Some thoughts on the book controversy

I’ve been thinking about the whole Kate Clanchy book controversy. Admittedly I haven’t read the book, but have seen the extracts and screenshots and I feel uncomfortable. I mostly feel uncomfortable because I have seen some really intelligent, articulate people making calm and reasoned points who have been seemingly ignored. I feel an odd sense of embarrassment and shame.

However, there is another reason I feel uncomfortable. I feel uncomfortable that the extracts I have seen went through the editors, publishers and the panel of the George Orwell book prize. I’m on Goodreads and have many friends who have read and rated the book highly. I know those people aren’t racist people, so perhaps they unintentionally didn’t see what others did. That could easily also be me, it doesn’t make them bad people. It’s easy to read a book and think ‘it must be good because that person I really respect likes it’. Don’t get me wrong, it is ok to like a book but be uncomfortable with elements within it. I think perhaps the sense of uneasiness in me is that I could also have not seen the difficulty in some of the language used. I would hope that I would have felt unease, but I don’t know now as I wouldn’t be able to read the book without everything I know now in mind.

As an English teacher we spend a lot of time teaching text within context. For example, when we read Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, there is an opportunity to look at Orientalism and allow students to discuss and critique the text with that extra understanding. It’s almost easy to be critical of 19th century texts, or Of Mice And Men because they are written in a different time. It’s easier to feel removed.

In that book, the character of Tonga is described as frightening, it’s a classic example of ‘the other’. The trouble is I kind of saw a bit of that in the thread about the book yesterday. A voice explaining what they see through their lens shouldn’t be seen as frightening if it is not threatening and that is another thing that made me feel uncomfortable.

But how often do I myself critique when I read more modern work? I can enjoy a book or author whilst still feeling uncomfortable with the language or depictions used. But I am also reading through my white female lens, so I need to listen to those who are reading through another lens, who can educate me.

Alongside this, we have to accept that anything that we write and post publicly is open to critique. This blog is open to critique. If we write it, we own it. But in owning it, we can also admit we may have been wrong, or perhaps have seen it another way. We can change. We are allowed. It is hard not to feel defensive when critiqued, particularly with something as personal as our own writing, it can feel like an extension of ourselves. But no one will ever write anything that is loved by all, so we have to accept that there are people who will probably be critical. It is ok, however, to hold our hands up and say, ‘ok, I get why that might be controversial, I’m willing to listen. Educate me’.

Many, many of us teach very diverse cohorts. Perhaps I need to think more carefully about the students I teach and how they might feel about a text, or a description and to admit that sometimes I might need help with that. At the very least, I should give students the tools to be able to critically evaluate themselves and the environment for them to be able to express their opinions and concerns.

So basically if there is one good thing that comes out of this, it is that l can remember to listen to concerns, I can try and remember to think critically and think about how others might feel. It feels like we have reached a crunch time where we can actively listen to voices that might see language from a different lens. I, like the vast majority, want things to change, but I have to also be a part of that and I have to understand that sometimes that means I have to be made to feel uncomfortable. And maybe that sometimes is frightening, but because I might be pushed out of my comfort zone, not because I might be hurt.

All I can really hope is that others are happy to be pushed out of their comfort zone too, that we all make that little bit of an effort to understand how someone else might be feeling. We just need to listen sometimes.

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