enough and it cannot exist in isolation. We must bring our intellectual habits and our literary criticism even further into the public sphere.
What are your thoughts? How much can you take when reading a book? At what point do you condemn an author, stop reading, and actively speak out against them? Is there value in reading sexist, racist or elitist texts as historical documents? Is there a line you won’t cross in regards to the authors you choose?