Reading fiction and identification with “the other”

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” F. Scott Fitzgerald in “The Crack-Up”

A little context for this blog post. I’ve noticed the debate going on about R. Lee Smith’s book The Last Hour of Gann. I’ve not read it, nor have I read much of the online reviews/posts. I’ve had one small discussion with Dabney Grinnan about the book and came back from lunch on Monday to find myself included in a long twitter discussion. I was included because my discussion with Dabney included references to the many Revolutionary War biographies I’ve been reading and the idea of “presentism.” So, this post was triggered by that discussion and that book, but I’m the first to admit ignorance of any detail. This post is meant to be a general statement on reading and identification.

In his many biographies of Founding Fathers, Joseph Ellis talks about presentism and being careful with our judgements of icons of the past. In the book I’m currently reading about Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx, Ellis writes that we have to be careful when we talk about Jefferson’s slave holding and we have to be able to understand it in two different contexts, our own and that of his contemporaries. Understanding Jefferson means understanding that (for his time) he ranged from radically against slavery to a more moderate position. As modern Americans with modern sensibilities, it is important for us to place Jefferson’s understanding of slavery within the context of his world, even as we recognize slavery for the evil that it is. Understanding Jefferson within his time period doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t) negate our own fierce belief that slavery is wrong.

Back to The Last Hour of Gann, reading, fiction, and identity.

One of the benefits of reading fiction is that it develops empathy in the reader. As we read and identify with the protagonist, we learn better how to understand another’s point of view. If it’s a person markedly different from us, we learn even more. This development of empathy and understanding of “the other” is one of the reasons we bemoan (and rightly so) that schoolchildren only read books with boy protagonists.

Sometimes this other, the protagonist,  is comfortable to us, either because the protagonist is someone we want to identify with (Elizabeth Bennett) or because the situation is welcome to us (most of romance) or because we want to be in the world (Harry Potter). Sometimes it’s all of the above. Sometimes, the reading is a bit more uncomfortable, even though the protagonists may still be close to us–think a women going through a divorce reading Fast Women by Jennifer Crusie*. Or maybe Black Ice by Anne Stuart. There are other books where I as the reader (a white woman in my 30s) am expected to stretch a bit more to identify with the protagonist, but I’m still comfortably on moral ground. For example, Kindred by Octavia Bulter features a protagonist of a different race than me, but we are both modern women and I (as reader) am exposed to slavery through her eyes. Children’s books give excellent examples of this, Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson is the story of a slave during the American Revolution.

The protagonists in these books may be far away in time, place, background or other demographic identifier, but I as reader identify with their morals and their struggle. Their point-of-view may be different from mine, but I’m primed to sympathize with it.

And then there are those other books, in which the morals of the protagonist are repugnant to me. These are books where it isn’t the demographic characteristics of the character that are the cause of my discomfort, but the character and their world view are the problem. An great example of this would be Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Cromwell’s point-of-view, his love for his wife and his care for his family, lure the reader into forgetting that this is a man who had people murdered or tortured because they were inconvenient. Cromwell was ruthless and cruel. But, seen through his eyes, he is our hero. Wolf Hall and it’s sequel Bring Up the Bodies are great books. Mantel’s writing melds us with Cromwell’s mind so perfectly that we forget how chilling the story is until we close the book.

That is authorial power at its greatest.

The difference between the reader and the protagonists doesn’t have to be as great as the difference between me and Cromwell. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower is a collection of stories with horrible people doing to horrible things to one another and his writing has you sympathizing with them. It’s not a secret that I couldn’t finish this book because I didn’t want to be in that position. The Great Gatsby is another story of horrible people doing horrible things (“careless” in Fitzgerald’s words), but the point-of-view is from the one decent, nice character in the book. A neat trick of Fitzgerald’s.

What does this have to do with The Last Hour of Gann? From what I understand of the book (having not read it and only barely followed the online debate until it flooded my twitter feed), it normalizes rape and the hero of the book plays a big part of normalization. He changes over the course of the book from being fine with rape, but the readers is supposed to swoon (it’s a romance, so there should be swooning) over a hero who probably raped women. This seems like it would be uncomfortable to me, if for no other reason than to be pulled into an asshole hero (alpha hero, asshat hero, alphhole hero, what ever the word, we all know the type), you have to buy his reasons for doing repugnant things. You have to both hold the idea that Meoraq has a reason for his behavior that you, as reader, can understand (in his worldview) while still holding rape as a horrible crime. At some level you have to see why Meoraq doesn’t see his actions as rape, even while you know it is.

Very hard to do. Very uncomfortable to do. Painful, especially because the target readers are female.

Smith isn’t the first writer to make the hero a normalization of a horrible sin.  The hero in the The Outsider by Penelope Williamson is a gunslinger. He kills people for no reason–he’s not a sheriff, spy, soldier or even a vigilante. He’s a killer. Williamson has the reader coming to a place where they see why Johnny Cain has so little respect for life that he’ll shoot a stranger for no reason and never have his sin cross his conscious. Like the heroine, the reader has to struggle with how heroic they find Johnny Cain, while still believing murder is a sin.

Very uncomfortable.

Ultimately, this post isn’t so much about The Last Hour of Gann (which I will probably read at some point, maybe–I have a long TBR list and short memory), but about the wonderful position of understanding “the other” that fiction puts the reader in–and the struggle the reader faces when that position is morally repugnant to us.

Comments? Sadly, while the “comment enabled” button on my blog is clicked, the option to add comments never appears. I’ve never worried about it until now, but I can see where people might want to comment more on this post than on my chicken pictures. So, if you disagree, agree, want to comment, etc, feel free to contact me via Twitter, Facebook, or email me at jenniferlohmann (at) gmail (dot) com.  I may be slow to respond, but I will try to respond to everyone.

*I realized while walking my dog this morning (10/24/2013) that I had referenced Faking It by Jennifer Crusie when I mean Fast Women. I suck at remember titles and authors. As a librarian, it’s an occupational embarrassment.

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