NYR’s “The Problem with ‘Problematic'” is the Most Problematic

On Friday, I got all riled up about this article over at NYR Daily, but I knew I didn’t have enough time to sit down and write a piece about it.

On Monday, I spent a few hours researching the entire American Heart controversy and the many Well Meaning White Lady* hand-wringing think pieces about it. A process that left me so depressed about the entire world and everything in it that I had to step away in the hopes of coming back fresh the next day.

On Tuesday the kids were off from school thanks to the election, and I looked all those tabs I had saved in order to write this article and decided I just didn’t have enough invested in this particular controversy, that I should leave it to those more in the YA scene, more in the book review scene, people with more authority to speak about Muslim representation in fiction — and I closed all the tabs.

Today I woke up mad about it again.

Look, I’m not going to go through the entire history of the controversy here. You can click on any of the links above for a basic storyline of how this thing has unfolded. And I know that the stack of eerily similar opinion pieces on this topic is largely a result of the way that social media, content marketing, and life on the internet in general work right now. I am also aware that a large part of why I am so mad about this particular piece is a result of my emotional investment in The New York Review of Books, more so than this piece itself. NYRB has been one of my favorite publishers, what with their commitment to publishing works in translation and to reviving classics that you’ve never heard of. Their instantly recognizable book design will always stop me mid-browse to take a second look — and I’ve yet to be disappointed by a book that I’ve bought almost entirely because they are the ones who published it. As you can imagine, there are a very small number of publishers I can claim that about.

So clearly, I expected more. But I still haven’t gotten to why I’m so disappointed in the first place!

Like all of the truly objectionable American Heart pieces, “The Problem with ‘Problematic'” seems to start off with the assumption that American Heart had already passed all hurdles, and was destined to coast to an automatic spot in the New York Times bestseller list, made its author a household name, possibly a millionaire, and inspired a heart-wrenching TV series in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale. And why should it have been guaranteed such wonderful success? Well, first of all, the author hired sensitivity readers, for god’s sake. And did you know, that such readers, by no other qualification than their own lived experiences have the audacity to request upwards of $250 for their services?

Second, it got a starred review in Kirkus. By an actual, flesh-and-blood Muslim woman! 

Finally, the book was an homage to that American classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And we all know how the Well-Meaning White Ladies feel about Huck Finn. Only updated for our times. So now we have a clueless and un-woke young white girl who learns about the humanity of Muslims as they are being herded into internment camps. And she doesn’t even drop a single n*bomb.

Case closed.

Except, before the book could be published to universal acclaim and its author named the moral compass for our times, some people had some opinions about it. Some people who are not a part of the “cultural gatekeepers” writing for Kirkus, or The New York Times, or whatever, but were, you know, just members of a “mob” writing on goodreads, or twitter, and having opinions while black, or brown, or Muslim, but more importantly, WHILE NOT HAVING READ THE BOOK.

News flash. This book doesn’t come out until 2018. The vast majority of the people writing about this mess haven’t actually read the book. I haven’t read the book. This should not be scandalous. Because you know what? All of us, as readers make decisions on what books are worth our time, our money, our hype, our energy, without having read them. Can they decide, without having first read it, that they don’t want to read another “white savior narrative?” Yes. God bless them. And so can I. Can a whole different group of readers decide that they do want to read another white-savior-narrative, Mark-Twain-send-up, call-for-tolerance-without-giving-narrative-voice-to-a-single-“othered”-character? YES. God bless them. I am sure that there is still an audience for this book. And I am sure that this book will still be published. And I am sure that all the articles despairing for the mob-ruled dystopian publishing culture we are currently living in will have given this book enough free publicity that thousands will pick up this book just to see what all the fuss is about.

But, I know. Those crying censorship didn’t mean that the book was being censored in an anti-First Amendment way. They didn’t even mean that the book was being censored in a not-going-to-be-published way. They meant that the removal of the star at Kirkus Reviews! That was censorship! The censorship of the authentic views of a real-life Muslim woman! Never mind that Kirkus states that the review was changed in cooperation with the original reviewer!

The NYR piece doesn’t ever seem to build to a central point, but it seems like that what the author is mad about is this: that people can give a one-star review to a book without reading it, and that some other reader out there might find her personal favorite classics problematic.

Is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn problematic? HELL, YES. Does it still have value for us, in today’s culture? Certainly. Can a good teacher thoughtfully help a group of students with diverse life experiences to enjoy this book? God, I hope so. I don’t think that the problem is Huckleberry Finn. Or even with teaching Huckleberry Finn. I think the problem is not being prepared to deal with the emotional weight of asking a bunch of black or white or any and all race students to read a book full of racial epithets. I think the problem is how many schools still have syllabi that are entirely made up of Mark Twain and Shakespeare and A Separate Peace and Ethan Frome and Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird and John Steinbeck — with never an Annie John or Brown Girl Dreaming or The House on Mango Street or The Invisible Man or Toni Morrison or Persepolis or Sappho.

Read Huckleberry Finn. Read American Heart if you want to. But do not ignore how much more shelf space, how much more syllabus space, how many more publishing contracts, how many more op-ed contracts, how many more editorial jobs, how many more cultural gatekeeping positions are given to those who are speaking from one particular cultural “lived experience.” That students and readers, particular those in the YA community, are tired of seeing that experience privileged over all others. And they are prepared to use their time, their money, their energy, and their platforms to demand that other experiences are represented.

This isn’t a bad thing. This doesn’t mean that no white writer will be allowed to “use their imagination” ever again. Imagine this: Maybe, if enough Muslim writers are published, read, and taught in high schools, the white writers of America will have a much easier time writing Muslim characters who feel authentic. Maybe, if enough Native American writer are published, read, and taught in elementary schools across America, teachers could write their own lesson plans for November without having to email Debbie Reese for approval. Maybe, if enough black writers are published, read, and taught all over America, we could finally make the progress we need in having honest conversations about race in this country. And a hundred years from now, when some school assigns Huckleberry Finn, school children will have trouble understanding the emotional impact of that word, because it will be so far removed from “their lived realities” in that future.

In the meantime, here’s BookRiot’s list of Books by Muslims to Support Instead of Reading American Heart.

And because it’s great, Justina Ireland’s piece, “American Heart, Huck Finn, and the Trap of White Supremacy.” I find it interesting that when linking to this piece, Ireland’s credentials become “author and activist Justina Ireland.” (emphasis mine, of course)

*as a Well-Meaning White Lady myself, I can speak to and name this from “my own lived experience,” thank you. 

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