Tag Archives: public discourse

Reading race in The Hunger Games and The Help

This is old news, but I’m perennially behind and just getting around to talking about it: The internet got all astir a couple of weeks ago when the tumblr Hunger Games Tweets started collecting tweets from Hunger Games fans who were surprised and often angry to learn that two of the book and movie’s most sympathetic characters were black. Buzzfeed has screenshots of ten of the most offensively racist tweets here. The discussion of the tweets has had some pretty remarkable staying power–HuffPo published a response less than a week ago, and Slate published both an interview with two of the teens whose tweets were published on Hunger Games Tweets and a response from the tumblr’s creator.

There are a lot of reasons both the tweets and the online reaction are interesting. As people commenting on the tweets are quick to point out, the novel is very explicit about Rue’s and Thresh’s race—they are described as having dark hair, dark brown skin and dark eyes. They also come from the district responsible for agricultural production that, based on the second book, seems to correspond roughly to the American southeast. They’re fairly explicitly marked as black in the novel. Beyond that, the issue of race and casting for the Hunger Games has been a hot-button issue in certain parts of the internet for quite some time.

So a big part of this discussion has been about reading comprehension, misreading, and even authorial intent. The teens who tweeted their surprise at Rue’s race are poor readers, and they’re often called out as such. But while some tweets just reveal those poor reading skills—generally expressed at surprise that Rue and Thresh didn’t look the way the teens expected them to—others reveal a deeply troubling racism—admissions, for instance, that the tweeters didn’t care about the characters once they found out they were black.

That second aspect of the tweets gives way to some interesting discussions of race and racism, as well as a nice breakdown on the New Yorker‘s “Book Bench” of the history of the blonde, innocent, angelic, and dead little white girl (from Little Eva to Jon-Benet Ramsey). Notably, even if Rue doesn’t fit the type, Katniss’s little sister Prim certainly does.

In the post on Slate, the tumblr creator separates the misreaders from the racists, implying, as I think many of the discussions about the tweets do, that the misreading is understandable, while the racism is deplorable. That may be true, but I think it’s worth attending to the way the two are deeply intertwined.

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Multiculturalism is not the boogeyman

I have better things to be doing, and Joseph Epstein’s review of The Cambridge History of the American Novel, published Saturday in the Wall Street Journal, doesn’t really deserve a second look, but there’s so much wrong with this piece that I couldn’t let it pass. Epstein, who Wikipedia tells me was a lecturer at Northwestern from 1974 to 2002 and a former editor of Phi Beta Kappa’s magazine The American Scholar, takes issue with the recently published Cambridge volume for marking American literature’s descent into irrelevance, brought on by multiculturalism, represented somewhat puzzlingly in Epstein’s view by John Updike, Phillip Roth, and Norman Mailer.

The problem with The Cambridge History of the American Novel, Epstein says (aside from the academic jargon, at which Epstein takes a few none-too-original swipes), is that, “‘The Cambridge History of the American Novel’ could only have come into the world after the death of the once-crucial distinction between high and low culture, a distinction that, until 40 or so years ago, dominated the criticism of literature and all the other arts. Under the rule of this distinction, critics felt it their job to close the gates on inferior artistic products. The distinction started to break down once the works of contemporary authors began to be taught in universities.” Ah, yes, that time-honored, longstanding distinction between high and low culture that has informed the study of English literature for all of, say, 130 years. In fact, the categories of high- low- and middlebrow-culture emerged at approximately the same time as the English department as we know it today–the end of the nineteenth century, when anxious white dudes were worried, as is Epstein, about “barbarians” flooding the gates. The “centurions of high culture” whose disappearance Epstein laments were guarding the gates against literature written by and appealing to people unlike themselves. They did so by assigning value to certain kinds of writing (conveniently, the writing produced by other middle-class white dudes), while denigrating other modes (sentimentalism, for instance–conveniently, the kind of writing produced by “scribbling women”).

But that, I’d imagine, is more of that “literary history” that Epstein disdains because it leaves out “why it is important or even pleasurable to read novels and how it is that some novels turn out to be vastly better than others.” The study of literature, Epstein says, should be about what is good and why, not about that multiculturalism crap that lets people teach whichever novels they want, even if Epstein hasn’t heard of them. “Multiculturalism,” he says, “which assigned an equivalence of value to the works of all cultures, irrespective of the quality of those works, finished off the distinction between high and low culture, a distinction whose linchpin was seriousness.”

Seriousness–now that’s an easily-agreed upon way to value literature. I mean, who can disagree that Melville was serious? But what about Uncle Tom’s Cabin? That seems like pretty serious business to me. Epstein’s examples of unserious literature are the aforementioned Roth, Mailer, and Updike, whom he calls “sex-obsessed.” No argument from me there, and Roth might not be my favorite twentieth-century author, but I wouldn’t call The Human Stain or American Pastoral lacking in seriousness.

Despite his jabs at “multiculturalism” (is anyone still using that word, anyway?), Epstein manages to make it through the entire review of a book that includes chapter after chapter on literature by non-white writers without mentioning a single non-white author. “Multiculturalism” may be the problem, but Epstein doesn’t single out any “multicultural” authors who fail to live up to his high culture standards of seriousness. He may not think Roth, Mailer, and Updike will have staying power, but he has no comment on Morrison, Ellison or Wright. Epstein’s nomination for best writers of the twentieth century? Willa Cather and Theodore Dreiser.

As I said, the review doesn’t really deserve the attention I’m giving it. But there are scores of comments cheering Epstein on, lamenting the fact that English departments teach things like Asian American literature and nineteenth century experimental writing, rather than “the classics” like Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton (ETA: As if English departments aren’t also teaching Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton. It’s not like students are unable to take classes on Shakespeare because it’s all Aniza Yezierska and Jessie Fauset, all the time). All of this is predicated on the idea that the study of English is some sort of stable, longstanding institution that has undergone disastrous change in the last twenty or thirty years. The fact is, though, that the English department is the product of the late nineteenth century, and the study of American literature the product of the early- to mid-twentieth century. What, who, and why we study literature has been in flux for that entire time.

Epstein’s right about one thing: in today’s academic and political climate, English departments need to make a stronger case for the relevance of literary study and the English major. But the way to make that case is not through some conservative nostalgic fantasy about the good old days when we studied serious literature (by white people). Instead, we need to talk more about the value of exposing students to the diversity of American writing and a variety of critical approaches. Doing so challenges them to rethink and evaluate their own ideas and to consider ways other people in other times have appreciated literature (because, Epstein’s insistence on the universality of literary value notwithstanding, there are as many ways to appreciate and value literature as there are ways to write it).

Community, discourse, and digital space

This past week has seen an absolutely fascinating dust-up over at one of my favorite blogs. I’ve been reading Slacktivist, authored by journalist and liberal evangelical Fred Clark, off and on for seven or eight years now. Fred writes about religion, politics, and contemporary public discourse with considerable insight, but more importantly, with a degree of charity and graciousness that sometimes borders on mind-boggling. He also writes an immensely satisfying regular series of posts eviscerating Tim LeHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins Left Behind books chapter by chapter. Like many of his readers, I came for the Left Behind posts and stayed for the rest of the commentary. Many of those readers are also active participants in the comments section, which usually takes Fred’s posts as a springboard for a wide-ranging discussion among a number of thoughtful, well-read (and often highly educated) people of a number of religious and political stripes.

Last week, Fred announced that the blog would be moving from Typepad, a general blogging platform, to the website Patheos, a community of blogs and resources devoted to religious discussion. Fred described Patheos as a genuine, if imperfect attempt at pluralism, and explained that having his blog hosted through Patheos would give him both visibility and credibility (he would no longer be just some guy with a Typepad blog), while also allowing him to engage more directly with people with a wide variety of perspectives. He also explained in a later post that there were financial considerations—moving to Patheos would provide him with some income from his blogging (it’s hard to fault him for that one—every newspaper journalist in the country is probably looking for secondary sources of income right now). He promised that the content of the blog would remain unchanged, as would the community of commenters.

The commenters, though, were not so easily swayed. Many of them started looking around Patheos and found that, though the site purports to be widely inclusive, the portals devoted to Christianity seemed to be more recently updated than those devoted to Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. The library contained inaccurate or outdated information. The most prominent bloggers appeared to espouse many of the fundamentalist positions that Fred works to refute. They were concerned that their comments, pageviews, and clicks might support a community whose values they found problematic. They also worried that the Patheos community would be hostile towards the newly-arrived atheist and agnostic readers (Patheos’s atheist/humanist section appeared to be abandoned). Many commenters were also concerned that the discussion in the comments section would become more inflammatory as commenters found their way to Slacktivist from other Patheos sites. The Typepad comments community had been largely self-policing, and the commenters were concerned with their ability to continue to maintain a similar environment with the new larger and potentially less-invested audience. Many of the commenters expressed sadness at seeing the disappearance of a community they had considered a safe space. And finally, they were unhappy with the technical changes made to the site and the comments in general, particularly the introduction of threaded comments and the repositioning of the comments box from the space below the already-posted comments to the space above it.

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