I’ve been avoiding the topic all day, but it would feel too strange not to post about it here. (at the very least because my mom will want the links. Hey, Mom!)
So I have to share that I got a very upsetting review this week. From a reader I have, until now, valued. This blogger and I share a lot of favorite books, and she’s smart and eloquent, and I’ve felt honored by her appreciation for my writing. But she hit a wall she couldn’t see over when, while reading PENNY DREADFUL, she met two women named Willa and Jenny. She wrote this about the experience:
The only problem is, being a lesbian is not normal. It’s not something that “just happens” to people, like being poor or brave. In fact, when you look through Biblical glasses, homosexuality is, well, an abomination.
Characters like Willa and Jenny, however, with their happy little family, show elementary-age readers that Christian beliefs are hateful and silly. Add these characters to the full-blown assault of politically-correct propaganda that is molding America’s children.
I spent last night, and most of today, trying to process this review. I was really really sad, and shocked. Not because I didn’t know that people would respond this way. But because I wasn’t expecting people I liked to respond this way. I was just… baffled.
I’ve avoided posting a comment, not because I’m uncomfortable with conflict (quite the opposite), but because I didn’t want to get tangled up in any vitriol before I knew how I felt. I didn’t want to fan the flames of a comment-war, and I didn’t want to have to own other people’s responses (even those in my defense). Though I appreciate the emotions people are sharing, and I am grateful for the fact that, by and large, people are keeping it civil. I appreciated that Roger Sutton blogged about the situation, and I continue to appreciate all the warm notes from friends via Twitter, Facebook, and email. Penny thanks you all!
Now I want to say a few (somewhat unrelated) things. They are the things swirling in my head. They may shift, but I know I can claim them:
1. I will support, always, the right of any reader to NOT read a book. No book is right for every reader, and no reader can love every book. I will also support the right of any reviewer (blogger, writer, etc) to criticize any book. On any grounds, really, so long as the reviewer is honest. A reviewer doesn’t have to be right, or smart, or even fair. They just can’t make things up.
2. That said, I think it’s sad that (as was pointed out by many) the blogger in question made a leap from being uncomfortable with homosexuality to thinking that a benign/happy depiction of a gay family is a threat to Christian principles. It isn’t a threat. It really never is– not even to this flavor of “Christian” principles. A free flow of information and ideas will serve to test and strengthen any convictions worth having. These sorts of knee jerk reactions are made out of fear, not conviction. I hope she’ll finish the book, and see how she feels at the end. Some of the most powerful reading experiences I’ve ever had were with books I hated.
3. I think it’s sad that in the comments that followed the post, the blogger began to sound less mindful, less thoughtful, increasingly defensive. Automatic. More fearful. Midway through the comments she expands her fear of books about happy gay families. “It’s exchanging the truth of God for a lie, whether the family practices homosexuality, worships Allah and Mohamed, or declines to believe that the historical Jesus is God’s Son.” I can’t even begin to tackle that one. If any non-”Christian” sympathetic character is a problem for a reader, the conversation is finished. I mean, Anne Frank? Trump card. Game over.
4. Related: the Levy Family, in my book Any Which Wall, happens to be Jewish. I wonder if knowing that will change the blogger’s experience of the book.
5. I am refraining from making a list of all the famous gay authors of children’s books. Maybe I shouldn’t refrain.
6. In a comment below his own post, Roger says “I also think she could have constructed a sparky kind of post had she taken on the topic of authors inserting what sometimes seem to be gratuitous ads for their pet causes (or favorite books; this happens frequently) in ways that I think pull the reader away from the story. I read the Snyder a while ago and don’t remember if I felt this way or not…” To that question I’d like to offer that I don’t think Willa and Jenny are gratuitous. I didn’t toss them in to be politically correct. Their role is minor to the plot, but they are part of the project at hand. One thing I wanted to do with this book was to show the deep diversity of a tiny community. I wanted to showcase that small towns can be as diverse as large cities– in some cases more so because in a small town, everyone has to learn to actually live together. I wanted to show the strengths of that way of living, and I wanted to highlight the profound effect small town community can have on a child. I wanted the new world of Thrush Junction to have a big effect on Penny, and I wanted all of the different sorts of characters (old and young, hearing and deaf, rich and poor, gay and straight, artistic and professional, uptight and bohemian–and so on and so on) to get sort of thrown together, like family. So there’s that. Not a defense, but an explanation. I stand behind my inclusion of Willa and Jenny in the book. Not just politically, but creatively.
7. In her last comment, the blogger adds, “My comments are not about my opinion. They come straight from the Bible, the only standard of truth and morality that has ever existed.” This is not something I can argue with. Until I saw that line, I’d been planning to write a real letter to the blogger, something for her eyes only. I thought maybe we could have a conversation about all of this, she and I. But that line’s a show stopper. If she truly believes this to be the case, that the Christian Bible is the “only standard of truth and morality that has ever existed,” I don’t know how to engage her.
8. I don’t think “being brave” just “happens to people.”