A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

Facts, Truth, and Interpretation – Where My Head is At Today

on August 7, 2015

There’s a huge controversy going on in Romancelandia right now, about a RITA-nominated book featuring a romance between a Jewish woman and a concentration camp commandant. I’m not writing here about the book, which I haven’t read, but about my personal reaction to the controversy itself, which is bringing up some things for me.

One is that I have a huge regard for truth, i.e. facts. This is likely my less than neurotypical side revealing itself: I get extremely perturbed by people getting facts wrong. It bothers me a lot that false assumptions about the book have solidified into fact; it bothers me a lot that I’m the only person who seemed to be bothered by that. (Though you’d think I’d be used to it by now.)

No, I’m not saying that everyone needs to read the book to have an opinion about it. There are quite obviously major concerns with it on a very basic plot level, particularly in the appropriation of Jewish faith/history for Christian purposes. But I do think critiques need to get their basic facts right, if only to have credibility.

And the other is that I have a huge regard for truth, i.e. personal truth. Take The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers, which I named one of my best books of the year. It’s a book that many people with disabilities found very offensive, and with more knowledge and experience, I can see why they did. It’s deeply wrong that people with disabilities are so often used as props for the stories of the abled. But the thing is… that story told my truth. I didn’t see the disabled person in it as a prop because I wouldn’t see my own child as a prop. I felt heard and validated by it and that meant a lot to me.

And I think we have to be very careful to leave room for interpretation. There’s a young adult book — I forget the title — which many readers strongly critiqued as sexist and misogynistic. Then a well regarded critic (one of The Book Smugglers, I think) wrote very convincingly about it as an indictment of sexism and misogyny. Which is right? I don’t know! Even if I read the book or spoke to the author, I might not know! I would have my own interpretation and opinion based on what I had read or learned. But in a way it’s Shroedinger’s book. One person’s attempt at social satire can often be another person’s huge offense.

A while back I wrote about book reviewing as a form of journalism, requiring honesty. Today I’m reminded how much I value truth, both in regard to actual facts and in regard to personal meaning.


10 responses to “Facts, Truth, and Interpretation – Where My Head is At Today

  1. Hey, Willaful, what facts about the book are people getting wrong?

  2. Liz Mc2 says:

    Thank you for this. As a non-reader (at this point) I am trying very hard not to have an opinion on any aspect of this that would require reading the book. I’m with you on being bothered by things solidifying into fact that are not fact–both about the book and about how the RITA awards work (e.g. books are not “nominated,” they are submitted, the number of judges that has to read and rate them highly for them to final, and how books get into the Best First Book category). So I’m with you. I think there are many reasons to object to the basic premise of this book without having to read it. But I’m appalled that supposedly journalistic sites like Salon (I know, I know, not anymore) are posting pieces that comment on details of the book, apparently without having read it and on the basis of 2nd or 3rd hand information.

    • willaful says:

      Thank you! You’re pretty much my standard for sense and reason on twitter, so that means a lot to me. 🙂

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Aw, thank you! I feel like I’m totally floundering around on this one (I mean, not on the basic issue of whether I think the book is problematic; I do). But while it’s troubling that this happened, I am not sure there’s much that RWA can do about it beyond working to educate people on diverse representations. Unless they completely rethink the nature/structure of their award.

      • SuperWendy says:

        I can’t seem to respond directly under Liz Mc2’s comment – but yeah, what she said. That’s where I’m at.

  3. azteclady says:

    Your point is, to me, incredibly important.

    I hadn’t read the review when it was posted–I barely skim SBTB after the JL/LF debacle back in March–so I wasn’t even aware of this book until the Ritas discussion started on Sunday morning.

    Then, of course, I read the review, and noted the last paragraph/note in it as critical to some of the more problematic religious issues. Unfortunately, as I read more and more of the conversations, the actual phrasing the reviewer used was drowned in my memory by the language of “the heroine converts to Christianity,” to the point that when I started to write about the novel, its issues, RWA, etc., I got the facts wrong.

    Fortunately, I caught your comments in Alexis Hall’s blog, which made me stop, think, and re-read Rachel’s review.

    Thank you.

  4. Kaetrin says:

    You’re not the only one bothered my the inaccuracies which are repeated and repeated until they appear to be facts. There are far more than just you – I’m one of them 🙂

    I’m with Liz, I think the book is problematic (to say the least) on a lot of levels and I’m all for critical discussion of those elements (preferably from a position of knowledge rather than assumption) but other than that I’m not sure what can or should be done about it. I’m not even sure if my opinion on the matter counts really.

  5. lawless says:

    I get extremely perturbed by people getting facts wrong. It bothers me a lot that false assumptions about the book have solidified into fact; it bothers me a lot that I’m the only person who seemed to be bothered by that.

    I do too! I didn’t know it was associated with neuroatypicality, not that I’m neurotypical by any stretch anyway. I can understand believing that the book strongly implies a conversion, even to the point of believing there is a conversion, but we have to be really careful about what terms we use here. I would also argue with the way Alexis phrased it because it’s tantamount to conversion, and from what I understand (second and third hand) is that it’s not openly stated on page. it’s a matter of interpretation.

    I happen to fall in the camp of thinking more can be done than merely talk about it and hope that it winds up educating people. That’s not going to matter in the long run. So now I’m going back to Twitter (after saying I was done for the night) and laying out what kind of guidelines I think might help. Although I’m not personally opposed to the idea, “consensuality” as a guideline is not one of them.

    • willaful says:

      One of the stereotypes about Aspergers Syndrome that tends to be pretty on the nose is being pedantic, very literal, and fixated on facts. One of my goddaughters exemplifies this: she will carefully correct any exaggeration or misstatement of literal fact. My son displays it to some degree but not as much. Or perhaps it only seems that way because I see him more often than I see my goddaughter.

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