deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
I find that, perhaps because of my profession or because my home has enough books to provide structural support, people tend to assume that I will agree with the sentiment "But at least they are reading!" For the record, I don't. I don't see any intrinsic value in reading, per se. I know plenty of people who read and gain nothing from it. I know plenty of people who spend substantially more time online or watching television and gain as much from those tasks as others do from reading, or more.
Rachel Maddow Read Poster


Here's what I do see value in:
  • The mechanics of reading: I'll readily admit that the mechanics of being able to read, basic literacy in the reader's home's language, is exceptionally valuable, but its value can be overstated. Here's a hint: if you are looking for intellectual, thoughtful participants in society, literature, and the media who don't have access to the basic mechanics of looking at letters and deciphering them, you need look no further than your nearest friend who is blind or visually impaired (I know, I'm ignoring braille). I won't deny that it's much easier to get by if you can decipher letters on the page/screen, but it's patently not necessary. I say this as a reminder to myself as much as anyone. Why did I have no problem with a student using audio books when the student had a registered disability, and yet I had a gut negative reaction when a student with no registered disability mentioned to me that she was listening to the assigned reading on her iPod? If I think that the reading experience for the student with the disability was as valid and as rich when she used the audio books, why should I think that experience would be any the less for the able-bodied student? This is not to say that I think that people who have the ability to learn the mechanics needn't do so; of course I think they ought to. But we need to have more respect for other forms of consuming texts, such as audio.

  • Literacy in a second language, spoken and preferably written: Like many Anglophones, I actually don't have this one. I wish English-speaking countries had more respect for the importance of bilingualism. I'm not going to say that bilingualism automatically makes people less chauvinistic. But still, having more than one language increases your capacity for being able to understand other cultural perspectives.

  • The ability to understand, critically engage with, and discuss fiction and nonfiction texts: Where by "texts" I mean books, newspapers, television shows, commercials, movies, and Internet materials. All of these types of texts participate in the construction of our society.

  • The ability to enjoy nonfiction and fiction texts: I believe that the ability to enjoy fiction enriches a reader's ability to posit hypotheticals. I believe that the ability to enjoy nonfiction increases a reader's willingness to learn about the world. Note that I am not privileging any type of text; I don't see more intrinsic value to enjoying John McPhee's The Control of Nature, an episode of Discover, or a stellar piece of investigative journalism.

  • The ability to distinguish among the different genre characteristics of the media consumed : Note that I am not saying that readers need to prefer high quality to trash, just that they need to be able to distinguish between them. The reasons for this are more obvious with nonfiction. If a reader can't distinguish between nuanced nonfiction and tabloid journalism, she'll be easily deceived. This doesn't mean it's not okay to enjoy tabloid journalism (or junky television, or pulp novels). But a reader who can distinguish what the characteristics are of the media she's consuming will be better able to critically engage.


The upshot of all of this is that someone who cares passionately about, say, So You Think You Can Dance, The Babysitters Club, Slashdot, Buffy, and The New York Post, thinks about them all critically, and discusses them with other people who think about them critically, is likely to be a better thinker and more informed participant in society than somebody who sits at home statically consuming the latest Booker prize winner without any further thought or discussion.
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
Justine Larbalestier just posted "The Problem with Gone with the Wind", which talks about something which is a real issue of mine, both with students and with discussing media with friends: admitting that something you love is flawed, and loving it anyway. I've never been a Gone with the Wind fan, but I've loved plenty of other media which were racist, sexist, or in some other way chock full of fail. As I tell my students, my favorite three movies are Casablanca, The Muppet Movie, and The Princess Bride -- none of them a bastion of feminist ideals. And as far as race goes, that leaves me with two movies lacking any people of color, and in the third, the interaction between SeƱor Ferrari, Rick, and Sam is not, shall we say, made of as much win as it should be.

I'm teaching Twilight tomorrow, so of course this is on my mind. There's always a couple of people who believe that if they love the book they need to make it fit all of their stated ideals. They need to make it feminist, they need to make it not racist. But trying to describe a sexist, racist text (and as much as I enjoyed the Twilight series, it is absolutely both of those) as neither sexist or racist it acutely harmful. It redefines sexism and racism. It says neither is dangerous if they are in an otherwise beautiful context, or if they are associated with something else positive. In Larbalestier's example, the racism should be ignored because acknowledging it detracts from recognizing the strong female figure of Scarlett.

It's okay to love something broken. It's okay to find the breakage in things you love. It's even okay to find the breakage in well-meaning texts that were themselves trying to fix that breakage; I find Larbalestier's own Liar to be immensely problematic along race/gender intersectionality lines, and I know she was trying.

It's also okay to ignore the problematic parts of the texts you love, sometimes. Yes, to be a good citizen of the world, you need to be aware of bias and systemic what-have-you when you see them, but you don't need to do it every second of every day. If ignoring Buffy's race problems makes it easier to enjoy Buffy, that's fine, as long as you don't keep your rose-colored glasses on all the time, every day. Unless you are looking at the text academically, you don't have to harsh your squee every day. Walk away from discussions that make you sad, there's no problem with that.

But what's not okay is to deny the problems when you see them. If you have a coherent argument against the problems, then by all means make it. Convince me the race representation in Gone with the Wind actually subverts 1930s racial stereotypes, convince me that Buffy's sixth season doesn't undercut all of the Strong Women messages it had spent five years building. But don't say that we shouldn't look at racism in a text because the female characters are so strong. Don't say we shouldn't look at sexism in a text because the female characters are so strong (cf. both Gone with the Wind and Buffy season six). Don't say a text is unproblematic because we know and like the author, or because the author claims to be antiracist, anti-sexist, etc. And under no circumstances say that a text is unproblematic because we love it.
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
Two things lately have been making me think how all choices about character description in writing are political, even if they aren't intended to be. The first was teaching Flora Segunda, and wondering about character race and ethnicity in this created world. (We know that among the Califans, some, such as Flora Primera and Udo, are blonde and considered beautiful for it; we know that the Huitzils seem to be related to the Aztec Empire; we know that the Califans have Spanish words in their vocabularies and Latin American-influenced traditions in their culture.)

And I was also thinking about some concerns I know that Kristin has had regarding character description. For example, does not describing a heroine's weight make her automatically thin? Does not describing her skin color make her automatically white? Does not describing her sexuality make her automatically straight? (I am probably putting some words into Kristin's mouth, so Kristin, please forgive me and/or correct me.)

Anyway, Roger Sutton pointed towards this interesting discussion on a very closely related topic on Mitali Perkins's blog. "Should Authors Describe a Character's Race?" (Mitali Perkins is the author of First Daughter: American Makeover, a book I find fascinating, compelling, and extremely problematic, about a white presidential candidate with an adopted Pakistani daughter.)
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