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!