Premises Aren't Books

The other week I made a mistake and read some things on the Internet. In particular, I was sucked in to following a contretemps (read: “flamewar”) with the nickname of “Racefail 2.0”. The premise of the flamewar is that a writer, Patricia Wrede, wrote a book called The Thirteenth Child which was an exemplar of racist writing. The book takes place in a 19th century-America (“Columbia”) where magic is real, where megafauna roam the plains, and where the First Peoples never crossed the land bridge from Asia. The claim of racism, specifically, is that Wrede’s writing is an eliminationist fantasy which has erased the First Peoples from the face of the planet.

Something bothered me about this argument, but I wasn’t really following it very closely, and I hadn’t read the book, so I tossed off some sarcastic one- liners on Twitter about it (something along the lines of “When you’ve written as many books as Lois McMaster Bujold, you get to complain about this.” Bujold had gotten involved in the discussion, and was tarred and feathered by some of the participants along with Wrede). My friends Nat and Laura rightly called me on this as wrong-headed, as appeal to authority doesn’t settle the issue. I resolved to not comment on the issue again until I’d read the book.

I’ve read the book now. And now I know what was bothering me about the discussion: it was led, as near as I can tell, by people who were offended by the premise of The Thirteenth Child, rather than by the book. But premises aren’t books.

I have a sense, but no actual proof, that this willingness to confuse a premise with a book is more common among genre fans. Certainly I have trouble imagining a serious literary critic pillorying (or, for that matter, lauding!) a book without at least trying to read it: that would be a career-ending move. But looking at what I take to be the genesis of the flamewar I see a disturbing pattern: those (in this thread, who I noticed) who scream loudest and most stridently that Wrede is “erasing native Americans” also say things like “I haven’t read the book, nor will I”. One is free to experience a work or not at one’s pleasure, of course. I myself won’t watch any of Lars von Trier’s films, without even bothering to find out what the premise is. But that very decision makes (or should make) my opinions on his films of limited value.

With regards to The Thirteenth Child I have read the book, and throughout it I see Wrede dealing fairly sensitively, and subtly, with a variety of racial and gender issues. No, the Native Americans and First Peoples are not present, but Wrede drops a number of hints as to where their culture is. Her protagonist, a young girl named Eff, is fairly deeply buried inside a culture that is itself patriarchal and racist, and so does not call out injustice in her own voice stridently, but Wrede still manages to get the point across that this is a racist and sexist society. That, to me, tells me that this issue was on her mind, and she was trying to deal with it as much as her plot and character decisions would allow.

Judging a book by its summary is a dangerous business. It’s perfectly accurate, from a plot perspective, to describe Martin Amis' Time’s Arrow as a reverie, written by a Christian, in which Auschwitz is presented as a facility for resurrecting Jews. Likewise, Johnathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones could be described as an apologia for every Nazi indicted at Nuremberg. Both of these descriptions fail to accurately capture what you experience when you actually read the books, instead of the blurbs on the back of the covers.

I am not implying here that all of Wrede’s critics are book-burning zealots; there’s a lot to criticize in The Thirteenth Child. Many of the characters are flat and somewhat interchangable, the protagonist isn’t as well-developed as she should be, and there’s too much telling and not enough showing. There are also some reviews by people who actually read the book who view the racial issues as more problematic than I do. My central – and perhaps only – point here is that describing a book as racist without having read it is, in my mind, a problematic act in and of itself.