Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Sunday Salon: Finding Yourself in Books

I've been back and forth with what to post about today. And I'm hoping this will sound more put together than it is at the moment. But my "topic" of the day is one that I hope everyone can relate to. Finding yourself in books. Making a connection--a lasting yet immediate connection--with a book. Perhaps it's a character. Perhaps it's a quote. Perhaps its the situation or the plot. But I think one of the greatest gifts literature (and by literature I mean all books; or mainly all books) has to offer to readers. The ability to authentically reflect the reader in some way. Many books offer that opportunity. That "me too!" or "I know" connection where you can see yourself, your life, your experiences reflected back at you in the printed word. What does this mean for the reader? It shows that we're not alone. It gives a sense of community. So often in our lives we feel like we're alone, that we're the only ones that have ever felt that way, or the only ones that have gone through this or that. We feel disconnected in a way. But seeing ourselves in a book, having our personalities or experiences or values mirrored back at us just feels good. That's one gift of literature.

The other gift, the equally important gift, is the exact opposite. We read to learn something new, to see the world through new eyes. We read to see the differences. We read to get outside ourselves. To escape our identity and to wear that of another. Diversity is a good thing. An important thing. To learn to value other's experiences, other's perspectives, etc. To learn that all people aren't the same.

Reading can help you learn about yourself, but it can also help you learn about others. It can help you learn about life, about humanity, about what it is that matters to you. Books can help shift the way you think, the way you see yourself, the way you see the world around you.

There are a few things that are so central to my thinking, but I'll share them anyway.

1) Challenging, banning, and censorship is always wrong. I don't believe that anyone should ever have control or be able to dictate what others read. I may not want to read something personally. But who am I to say that another person shouldn't be allowed to do so? That being said, that doesn't mean that all materials are suitable for all ages. (No Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist for fourth graders in other words.)

2) I do believe in diversity. I feel all readers--from kids to adults--should take time to read outside themselves. They should see what the whole world has to offer. Other cultures, other ethnicities, other value systems, other religions, other experiences. That doesn't mean that they have to shed their own culture or religion or whatnot (meaning devalue), but they should be aware of all that the world has to offer. It will only enrich your own life to do so.

3) But readers should be able to find themselves in books. Every person should be able to have the luxury of finding themselves, seeing themselves reflected in literature. No one should be marginalized. No one should be excluded. Everyone should be able to find authentic representation, authentic voice, genuine reflection.

4) Because of this authors, publishers, booksellers, librarians, teachers, parents should be aware and take this into consideration. I'm not sure who is the most responsible for seeing this get done. Perhaps authors are writing what they feel needs to be written, yet the publishers are telling them that there isn't a market, a need. Perhaps publishers want to publish titles yet feel that librarians, teachers, and parents just aren't there to buy them. Maybe librarians aren't aware of what is being published. Or perhaps more likely, librarians just don't have the money to buy everything they'd like to. I could go on and on about how we all share little portions of the blame.

So where do I see a few gaps? Well, they're probably not in places you'd imagine. And in both you'd be able to find a small sampling of books that pass the test. That represent what is possible. So I'm not saying that there is absolutely nothing out there.

What I'd like to see?

1) Positive portrayals of Christianity in fiction. In other words, books where Christians don't play the monsters and villains.

It's typical to see one extreme or another. On the one hand have it be completely new-age and/or universalist (no heaven; no hell; no sin; no right or wrong; all roads lead to one god; God is a god of self-esteem and happy feelings.). On the other hand, have it be extreme fundamentalism where abuse and hate crimes and all sorts of un-Christian behavior are sanctioned by a very authoritarian, overbearing church or disciplinarian father.) In these books, either God is so full of love that there are no other attributes; (especially no wrath, no judgment, no consequences, no need for a Savior in the first place) or God is so full of wrath and judgment and doomsday despair that there is no room for love or grace or mercy, kindness or forgiveness.) Rarely in fiction is Christianity shown to be decent, respectable, or rational.

Christians aren't perfect people. They make mistakes. They sin. They're not always kind. They're not always polite. (Especially when driving or standing in the check out lines!) They're human. Faith is a struggle. Not that faith is a struggle in the believing that God exists way. But in the struggle to be living a faithful life way. It's not easy to be kind and to get along with people. It's not easy to submit to God. It's not easy to follow Him. Every day is a struggle to live a life that is pleasing to God. Every single day is a day that we need grace from God. We are to be dependent on God. Not self-reliant on our own self-righteousness.

Christian characters shouldn't be portrayed as being dinky. (Think the Flanders family on the Simpsons.) I don't want to be portrayed as being cheesy either. One's beliefs shouldn't be condensed down and concentrated into stereotypical mockery.

There are a handful of books that aren't "typical." For example, The Road to Paris by Nikki Grimes is one of those books that is practically perfect in every way. I loved, loved, loved that book. My favorite part? It featured a child, Paris, who comes to faith in God and you see how it changes her but it is not done in an overwhelming, over-the-top way. It just feels right. It's not preachy. It's not didactic. The faith feels natural, feels real. And to a certain extent (although I won't say completely complete) Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande would be another example. (I'm not with her on the evolution element.) But I do like that it features a heroine who comes to read and study the Bible herself. Who sees faith as a positive in her life. Who is able to discern in many ways right from wrong. She sees where her parents and their established church have faltered a bit. And she discerns that this isn't a place for her. That something is clearly missing from their gospel message. Yet she doesn't take this disappointment as an excuse to abandon faith, to abandon God, in general.

2) More authentic representations of obese or overweight characters.

With obesity on the rise in America in particular in both kids and adults, it is important to see this reflected in literature. In many types of literature, it is rare to see anything but a perfect heroine. She may be blond, brunette, or redhead. But chances are that she's far from obese. You might have a heroine be a size six or eight and think she's "fat" and have some melodrama thrown in round the lunch table. You might see characters talk about how "awful" their lives are because they're not a size two or a size zero. (I think of the scene in Clueless where one of the characters is bemoaning the fact that she ate a handful of peanut m&ms.) But it's rare to see characters that are really and truly in the overweight category. I hate, hate, hate it when characters make such a big deal about being "fat" when they are anything but. What they are is normal. Size 2? So not normal!

There is the occasional book. And some are well done. Others not so much. When they're good, they're really good. But when they're bad, they're really bad. Stereotypes. Books might fall into the "if only he/she would lose x amount of pounds then their life would be magically better. They'd get the girl/guy. They'd make friends with the popular crowd. They'd have all their dreams come true in an instant. If only they'd lose weight. That's a stereotype for sure borrowed straight out of the real world in that it's easy to forget that the weight is there for a reason. Before you lose any amount of weight (and keep it off) you've got to deal with the bigger picture. You've got to delve into the mental/emotional/psychological/physical issues for why this weight is there, why it works for you in the first place. If you're not really to work it out in your head, then the weight will just continue to come back and come back and come back. Weight in books tend to be about issues. How they need to lose weight. How they need to eat right. How they need to exercise. How they need to do this, that, and the other in order to be happy, in order to be right with the world. In order to not be miserable and depressed and deserving of oh-so-much-pity. Perhaps if love and acceptance and self-worth were taught then they wouldn't be seeking the same out of macaroni and cheese and candy. You've got to love yourself no matter what you weigh. If you don't love yourself, then you'll never even make the effort to change the outside. You can't wait to love yourself, to respect yourself, to value yourself until you've lost the weight. You can't live life saying, I would love myself if I could just lose those twenty pounds or those last ten pounds or whatever. You can't live your life on hold waiting for the day you're perfect.

So what do I want here? I want books where weight is only one of many components that define a person. I'm tired of "fat" being the sole defining factor of characters. Fat equals pity. Fat equals teased. Fat equals miserable. Fat equals worthless. Fat equals invisible. I'm tired of the message that it is only if the fat comes off that the person can become happy and loved and worthwhile. Characters need to be seen as much more than just their outward appearance.

I loved most of Artichoke's Heart. I loved about 85 to 90 percent of it at least. It does show the connection between working through your issues (psychologically/emotionally) and losing weight. But she doesn't go about losing weight in a healthy way. Of course, many people don't go about losing it the right way. You've got so called experts each with their own "right" way to do it. But I think it's authentic enough.

And I loved a good bit of Big Fat Manifesto. I liked that it showed how fine a line there is between being happy with who you are and what you look like and wanting to make a change. I think overweight people are judged enough in this world that you shouldn't have to beat yourself up too. You should be kind to yourself. Love yourself. Value yourself. That doesn't mean you hide your head in the sand and pretend that you're not fat. But you shouldn't loathe yourself, loathe your body. The truth is I think women are taught to always find fault with themselves. No matter what, they're never good enough. There's always something keeping them from being happy, from being content. We've created a society that is concerned more with the outward appearance than the inner self. And I think that is damaging in dozens and dozens of ways. But that's a whole other story.

In conclusion, in all cases of fiction, I want more authenticity and less stereotyping!

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Blogged with the Flock Browser


Anonymous said...

Wow, Becky. This is a really fantastic post. I love absolutely everything you have to say here, and I am really amazed at how cohesive and sensible this all is. Well said and valuable.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

I think the "seeing myself/seeing others in a new way" part of reading is exactly what I love about reading blogs. It's those powerful connections that hook me into literature and into people writing online. Something about the medium(s) goes deep quickly for me.

You are so right about religion and body type/image being important facets of the story. I'd like to see more of the same things you mentioned. One book with a genuine, personable, human Christian character that I loved this year is Mitali Perkins' First Daughter: White House Rules.

tanita✿davis said...

I have to admit that Mitali is my guiding light when it comes to writing about religion. I aspire to be as fearless and -- somehow non-threatening as she makes her characters appear, someday.

The character in my novel is a size 14, and her mother tells her that she's normal. I'm a little surprised that I haven't yet heard anyone respond to that, positively or negatively, and I do take your point about the teen characters who are so upset and obsessed with weight. I do think healthy movement and good eating is important, but... hm. Definitely will give this further thought. Thanks for a great post!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your comments. I think you are so right about how reading is both for seeing ourselves in literature AND trying on new ideas and indentities through literature. This is what we hope children will see that literature can do for them. I believe it is what being an elementary school librarian is all about for me.

Regarding the Christain character - please try reading The Shack by William P. Young. I was amazed and pleased by what was portrayed in that book.

Holly said...


Seriously, if you had just delivered this post as a speech, I would be on my feet applauding. It's nice to know the same things bother other people. Thank you for saying so well what needs to be said.

Anonymous said...

Hey! Some of us "size 2" people are normal. In fact, as a petite person, I am constantly questioned about my weight. Why don't I eat, or why am I able to eat and still wear a size 0-2-4 or whatever it may be. People are constantly pushing and commenting, openly! It's just as rude. So us little people also need some love in books!

That little rant aside, I love this post. Great thoughts!

Joanne ♦ The Book Zombie said...

Amazing post, I really enjoyed everything you had to say. You write wonderfully with so much enthusiasm!

The size issue in books has bothered me also, especially when a character finds happiness through losing weight. I would much rather read about someone (big or small) who finds happiness without needing to change themselves. It seems to me as though people in the book business are doing the same things the movie people do - assuming that the general population only want to see the "beautiful people" - which is not always true.

Becky said...

thereadingzone: Point taken. "Normal" is not the right word because it comes with assumptions of something being normal or abnormal. Good or bad. That's not what I meant. And there is no *true* definition of normal.

And rather you weigh too much or too little there seems to be outsiders judging you trying to determine what is best for you, right for you. Trying to stick their noses into your business.

I really think that society has programmed people of all shapes and sizes to be unhappy with their own bodies. Too short. Too thin. Too tall. Too fat. Too flabby. Too muscular. Too flat. Too curvy. Whatever.

Dewey said...

There's so much to comment on here, but I'm going to stick with two small aspects.

I love the Flanders family! I recently had my gtalk greeting say "Hi-diddly ho-diddly, neighboreenos!" You're right that they're dorky as can be, but I love how Flanders gets Homer's goat so often. Marge has respect for her neighbors, but Homer is just jealous and Bart is only focused on their uncoolness. I think both families are shown to be tragically flawed, and both families have their positive aspects, too. Just the other day, I saw Flanders let Grandpa Simpson and Bart steal his boat, waking up his family to "have a campout in the dinghy" with the hopes, but not demands, that his boat would be returned. As a non-Christian, even I was able to admire that, both his positive attitude about camping out in the face of adversity and his generosity. So yeah, the Flanders family are mocked in the show, but no more, I don't think, than anyone else in the town. I get your point, that they're cheesy, but I just love them as characters because they're complex instead of flat.

As far as characters who are overweight, I am recently SO tired of the overweight girls always being the asexual buddy of some main character. They're usually there for the main character at all times, and you're supposed to presume it's because they can't get a date themselves, which is both demeaning of the overweight girls AND demeaning of friendship. Some people of whatever size are there as often as they can be for their friends not because they have nothing better to do, but because they love their friends. Grr!

Jennie said...

I am so glad that I didn't read so many of these "fat girl" books when I was in high school.

Because didn't you know? Fat girls are a size 12-18. And all they need to find inner fulfillment is yoga, kick-boxing, and a good bra.

That's enough to give someone an eating disorder right there.

MizB said...

Becky -- thanks so very much for this post, as I found I could really relate to it a lot. I'm especially grateful for your mention of "The Road to Paris" by Nikki Grimes... I've put it on my TBR list (and luckily, the local library has a copy that I can borrow!). :)

I, too, would like to read more books like that... ones that give a more realistic portrayal of Christianity. I think that's why I've loved the more charismatic type nonfiction Christian books, like Rob Bell's "Velvet Elvis", and Steve Brown's "A Scandalous Freedom", and Erwin McManus' "The Barbarian Way". They're not your typical Christian nonfiction books... they're much more "out-of-the-box"... the authors aren't afraid to touch on subjects that many more 'conservative' Christians won't go near, and they don't pussyfoot around issues, either. :)

Anyhoo. Thanks!