Yes, I know it’s Fiction, and Yes I’m Still Going to Criticize it

Any time I criticize the representation (or lack thereof) of disability in fictional media, I inevitably get all three of the following responses either in the comments here or on Twitter.

This is fiction, it’s not real, lighten up (often not worded so politely)

If you don’t like it, don’t read, watch or listen to it.

If you don’t like it, write your own book, produce your own movie etc.

All three are silencing tactics and I’ve experienced them all repeatedly as I blog about disability on TV (here, here , here and here) in movies (here) and most recently in my essay criticizing the book ( and soon to be released movie) Me Before You. I think all of these responses are worth looking at in more depth.

This is fiction, it’s not real, lighten up.

Whenever I get this response three questions always occur to me.

  1. Has this person ever taken an English class (or other language class focused on literature).
  2. Do these people also send these messages to university English Departments
  3. Do literary journals get this sort of feedback against other literary study and criticism?

Admittedly the last two are facetious but I do seriously wonder about the first. As I recall of English class after basic literacy and reading comprehension was obtained, we were asked to look at literature in the context of when it was written, what it might mean for today, what is its social impact, etc.

Fiction doesn’t exist in a vacuum divorced from the social context from which it was created. It reflects that social context and the biases of the author.

This is why people who study the play The Importance of Being Earnest for homosexual subtext despite the fact that the play closes with three heterosexual couples becoming engaged and the fact that homosexuality was illegal at the time of the play’s release. They do this because the playwright (Oscar Wilde) was himself gay and the very successful first run of the play was ended early when his trial for homosexuality began.

Wilde’s private life is presumed to have affected his writing even when he was writing about people unlike himself.

Similarly, people find deep seated colonial views in the fictional writing of Rudyard Kipling whose most famous work is The Jungle Book but is also famous for his poem The White Man’s Burden. A poem which clearly dehumanizes the people in colonized places. A poem which was written to expressly defend and promote imperialism.

The ideas he espoused in that poem are identifiable is his fiction including The Jungle Book, to the point that people are concerned that the book continues to be adapted into film (see here and here).

Fiction has also been used to make a point about society and culture, consider George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm or William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Academics read Jane Austen to get a glimpse of social life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They do this because they feel her books lend real insight into the social orders of the time. Let me remind you, Jane Austen wrote fiction.

To fall back on a cliche “The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword” The written word has power, it has the ability to highlight reality or tear down a misconception. But just like a sword in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to use it, a pen in the hands of someone writing about a group of people to whom they do not belong–and did not particularly attempt to research– can do harm by reinforcing false and negative ideas about those people.

I’ll focus on Me Before You as an example because it is the most current book/film to be criticized by disabled people.

To say that Me Before You stands separate from culture or that its status as a romance novel exempts it from having a social message (another common argument) is plain false. the ideas around disability in Me Before You are nothing new or unique. Consider

Stories that involve disabled people seeking assisted suicide

  • Million Dollar Baby (2004)
  • The Sea Inside (2004)
  • The Bone Collector (1999)

Stories that position disability as an insurmountable tragedy (this list is assumed to contain the above mentioned stories)

  • Jane Eyre (1847)
  • Heidi (1881)
  • The Secret Garden (1910)
  • A Christmas Carol (1843)
  • Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)

This kind of story line is far from new and my list far from comprehensive. So I ask at what point does fiction stop reflecting societal and cultural ideals? Because I don’t think it does, particularly when these stories are the dominant ones and alternatives are few and hard to find.

Fiction also doesn’t always stay that way, it has been used to justify horrible abuses against disabled people. In 1920 Canadian Eugenicist Helen MacMurchy published a book call The Almosts: A Study of the Feeble-Minded. The entire premise of the book is that literature rather than science is the best place to find real understanding of people who would have at the time been labeled feeble-minded. She opens the book by saying,

Sometimes the poet sees more than the scientist, even when the scientific man is playing at his own game. The novelist can give a few points to the sociologist, and the dramatist to the settlement worker. Had the voter and the legislator studied with a little more attention the works of William Shakespeare and Walter Scott we might have come sooner to some of the alleged discoveries of the twentieth century.

Take the case of the feeble-minded. They have been drawn from life more than once by the great masters already mentioned, as well as by Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Charles Reade, and many other writers, and yet so far at least we do not seem to have taken mentally defective persons in the world as seriously as the great writers who immortalized Wamba, Quasimodo, Barnaby Rudge, Young Sparkler, Mr. Toots, and others, by giving them the entry to that stage which the world may always watch from the windows of the Library.(pp. 1-2)

MacMurchy was no minor character in Canada’s eugenics movement either, she was appointed as Ontario’s Inspector of the feeble-minded in 1906. She is considered to be the individual who had the strongest impact on Canada’s history of eugenics which saw the forcible sterilizations of thousands of people (primarily in Alberta and British Columbia).

So the idea that fiction stays on the page and never impacts how someone sees another group of people, is an argument I can’t get my head around.

Also, if people are unaffected by these stories, why are we still telling them? I’m not seeing a lot of variety in story lines centuries later.

But moving on…

If you don’t like it, don’t read, watch or listen to it.

This argument is mostly answered by my response to the last argument. This is not a matter of simply not liking something, that’s why I don’t eat kidney beans. The thing is, the existence of kidney beans has no real effect on my life as long as I avoid them. However, as I have explained fiction doesn’t work that way, it reflects and reinforces social views and those CAN hurt me and others if ignored.

So np, I won’t be ignoring fiction or media of any kind that perpetuates negative and bigoted stereotypes around disability. NEXT!

If you don’t like it, write your own book, produce your own movie etc.

There are a couple things wrong with this, first of all in most cases this is much easier said than done. Secondly if done it’s generally not done at a level that can compete with the message it is trying to counter.

Let’s tackle the actual doing first. In terms of making movies, people can’t just go do that. You need equipment (which is expensive), training to use that equipment (training that is often also expensive and also offered in ways that are inaccessible to disabled people.

I actually had a guy on Twitter say to these concerns “Just apply for funding, there is so much funding for disabled people”

um… BAHAHAHAHAHA… *sobs* sir please cite your sources.

I personally know so many disabled creators that want to have their work translated to the screen. They lack access to funding, training and the support that is required to make that happen and I assure you it is not for lack of trying.

Writing a book is somewhat easier and appears easier in a time where the internet makes self-publication available to anyone who churns out a book. Which brings us to the next problem, it’s available to anyone who churns out a book. This isn’t just an issue of oversaturation but the fact that a lot and I mean a lot of self published books are terrible, poorly written and poorly edited (if they are edited at all). It’s hard to get noticed in that kind of environment.

Succeeding as a self-published novelist is hard because it’s difficult to get noticed in the deluge of other self-published books (even if yours isn’t one of the ones that suck).

In the context of writing a novel to challenge the messages  of more mainstream books, telling someone to just write there own book,only works of they can compete with books like Me Before You. A book that has sold over five million copies and is now a film. That’s some stiff competition.

You can’t just write a book and drop off the manuscript at Penguin Books or Harper Collins. And access to an actual publisher is necessary to be competitive because, they offer not only the editing needed to make a book the best it can be. They have marketing departments. A little book that is self-published does not. As Penny Pepper points out writing about disability in ways that deviate from stereotypes is hard.

I’ve been writing disabled characters into my work since my teens. Yet the more I wrote about disabled people who loved and fucked and birthed and died, and all the mess and joy in between, the less my work succeeded.

Fighting the status quo has never been as simple as showing up and offering an alternative. People have to want that alternative. Saying that fiction has no power is a way of making people comfortable maintaining their enjoyment of problematic stories without making them think about it. So yes, it may be fiction but it is never just fiction. Ask yourself “what stories aren’t you seeing and why?” ask “whose stories aren’t you seeing and why?” and “who is writing the stories” Because the answers to those questions are important and are very much worth asking.

 

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5 responses to “Yes, I know it’s Fiction, and Yes I’m Still Going to Criticize it

  1. Here’s something to consider. If Jojo Moyes sold 5 million copies to a majority of readers who are non-disabled, and there are exponentially more people with disabilities worldwide (who can read English), isn’t it a good idea of the disabled writer to seek the support of disabled readers when marketing the book s/he just showed up and wrote and self-published (hopefully taking time to edit, though almost impossible to avoid all problems even when edited by mainstream publishing sources). I understand that you are explaining why this dismissive commentary is ridiculous and over-simplifying. I agree. (The Secret Garden explicitly also holds the mentality that disability can be cured by “just trying hard enough”… like “Nathan” asserted, btw) I think disabled people can support disabled artists, if there are so many of us, even if non-disabled counterparts are slow on the uptake. Should we not even try in the meantime?

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    • “The Secret Garden explicitly also holds the mentality that disability can be cured by ‘just trying hard enough’ […]”
      You can’t have read it properly if you believe that. What I recall from that book is a boy who, after having overheard others say he would never walk, simply didn’t bother to put any effort in until the arrival of his Indian-born cousin. Basically, Colin Craven didn’t ‘overcome disability’, he put in in a few months the effort he had been withholding for years, thus overcoming the negative prognoses he had overheard and nothing else.

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