Discussion: literature doesn’t exist in a vacuum

I was talking to the lovely Laura @thebookcorps and our conversation inspired this blog post.

(Note: for the sake of simplicity I’m adopting the, ironically for this post, all-American way of using “American” to only mean something that comes from the United States. I’m aware that America is a continent and I hope you all believe me when I say I cringe every time I use this adjective in the, well, “North American” way.)

I am an European, specifically Italian reviewer. The online book community is predominantly American-minded, and with this I don’t only mean that most reviewers are based in the US, but that almost everyone, even not US-based, has acquired a very US-centric approach to judging media, specifically books but not only.

If you are a critical-minded person you won’t take this as an attack on American culture or American readers, but you’ll simply sit back and read a point of view that is perhaps different than your own.

There are two filters that people in the book community apply to literature. One is time based, the other one is culture based. Too many people review and judge a piece of old or even ancient literature through a modern lens. Too many people judge a piece of not American literature through an American or semi-American lens.

That is not only the wrong approach to literature, it’s also (*collective gasp of anticipation from the audience*) p r o b l e m a t i c (*various brains explode in the audience*).

Excuse my rather sarcastic approach to this but I’m so fed up. I blame most of it on the school system. I don’t know how it is everywhere else and I have obviously never gone to school in the US but I have heard my friends and mutuals talk about it enough that I don’t have any problems saying this: the US school system is full of issues at best, and to be reinvented completely at worst.

Yes, I hereby admit that I’ll forever be an “Italian schools are the best” snob, but I have the feeling that you don’t have to have learned in an Italian school to understand that no piece of literature exists in a vacuum, and every book or TV show or manga or whatever is always contextual to the author’s personal, social and cultural environment.

In Italian schools, we don’t learn one subject without it going hand-in-hand with the others. We start high school and we learn our history chronologically, focusing mostly on European history. There are points to be made about us not learning the history of many other countries or continents even, but the thing is nobody can in the few school hours learn every single thing out there, and we learn our history specifically be able to give a context to the literature and the philosophy we learn (again, mostly Euro-centric).

School programs make it so you most likely don’t start reading Plato without having first learned about what was going on in Greece and in Athens around the time he was alive. Not just historically, but philosophically, socially and culturally.

Trigger warning for pedophilia and statutory rape mention in the next three paragraphs:

Do you know what was fully integrated in ancient Greek culture? Paiderastia, the act of adult men having sexual and erotic relationships with pubescent and adolescent boys. Specifically in Athenians laws, this act was regulated by the fact that the boys had to consent, but the law itself set no limit to the age of consent.

It wasn’t the same in every city and it wasn’t the same in every time period, but you’ll find pieces of literature where this practice is mentioned and talked about as a no big deal (because obviously it was part of their culture, so it wasn’t a big deal to them).

Now, if you apply the modern filter to reviewing any piece of such literature, you’d say something like, “I hate this, the author condones pedophilia and/or statutory rape. It’s disgusting that something like was published.”

You certainly may do that, but you’ll ridicule yourself in front of everyone who reads your review who is able to put a piece of literature in its original context. By all means, say which trigger warnings apply so that readers are aware of them going into it if they decide to read it. But distance yourself and your cultural and modern-day values from this piece written by humans who lived more than two thousand years before you, who shared almost none of our modern thinking in many aspects and not just the one I used as example here.

The same thing can be said when we’re judging pieces of modern literature through our cultural background, when it doesn’t match the one of the author. It’s a little more nuanced in this case because in modern times some values are (or should be) universal, but for example we can’t make blank statements about racism as if it’s exactly the same everywhere in the world. Racism in the US is very specific and unique and it sits on hundred of years of  slavery and colonization but it’s not the only type of racism out there. Racism in Europe exists and it exists among white people too, but any time an European tries to explain it, the obligatory American reader will jump out of their shell and scream that said European is being problematic, and will start USplaining Europe to them.

Now how about we all take a step back and analyze ourselves and the way we view literature? It’s okay if we don’t understand or can’t put ourselves in the shoes of someone whose background is completely different than ours. I’ve DNF’d books because literally nothing of what I read spoke to me and it was too alienating when my whole reading experience was about reminding myself to view things through an US-based lens because that’s where the author who wrote it comes from. But I realized that the problem was mine and I tried not to speak above the voice of the author or the many reviewers who found their own experience reflected in said book (I’m talking about Juliet Takes a Breath btw).

It just seems to me that everyone else in the world automatically views American media (not just books) through a self-imposed filter of American values that aren’t necessarily their own. That alone speaks of the sheer power that American media has in the world, and I’m not here to judge whether that’s well-deserved or not. But when it comes to doing the same, Americans and people used to mostly (if not only) consuming American media don’t seem to make an effort to understand the context and the value of a non American product.

They go as far as remaking non American media such as movies and even anime (the Netflix Death Note anyone?????) thinking that it’s okay to take ANY story and make it American.

Now who’s being problematic? Who’s erasing and appropriating cultures? Who’s speaking above the voices of those who say “please don’t speak about my own values and culture, let ME talk about them”?

I fear if I go on I’ll just ramble more than I have already done, so I’m stopping here because I believed I made my point clear.

I’d love to hear everyone’s point of view on this, whether you live in the US or not, so please come talk to me in the comments!

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Review: Tower of Dawn by Sarah J. Maas

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★★★★✩

(actual rating 4.25 stars)

This is a freaking long review but there are no spoilers for this book and very minor spoilers for the rest of the series.

After the disaster that was ACOWAR, I was really scared of this book. I know, I know, ACOWAR is another world, another trilogy, whatever, but the thing is my taste has changed in the past year and my worst fear was that the last two books in the Throne of Glass series would be ruined for me because I don’t like the author anymore. Fortunately, I found that that wasn’t true (at least not of this book), but I also had some problems with it.

The thing you have to know about me is that Throne of Glass is what got me into YA high fantasy. Back when I should have been an experienced reader already, but I actually didn’t know anything about show-don’t-tell or any of the basic rules of writing, back when I didn’t realize that killing a POC character is a pretty shitty thing to do (hello if you’re not in the US you just don’t know these things). So I loved the first books and I’ve reread them enough times that I fortunately don’t have to do it anymore, because if I did I know I would have to massively lower my rating. The world of Throne of Glass means so much to me and even if I’m far from the reader I was when I used to say “sjm can do no wrong” and I kind of don’t like the main characters anymore, I still love the feeling of this world and its side characters so much.

I didn’t write the previous paragraph to justify why I have a “problematic fave”, but because I think it’s relevant to my review. If you’re somehow reading this without having read the rest of ToG and see my mostly positive review about this, it’s still very likely that you might not want to start this series, because I’m mostly biased when it comes to it. I’m not telling anyone “read this” or “don’t read this”, but just keep in mind that nostalgia plays a big role sometimes when judging later books in a series.

Despite everything, I also think I’m fairly objective when reviewing this in all its parts, so we can move on from this long premise.

➻ Is reading this book necessary before reading the next one? 
Well, I obviously haven’t read the next one, but I do believe that if you’re planning to finish this series you should read this. I have no doubt that the discoveries that Chaol, Yrene, Nesryn and Sartaq made will be thoroughly summarized in Throne of Glass #7, but that’s still all they’ll ever be: summaries. There is a certain eerie feeling to both major discoveries that take place in this book, and that’s one of the things where I feel SJM’s writing excels. And even if the discoveries themselves could be summarized in a few sentences, they are so deeply interwoven with the world building and the history of this fantasy world that I fully believe all the “side info” revealed will somehow come back to bite our ass in the last book. So, bottom line, if you plan to continue the series, read this book.

➻ World building 
I’ve said it before, but world building is something SJM is very good at. She knows her worlds and she knows when to give snippets of info that will come back later, and she knows when and how to unload a reveal on you.

I wouldn’t say there was any big infodump, but we are in a different continent than the one we’re used to, and one that is very very different from what we’ve seen so far, so there were a couple of explanations about its culture and society. I can’t speak for the types of cultures that she drew inspiration from, but the society and world felt rich and well researched, and it was interesting to see the cultural shock Chaol went through on a couple of occasions.

Besides that, a lot of the new information we get has to do with all the continents we’ve seen so far, not just this one. Things we thought we knew from the ancient past are explored again and not everything is how we thought it was.

And speaking of the Southern Continent, here’s what you need to know: we’ve had three books to get used to the Fae and the Valg, to the point where they’ve become normalized (especially the Fae). But there are no Fae in the Southern Continent, or there haven’t been for many years. There is magic, specifically the magic of the healers, but they’re all human women. The Fae are still as mysterious to these people as they were to us in the first two books of this series, so to see the people from the Southern Continent ask about the Fae is like jumping back to years ago when you first read ToG and CoM and you felt that aura of mystery around the Fae.

Especially because a lot of the new information our characters find has to with a past that is so ancient that it helps us regain a little bit of focus. It’s kind of a “wtf” moment when you realize the Fae have been there since who freaking knows when, and it’s a good reminder of how ancient they are, not any single one of them specifically but as a whole. And it reminds you how small and ephemeral these human civilizations are. They’re talking about new rules they had like the abolishment of slavery like they’re been there for a long time, but then you realize it’s merely been decades and compared to the Fae and the Valg humans are so ridiculously tiny.

It’s not just that she tells us, but it’s how she tells us, and that’s absolutely something SJM’s writing does well. Sure, it’s a little over the top sometimes, but when it comes to telling or re-telling the ancient history she manages to create almost an eerie aura that draws you to this world she created and reminds you why you fell in love with it.

➻ Characters 
I love Chaol and I never agreed with those who said SJM ruined him in QoS because he was kind of an asshole. Look, he’s human and everything we knew about his character before then pointed to the fact that he was never gonna be someone who was simply going to accept magic the moment it came back. We spent a whole book without him and I think that was needed. Coming back to a book that is full of purely human characters has been a breath of fresh air and Chaol has had the chance to think about everything that’s happened to him (not just about his injury). His character development in this book, his emotional healing was great to read and it was cathartic to me personally.

It’s not a surprise that SJM can write emotional healing well. It’s what she’s done with Celaena/Aelin and what she’s done with Feyre, and what she’s done with Chaol in this book. Personally I think his development was perfect, he wasn’t emotionally healed because of love but because he learned to see his past from a different perspective and he’s learned to forgive others and most importantly himself.

Yrene was my absolute favorite in TAB, and that’s because she was so different than the characters SJM usually writes. She was….I wouldn’t say “weak”, but she was her own sort of strong while also being fragile and scared and hopeless and stuck. I related a lot to her character and I couldn’t wait to meet her again in this book. So, you ask, you’ve met her again now, was she everything you hoped for?

I still don’t know the answer to this. We meet her 2-3 years later, and she’s made a lot of off-page progress herself, so it makes sense that she’s not the same character we saw in TAB. And I really liked her here as well. I just couldn’t help but feel that SJM fell again in the trap of creating almost every female character like they’re all slightly different version of the same mold. Don’t get me wrong, she’s miles away from Aelin, but you still know right away that SJM created her. And that’s kind of a flaw in my opinion. To me it felt like she didn’t know where to put Yrene in the spectrum that goes from “weak” to “badass” and she kinda had her float around. She was still interesting to read about while I had my nose inside the book, but thinking about it critically, I was a little disappointed in how she wrote her, and it’s probably because of my too-high expectations of her.

I think something similar applies to Nesryn. We didn’t know her much before, but I really liked her in this book and I love how she felt so connected right away to the continent her family came from. It’s just, I feel like she wasn’t a very unique character at all. “Badass woman with a special fighting skill that has always been seen as emotionally unattached but is actually kinda soft inside and falls for a guy” sounds like too many of SJM’s characters.

Other characters are completely new and they consist most of all of the khagan’s children. I think we had a nice diversity of personalities among them and I really enjoyed reading about them and getting to know them. I have a particularly soft spot for both my ruthless lesbian Hasar and her brother Sartaq.

➻ Relationships 
There are two parts of me writing this review right now. The part that mostly enjoyed the two main relationships in this book doesn’t know what to say other than that, because the part of me that’s screaming “BUT IT’S ALL THE SAME” is pretty loud in my head.

I’m going to repeat something I said in my ACOWAR review: SJM is good at building relationships, but she’s awful at writing characters in an established relationship (see Feyre and Rhys in ACOWAR). Here we had two romances building from scratch, so this book was thankfully free of the acowar-syndrome.

I enjoyed both romances, and yet I can’t help but being annoyed at the fact that it’s super obvious from page one (or idk, whenever the characters first meet I guess) who is going to end up with who. It’s something I was scared of before starting the book and while I did not necessarily mind either romance, one of them especially didn’t feel any different than how SJM writes all her romances basically. It’s always the bickering ones that end up together and yeah that’s fun to read I guess but at some point you wish she would write something different.

However, my problem isn’t specific to any romance in itself, it’s more a general annoyance at the fact that every.major.character. has to end up with someone and do it in a very heterosexual way. I’m not even here to complain that there are no mlm or wlw main romances in this book, but how is it possible that out of all the books she’s written, out of 10 main romances (if not more) in ToG alone and out of at least 14 romances if you count all her books, exactly ZERO are wlw or mlm? Look, she can write whatever she wants but it’s so clearly obvious that whenever she introduces a new character they’re gonna end up with someone and this someone is inevitably always of the opposite sex. It would be fucking refreshing to see some more goddamn rep and GOOD REP not like the awful bisexual rep we had in ACOWAR.

The only thing I really like is that she’s not afraid to make and break couples because that’s how life works, but it’s like a single main character can’t exist without a love interest for one fucking month and that’s pretty fucking boring if you look at it.

There is one wlw couple, Hasar and her partner, that is just adorable and for once a good rep, but it’s also an already-established relationship, which feels like a cop-out. “Here’s your rep,” it says, but that’s too easy. It’s like SJM is scared of writing the actual development of a queer couple and I just don’t get it. It’s her books and she can do what she wants but I am also allowed to speak up about it. It’s 2017 and heterosexuality is just not in anymore (I’M JOKING PUT DOWN THE PITCHFORKS).

Also, I wish she stopped putting very not subtle sexual innuendos everywhere and have it be like, the main way that most characters have to flirt with each other. Ugh. Just no. It’s the opposite of hot and just. no. stop.

Something else I wish would stop is the constant use of vocabulary that I feel promotes toxic masculinity. I want to talk about this more in depth in a discussion on my blog sometime in the near future so I’ll leave it at that for now.

➻ Disability rep 
I kept this point for last because I can’t actually talk about it. I’m an able bodied person so I have no right to speak of the rep in this book. All I can say is that at first I thought it was kind of bad until some point, but then it made itself better. I went and looked for reviews of disabled readers and foundthese two reviews that actually say that they felt the rep is pretty good.

I definitely encourage you to read their reviews and find others (I haven’t been able to find more than these but definitely feel free to link some in the comments), and also I would ask to never take the words of a single person when it comes to judging a certain kind of rep. Most of the time these things aren’t a black and white matter, and some readers might be hurt by something that others have found highly empowering. The best thing to do is listen to ownvoices reviewers and not speak above them one way or another.

Have you read Tower of Dawn? What did you think of it?