2nd June 2004: Reading about people just like oneself

Two discussions today that made me think about something.

The question of needing people to identify with in fiction was raised, and also the question of “translating” fiction to make it more comprehensible and easy to identify with. Some people seem to only be interested in reading about people exactly like themselves — and other people seem to imagine that people would do that.

I’ve run into both kinds — middle-class middle-aged British women who will only read books by Margaret Drabble and Doris Lessing, and also perfectly well-meaning people who told me I couldn’t possibly like SF because there weren’t any girls in it. I remember a teacher actually taking a book I had already read out of my hands at a junior school book sale and saying I wouldn’t like it because there weren’t any girls. Smugly knowing best, she refused to take my money for it.

(That particular book wasn’t actually SF. It was a really brilliant adventure story about three boys and a silver mine in Africa and a plane and international jewel thieves and a volcano. At one point the kids climb down actually inside the volcano to hide, and at another point the volcano erupts, quite thrillingly. It had a blue cover… and it probably isn’t anything like as good as I remember, as I was about six at the time. But I remain indignant! And fond of volcanoes.)

Thinking about this, if I were to want to read books about someone just like me… well, there isn’t anyone just like me. And if I were to look for them, whatever would I use as the sort criteria? Short Welsh women SF writers of forty who have been married twice and emigrated to Montreal aren’t really a demographic. Even if I broadened it and was prepared to read about ones with any job, or any sexual orientation… or even tall ones… or even ones who emigrated to other places… not until I broadened it enough to accept men and then people of any age would I get any books at all, and then it would only be How Green Was My Valley, which I’ve already read and even if I hadn’t wouldn’t last me long. Even if there were a vast literature of my experience, wouldn’t it be awfully boring? Even if it explored different nuances, surely it would get to feel much the same?

I have long thought that the supposed problem men have with reading from female POV comes about through their having so many things to read from male POV that they can be picky and never learn how to do it. (I know there are plenty of men who do learn it without any problem, I’m just talking about the ones I’ve run into, mostly on rasfw, who do have this problem.) If I had limited myself to female POV, growing up, I’d have run through all there was in the house very quickly. And once you’ve been David Copperfield and Tom Sawyer and Merlin and Theseus before you’re ten, mere gender seems no barrier. It can do weird things — I know I identified terribly with Nicholas Urfe in The Magus when I was about sixteen, but the whole bizarre thing of Woman as Mystery in the novel translated the other way for me without any problem, I read it as an entirely gender-neutral People-Who-One-Might-Be-Romantically-Interested-In-Of-Mystery and it wasn’t until someone else pointed out to me the weird construction of women in the novel that I even thought about it.

When I was a child, certainly, and also later to some extent, I read everything as SF. Nothing I read was about anyone even vaguely like me, or families even vaguely like mine. I didn’t know anything about the world. Everything informed me. Everything had world-building. I read a number of C.19 US children’s books, and the early C.20 Canadian Anne books, and I uncritically and unhesitatingly understood them, accepted the oddities, and never for a moment stopped to consider that they were not contemporary. In about 1970 at the age of six, I accepted both Little Women and Tom Sawyer as how America was, and Anne of Green Gables as how Canada was. At the same age I recognised that David Copperfield and Jane Eyre were set in the past — at least, I think I did.

I wonder if this is what children do, because to some extent they have to; they don’t know the world, they construct the world from the story, they accept what they’re shown and build things up from details. Reading as SF. A child reading about someone taking their clothes from a closet accepts and understands what a closet is, even though they keep their own clothes in a wardrobe, and even if they imagine a closet as something exotic and far more different from a wardrobe than it is, has widened their world — and heck, a closet is different, it’s built in and integral, whereas a wardrobe is (theoretically) moveable. A child who had that experience can, as an adult, move into a house and hear their spouse say “Look! Built-in wardrobes!” and say with a dawning sense of wonder “I do believe that may in fact be a closet! I’ve read about those.”

This is, of course, why it is so fundamentally important never to dumb things down for children. Standardizing spelling may make sense, but anything beyond that is depriving those children of delight not only now but throughout their lives.

(Even the spelling thing — I spent some years convinced that “color” was a US term used specifically for skin colour, useful and appropriate because of their difficult history in that area.)

And if you try to make people read things that are “appropriate” and that they can “identify” with, you might stunt their ability to identify and empathise with people different from themselves, you may stop them ever being able to read outside a narrow range — just as if you’d made them wear sunglasses until they could no longer see colour. Not to mention that they might never forgive you for not letting them own and re-read that book with the volcano and the blue cover.

Posted in Books, Writing