Escapes and Ensnarement

Did you miss me? I decided to enjoy the last of my holidays engaging with such fun activities as reading books (because you just know I don’t have to read enough of those as an English major). Now, with books, enjoyment is a risky prospect. You might end up with some really bad writing, or something that simply doesn’t appeal, or, occasionally, a fabulous book that ends up disappointing you with a flat ending. Perhaps, as happened to me the other week, you borrow that book you’ve had on your reading list only to find that the first sixty pages of the library’s copy are missing.

One of my favourite things about reading books is the chance to escape from whatever’s going on for me in my own life and into worlds of other kinds, the places pulled out of other people’s heads. I love books for lots of other reasons, too: the way they can help one work through one’s own experiences and ideas, and even the weight, feel, and smell of them. However, reading books while being progressive is, as I said, a risky prospect. I might be off in my own little escapist world when boom! The author presents his readership with something awfully misogynistic, making it clear that he thinks his only readers, or the only ones worth pleasing, are his fellow men.

After all, books are a cultural product, and their authors draw on material from the world, in which inequalities abound. Reading books doesn’t get to be an escape or an entertainment if you’re trying to relax away from the bigotry in the world around you. Books certainly aren’t going to help you develop your inner life or help with your personal dilemmas in those instances! Power structures always seep through. One’s reading can’t be a place of fantasy or an escape into someone else’s life, or not thoroughly, if it keeps replicating the bits of one’s own one would rather not deal with just then. At the end of the day, books are never really an escape into other worlds because they are intertwined with this one.

I love books for the potential of other existences and realities, even if sometimes we can’t get there. I also love them for reflecting the world we have, good points and bad, as layered commentary in the text or a simple replication of oppressions on the authors’ parts. Even if it’s unpleasant to be jerked out of your enjoyment, at least here, captured on the page and irrefutable, is evidence of the way bigotry works into everyone. It’s well worth unravelling the oppression in our imaginations.

About Chally

Chally is a student by day, a freelance writer by night, a scary, scary feminist all the time, and a voracious reader whenever she has a spare moment. She also blogs at Zero at the Bone. Full bio here.
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13 Responses to Escapes and Ensnarement

  1. craftydabbler says:

    I have to admit, there are quite a few books I enjoyed when I was younger that I can’t stomach now because of misogyny. It is kind of sad to lose something I thought I liked, but I would much rather be aware of what was being said and what it meant than be ignorant.

  2. I think if we read for “escape”, we read to exchange a less painful outcome with a more painful one we are seeking to avoid. It’s sort of like how people will have arguments about little things, which are safer, when they really are expressing dissatisfaction with much larger issues.

  3. KJ says:

    CrafyDabbler, I have had the same experience. For instance, I used to love C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books. But now, I find myself squirming uncomfortably when I read them because I recognized how sexist, racist and religiously bigoted Lewis was. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe isn’t as bad as some of the others, but when I read The Horse and His Boy or The Last Battle again, I was shocked. How could I have missed the message as a kid? But I did and, in many ways, that proves to me how my upbringing failed to address issues of sexism, racism and bigotry.

  4. Cate says:

    No kidding. It’s a sign of bad writing, if you can’t write a whole category of people realistically. For instance, I was reading Childhood’s End, and a female character just asserted that women fainted a lot, and sometimes on purpose. Ripped me right out of the story.

  5. Verity Khat says:

    KJ: CrafyDabbler, I have had the same experience. For instance, I used to love C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books.But now, I find myself squirming uncomfortably when I read them because I recognized how sexist, racist and religiously bigoted Lewis was.

    I had the exact same experience recently with Lewis. I almost cried as I kept discovering asinine bullshit in pages that used to bring me such joy. As a child, you’re in it for the story, so you don’t always see or understand the ugly adult shadings the author dropped in. Then, as an adult–BAM! Betrayal! Breaks my heart every time. I can’t enjoy a lot of classic sci-fi anymore for this reason.

    I’ve found that I can be a bit more forgiving if the book is older–it was a symptom of the times. But anything written after roughly 1980 runs the risk of being hurled across the room for any hint of bigotry.

  6. Gentleman Cambrioleur says:

    I love nineteenth-century literature and have learned to turn the critical part of my brain off when dealing with the overt racism and sexism and imperialism (as well as the heavy-handed religious moralizing) that drips from almost every page of say, Balzac’s or Dickens’s novels. However, recently, I re-read Little Dorrit and realized how starved I had been of three-dimensional female characters when almost every one of the women in the book struck profound chords in me. The ending on the other hand disgusted me from Dickens for a while – every one of the strong female characters either “learn their place” or live the rest of their lives as lonely old hags. I don’t get how someone who obviously understood that women were people could still manage to lose his way so thoroughly by the end of the book.

    Reading about the reactions to rereading C.S. Lewis made me LOL – I went through the same thing two years ago. “The Hobbit” and Tove Jansson’s wonderful children’s books were just as good as I remembered them, though.

    Don’t know if this is OT, but does anyone here know about any good steampunk? It would be great to be able to read about all the pretty clothes and Victorian slang without getting all the iffy politics :D

  7. Tony says:

    I know exactly what this is like- to curl up with a book seeking escape from the worries of the world, only to be unexpectedly confronted with sexism, racism, or other unattractive biases from the author. One of the biggest culprits IMO is history, historical fiction and alternate history which involves the meeting of two cultures or which is written by a Western writer about a non-Western culture. These are very often written with a Western-centric or British-centric viewpoint. When I was younger the biases used to shock me and played a part in the formation of my political views. Over time I have learned to adjust my expectations and am therefore less commonly surprised.

  8. I found Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle to be an uncomfortable read. He described how there were tensions between races/classes. As he got later on into the book he described how “scabs” were brought into the meat packing plants and had a certain tone of horror in describing black men with white women. While it may have been a product of the times, I thought it was due to the author’s racist attitudes. Also, if he is promoting “socialist” politics one would think he would be more “progressive” and understanding.

  9. oh, and Heart of Darkness, that one was tough….

    I don’t know if it was inherently racist or it was describing Imperialism which was inherently racist.

  10. American Psycho-

    not sure how to interpret that one….

    he describes brutal, sadistic acts of violence against women and men….

    (He also leaves it to the reader to surmise that the whole thing was in the characters head.)

    However, I don’t think it is from the author advocating that…

    Even though it is fiction he seems to be telling us that monsters walk among us. It almost seems like cautionary tail comparable to Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer. (Henry was loosely based on Henry Lee Lucas….)

  11. V.E. says:

    Was wondering what you guys think of “classic writing” (ie: Ender’s Game) that has such a… well, an author with politics basically opposite of mine (ie: Orson Scott Card). Would you read the book still? Or would the author’s politics turn you off? I go back and forth about it. I’ve read Ender’s Game, but every time I mention that I didn’t like it as much as some people because I don’t agree with the author’s personal stuff, someone inevitably tells me that of course none of that could’ve gotten into the novel because, well, it’s a novel. You know, because it’s fiction. Can’t I overlook someone’s politics if the writing is good?

    I don’t know. Can any of you?

  12. Tony says:

    VE… on reading this post the very first book I thought of was Ender’s Game. I read it as a real ride — knew nothing about it except that it was recommended, and refused to even read the back cover on principle. In the end it disturbed me and I had to lay awake for several hours to figure out exactly why. So (1) no, I don’t like it as much as some people either. (2) No, it’s not because of the authors politics, but because of the content of the novel, but (3) yes, after analyzing why I was offended by it, I was by no means surprised to learn of the author’s politics and even felt vindicated by it.

    So to answer your question, in theory, there is no reason to insert the author’s personal stuff into their work. Chinatown is a great movie even though not only is Roman Polanski a rapist but his particular personal perversion happens to very closely mirror one of the main perversions in the movie. In practice though, when the author has personal issues or agendas, it is very frequently inserted into the book by the author hirself in a way that creates issues, and Ender’s Game was an example of that. The Narnia trilogy would be another example. And so on and so on.

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