So. Goodreads, Twitter, Amazon and just about everywhere else in that part of the internet that deals with fiction is in an uproar about Kate Breslin’s romance novel, For Such a Time.
Long, horrifying story short: it’s a retelling of the Book of Esther, an important book in both the Jewish and Christian faiths. It’s set during the Holocaust. Breslin has, apparently, decided that Esther’s story is a love story (no such thing happens in the original text). She has reimagined it as a “romance” between a Nazi SS-Kommandant of a Concentration Camp and Hadassah Benjamin, a Jewish girl who, due to her blonde hair and blue eyes, is saved from Dachau and instated as his personal secretary at Theresienstadt. (This was not strictly-speaking a death camp; but since so many were shipped TO death camps from Theresienstadt, that’s really arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.)
I can’t really discuss further plot details because I’ve not read this novel, and don’t intend to.
I’m not here to debate whether Kate Breslin’s novel contains elements that are deeply offensive, not just to Jewish people, but to anyone aware of what happened during the Holocaust (and frankly, that should be everyone above the age of about four. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.)
Undoubtedly, Breslin’s novel contains material that most people, Jewish or not, would find offensive. From a lack of real consent between Aric and Hadassah (which in itself should disqualify it from Romance Fiction awards, so far as I’m concerned) to Hadassah’s character arc including the implication that she has converted to Christianity, this book sounds like a big old train wreck.
What concerns me today is this: what is an appropriate reaction when someone writes a piece of fiction that offends you?
Do you show your disapproval by not buying the book, and spreading the word about it so that others can avoid it, too? (This is the route I’ve taken.) Or, as others have done, do you lobby to have the book disqualified from awards? Do you send letters and petitions to the publisher to have it taken off the shelves altogether? Do you send death threats to the author? Or what?
Throughout the drama on Goodreads and on Twitter, a quote from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray came to mind:
“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”
It’s human nature – and I do it too – to completely agree with that quote, until we are presented with a concrete example of a book that causes us offence; one we do see as immoral.
The goal posts are at a different place for everyone. For example, I’m firmly on the bandwagon of 50 Shades of Grey detractors, but I know plenty of people who aren’t.
Today, Wilde’s quote is usually brought up in reference to books that once caused moral offence, but are now seen through the filter of post-Sexual Revolution attitudes and half a dozen decades. DH Lawrence’s controversial novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover comes to mind. In 2015, it’s difficult for us to see how this book caused so much public offence that it underwent a trial for obscenity, but it did, and the feelings that brought it to trial were real.
There are many other books which are often banned and/or restricted, because they offend people – anything from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to American Psycho. (I haven’t read the latter.) National Censorship is a different ballgame to taking Titus Andronicus off the school reading list for 13-year-olds, but it all comes back to a similar argument: This book offended me. Other people should not read it.
I’m certainly not arguing that detractors of Breslin haven’t the right to be offended, even horrified. They absolutely do, and I applaud them taking to Twitter and Tumblr and voicing their protests in an intelligent, passionate way. But I keep coming back to a question I can’t answer:
Once we are offended, what do we do with that? Do we push to prevent others reading a book because it offended us?