The Art of Civility: How do we approach books that may disconcert us? (Response to “For Such a Time” Controversy)

First off, this post is primarily focused on tone and civility, with how we respond to books that may disconcert us or offend us. This post will not deliberate over the controversy surrounding specific content of For Such a Time by: Kate Breslin. I will commend those that have offered their views in a substantive, constructive way; this post does not necessarily focus on their behavior. Rather, the main focus of this post is rather on tone and civility, with how we converse about books that “offend” us.At this point, writing something totally in favor of one side or the other will only be fanning the flames of a discussion, which sometimes contained some charged invective, and occasional extreme behavior. The one concern I had was the encouragement of not reading a book for yourself, but rather taking the word of another blogger, which makes the opinion of that one blogger the most important.

For those who are largely uninformed of the issue at hand, a number of bloggers and several writers have recently lashed out at writer Kate Breslin, along with Bethany House, in a way that went beyond critical, constructive dialogue, to instead something more along the lines of firm, declarative sentence-phrasing of opinions,dressed up as facts (not that the opinions don’t have veracity, just they shouldn’t be presented as facts). And these strangely indisputable facts about a work of fiction then became the rhetoric for an outpouring of one-star reviews on Amazon and Barnes and Nobles, with these “facts” at their disposal, in a way to not promote healthy discussion about the topics of a book, but instead effectively shut it down, and make those in the middle ponder the issues at hand.

I recently left Goodreads because I couldn’t handle the nature of the reviews, which were concerned less with discussing content of books, and more about discussing internet hearsay and gossip. It became harder to read different takes on a book, whether positive and negative, due to this. It actually infringed on a certain level of respectable democracy, in that those venting were often a bit too strident to an extreme about their opinions on an author, even to the point of what she wears sometimes (no joke), as if that has any relevancy to a book review. (model Goodreads review (sorry for the caplocks abuse: THE BOOK STUNK,AND THE AUTHOR IS A SLOB THAT DRESSES POORLY FOR HER SIGNINGS). Now anyone that overuses capitalization to an excessive amount is not someone we really wish to talk to at length about anything.  Same applies with the different expressions of condescension, widely used in the realm of the melodramatic internet, such as “Let me enlighten you,” “Let me educate you,” then they’ll unleash a spate of links to their ideologically-approved blog links, and no more will be said on the subject, insinuating that if we only spent more time on social media, we would be much more learned in the way of “internet drama.” Again, these reviews surely are not really on-focus, and yes there’s freedom of speech, but that doesn’t mean we can’t discuss certain rules for how to properly write reviews, or having some standards of focus and staying on-topic with what we write.

To be fair, I enjoy the snarky reviews about the content of a book because who doesn’t do such when they’re watching tv shows or films. That is really part of the fun of engaging with media. But the fun quickly get sucked away, when we’re antagonistically speaking with others, like we’re embattled foes on a war-ground, rather than fellow readers. Tone is very important, tactfulness is even more important. Learning to listen is even more critical. Keep these in mind, next time you’re leaving a review, also focus on the reading at hand, don’t gossip about the author/make strange insinuations as to their real views, compared to that of a fictional character.

Now the topic of discussion with respects to Kate Breslin’s For Such a Time is extremely fascinating to me, as it involves a subject I’ve always been fascinated in. The history of the Jewish community, and the temerity of those people is a fascinating history. And in a world living in the shadows of World War II, we have become much more attuned to how our base prejudices can sometimes infect the world around us. I really don’t think anyone on this side of the discussion believes antisemitism is right, and it becomes even harder to tackle that issue when we’re talking about a fictional story which is open to a wide array of different subjective takes on the story. Then there is the incredibly difficult question of “How to correctly write historical fiction?” “Are we allowed to take creative liberties with stories from the past?” For much of “history,” the term history was actually not as fact-based as you would think. No one wondered as to the factual veracity of a story, because most people didn’t have that same approach to stories. Many were illiterate, therefore the stories told, and the animated emotion that often suffused the words spoken by the storyteller was enough for people to suspend their disbelief, and readily believe in that story, and thus unconsciously extract some valuable truth from it.

If Kate Breslin’s book was nonfiction, this would be an entirely different discussion, but we are speaking of a book carrying the genre “fiction,” which to me has a slew of very different rules. And perhaps as a more rational society, we are losing our ability to suspend our disbelief, or again, maybe depending on just how recent an event is in history, paints our perception of how much strict fidelity historical fiction novels must pay to actual events. Throughout many discussions I’ve read, the one thing that I found curious was the firm certitude that historical fiction novels have to contain a strict fidelity to events, a certain standard of perceived respectfulness to certain parties. Again, these points have some plausibility, but when stated as firm facts, they just don’t quite hold up, especially knowing that no one has been able to perfectly define the best formula for “what is true historical fiction?” Most authors have differing views and attitudes about just how historical fiction should be written, and the very term “historical fiction” is an oxymoron in of itself, and I think this oxymoronic word in of itself lends to the very subjectivity inherent to any sub-genre of fiction, that combines words that bring “facts to mind,” like history/science, and the free/uninhibited nature/tone of the word fiction.  Some historical fiction writers have strict fidelity to history, most others have a more loose, fluid relationship with the facts. The balance is a discussion that has no clear answer, which is something that I think most internet discussions about For Such a Time haven’t been raising.

Also, the fact that the novel was marketed for a Christian readership also changes the goals and way it has been written. Perhaps, many of us are foreign to the genre in of itself, or we are relying on stigmas we attach to anything carrying the term “Christian.” Even though, the ironic bit about all of this is that we embrace novels like Narnia and Lord of the Rings, probably because they were never strictly marketed as Christian Fiction per-se, whereas an Amish romance books makes us think “didactic, preachy, rigid, insipid,” and everything we can think of when we think of “Christian Fiction.” And surprisingly, like every other genre of fiction, the manner Christian fiction is written often varies between writer to writer.

While discussing the controversial elements of For Such a Time, let us relax, and ponder these issues, without tapping into our rage side. Otherwise, you give off an accusatory, overweening brash tone that I think makes people angry and restless. Anger can only work for a very limited time, for certain extreme occasions, otherwise it becomes very jarring and unbearable, after awhile, so it’s always best to keep calm, and discuss what disconcerts you in a much more constructive way. The one good thing that this work has done is that it has provoked conversation about the topic of antisemitism on a whole, which I think is something to refresh ourselves about, as there is quite a history behind it, as much history as there is behind racism.

But does this mean we need to petulantly demand for a publishers to retract their support for something they published, or offer an “authentic” apology that essentially is a form of contrition where a publisher is thus forced to denounce a title they might actually wish to support. Again, doing so would also mean that any offended group of people can effectively bully publishers into pulling titles for reasons that would make an otherwise subjective opinion about a work of fiction become a cemented fact.

So perhaps we should all relax, stop being fatalistic and fretful about others, and remind ourselves that the one thing that unites all of us is the fact we have a very passionate love for literature. I’ll be speaking more in-depth as to my opinion of the content of For Such a Time in the coming weeks. I need time to mull things over though, as things are fairly intense and bewildering, making it extremely difficult to civilly weigh in on it.  Regardless of your opinion, sober yourself up with temperance, and learn to calmly discuss things that upset you.

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