The Novel: Which Critiques (Don’t) Matter

I now have a complete manuscript of my debut novel, a contemporary young adult story. Complete, of course, means that I still have another full edit to do over the summer…and then probably another one after I start to query in the fall. My first task is to incorporate the remaining comments I have from the Lighthouse critique group I’ve been going to since October. This group has been invaluable in pointing out legitimate plot holes, helping me understand reader reactions, and getting me unstuck when I couldn’t seem to move forward. I never would have finished without my peers and especially without the facilitator. In addition, some of us branched off into our own writing group, which helps me continue to find motivation through dedicated writing time and having people to bounce ideas off whose opinions I value and who know my story.  In any critique situation, you have to become adept at sorting out feedback into what is valid and what is a matter of personal preference or a lack of understanding of the genre. I’m a thick-skinned person, so someone ranting about something in my work that is obviously just their pet peeve is never going to bother me. This kind of feedback has generally only come from my other, less regular critique groups, not my Lighthouse one. In these secondary groups, I’ve also noticed a troubling trend in the style of feedback I’ve gotten. It comes from people who want to wish away bad events, rather than accept that they will happen and try to find ways to deal with them. It comes from people who want to silence those who don’t think like they do. It comes from people who fear conflict, and by extension, fear freedom of expression.

These attitudes are very much a part of our zeitgeist. As someone who wishes to publish in this climate—an oppressive climate created by people who remain willfully ignorant as to how they spawned the era of Donald Trump—I have to decide what to do with these social justice warrior style critiques. Do I kowtow to the weak-minded and overly sensitive? Or do I stick my guns, writing what is absolutely true in some circumstances, regardless of the idealism and false perfection these people want my literary message to be? Anyone who knows me already knows the decision I’ll make, but let’s explore here just for fun. The critiques that have me shaking my head and feeling sorry for the people who expressed these opinions fall into two categories: sexual harassment and racial stereotypes.

Sexual Harassment

In the opening scene of my young adult novel, a male student pinches the cheek of the female student and then walks away. The female student is too flustered by this bold action to say anything, and so she doesn’t say anything about it, even as she sits there getting angrier and angrier.

In a one-off group, I received the following written feedback about this: “I personally was made to feel uncomfortable that this girl was harassed physically by a boy with unwanted touching and the invasion of personal space and then didn’t even feel like she would have had the support of others in order to defend herself…it should be okay to tell someone no, please do not do that, and have the support of her peers and teacher. I think it’s a mixed message to send out in a YA novel.”

First, the female student does confront the male student about the pinch in a later scene when she gets to know him more and feels comfortable talking about how his action made her feel. Second, and more importantly, even if the female student never said anything, the situation is real. Millions of women and girls have been touched against their will and have been too afraid or insecure to say anything about it. Why would I exclude this experience from my novel? Part of the purpose of reading fiction is to develop empathy or realize you’re not alone in the bad things that have happened to you. I would never cut this content from my novel no matter how many critiquers said it made them uncomfortable.

Another example comes from a short story I wrote. In the opening scene of that piece, a guy rescues a girl who has had a seizure and fallen onto the light rail tracks as a train approaches. When he gets her back up on the train platform and she is lying there unconscious while they wait for paramedics, he thinks to himself how beautiful she looks and how much he wants to kiss her. That’s it; he only thinks it.

I received oral feedback from one of critique partners that this thought was “very disturbing” and I should consider how it will make my female readers feel to read about a guy having this thought about an unconscious woman. This feedback is thought policing at its worst. Guess what? Random people are probably thinking things like this (and things much, much worse) about you all the time in your office, in a restaurant, in the mall, and everywhere else. It’s normal and it’s okay. And it would be absurd to cut from my story. I wouldn’t cut it even if he had carried through with this fantasy and kissed her like Sleeping Beauty, although that would have created an entirely different story since the people on the platform around him would have reacted differently.

Racial Stereotypes

In a third critique group, I read the first page of my novel in its fifth iteration. First pages are crucial to getting an agent’s and a publisher’s attention, so I’ve solicited feedback from several different groups. Of the 30 or so people at this one, 29 loved it. But one white woman who appeared to be in her mid-50s was very, very concerned that the first page features a Latino boy who shows up late to class and smells like pot. She didn’t like that I—especially since I am a white person—was perpetuating stereotypes. My response is the following:

  1. Some kids are like that. They just are. Some Latino kids show up to class late and smoke pot. So do some white kids, black kids, Asian kids, skinny kids, athletic kids, fat kids, smart kids, dumb kids, goofy kids, and serious kids. It happens. Therefore, it’s in my book.
  2. She heard 1 page out of 240. All she heard was the superficial impression of the female protagonist, who also learns through the course of the book that she’s wrong about the boy and there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. My critiquer didn’t know why the boy is like he is or where the story is going. Making the judgment she did based on one page is stupid. Literally three pages later, the boy shows up my know-it-all protagonist with his knowledge of art history.
  3. The protagonist is also Latina and 100 percent different from the boy. Both of them are complex human beings with both great character traits and unfortunate flaws. This information obviously can’t all be crammed into page one.
  4. My critiquer, in making her statement, committed the exact same supposed moral error she was accusing me of: representing an entire culture we’re not a part of in one specific way She was female, middle-aged and white, yet somehow felt qualified to say that I had written was somehow unfair to male, teenaged, Latinos. How would she know if they are bothered by my character? But if we’re going to play this ridiculous game, then I’m entitled to point out that an actual Latina woman (someone who I know had a very difficult background and struggled to get to this country) in the room spoke up to disagree with my critiquer’s statement. She loved my first page and didn’t see any problem with it.

After the session, my critiquer said she didn’t want me to misunderstand. She thought my writing was wonderful. She was just concerned about my “message.”

I generally don’t engage with social justice warriors. There’s no point. She’s not going to change my mind and I’m not going to be able to turn her into a critical thinker. But I do believe she means well and she expressed her concerns in a very nice, non-judgy way. So, manifesto above aside, I only actually said two things. (1) Remember that you only heard one page out of 240. There’s much more to the story. (2) The protagonist is also Latina and she’s very, very different from him.

I thought this last statement would appease her. After all, shouldn’t she love a strong, intelligent, female, Latina protagonist? Nope! I was wrong. Very, very wrong. Upon hearing that, a look of horror crossed her face and she said “Oh, well if both your characters are Latinos, you’re venturing into cultural appropriation and there’s all kinds of problems with your book.”

To which I merely smiled, said “okay,” and walked away.

I can’t possibly imagine a more clueless critic.

Conclusion

Like I said, fiction has a purpose. There is a reason I cry freely at movies and books that are entirely made up. Or that I walk away from them exhausted or angry or happy and feeling love bursting out of my heart. They aren’t fiction. They happened to someone. What a shame that some people want to neuter fiction into a world where everyone is upstanding, moral, successful, and perfect. How dull. Just as non-white Americans lament the lack of people of color in movies and on television, people of all life experiences want to see themselves reflected in the books they read. They want to be able to identify with the characters. Sexual harassment and racist attitudes happen in reality. If we remove them completely from literature, we remove a way that people can learn to recognize these problems and deal with them. People who are uncomfortable reading about such topics are exactly the people who should read about them. Fiction is a safe space for that to happen.

2 Comments

  1. Couldn’t agree more. People are becoming way too sensitive. One of the reasons I read and watch movies is to FEEL something – joy, sadness, even discomfort. Imagine how boring “entertainment” would be if you didn’t feel anything! Bad stuff happens. That’s life. Also, when I read about a character who is different from me in any way – race, gender identity, ethnicity, etc. – I don’t assume that character represents all people of that group, whether they’re characterized as good or bad. And is it really an author’s job to whitewash their writing just in case some people are ignorant enough to assume all people of a group are like the character? There’s a great episode of Northern Exposure (Oh, who am I kidding? They’re all great!) in which the town’s DJ, Chris, plays a song and later find out that an acquaintance living out in the Alaskan bush heard the song and subsequently killed himself. For a while, Chris was tormented with guilt, because the suicide note laid the blame at his doorstep for playing that song. Eventually, Chris realizes that you can’t control other people’s reactions (and that one person’s beautiful song is another person’s ticket to insanity) and continues playing the songs (art, in his view) he likes, telling the listening audience something along the lines of “sensitive souls, cover your ears.”

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    1. Haha, I love your passion for Northern Exposure! (I’ve never seen it though). I’ve recently read interviews with Celeste Ng and Thrity Umrigar where they say the same thing – other writers and fans and interviewers have told them that as non-white writers, they should only portray their respective ethnic groups in a positive light. And their opinion is…nonsense! They are writing about specific fictional people, not writing documentary type accounts of massive groups.

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