Chinese Gucci and the Case for Reading Intentionally

File Under: Debating

Here's a decent ONE - TWO punch from The Guardian about why it's important to KEEP BOOKS DANGEROUS. Both articles are talking about Young Adult books, but I say it applies equally to literary fiction. I can't say I agree with the first article’s assertion that books shouldn't be “gratuitous or explicit” — as I think there is value in grit. So long as a reader can be shocked, I think they should be. Not simply for shock’s sake but because at worst it jars the mind of a lazy reader, and at best encourages a deeper internal conversation about the book and the nature of what’s shocking, and why. But the bulk of both articles agreed with me.

It's adorable to think that as long as we work tirelessly enough, we can “protect the children” from the unsavory world and its R-rated (or X-rated) ideas — that nothing will come along and undo it all in a blink. Adorable and unrealistic. I fear more the moment something does happen, and the painful realization that we’ve left them wholly unprepared for the complexity. If given the choice, I'll always take the physically and emotionally safe realm of a book, indeed of knowledge, of imagination, and the world of mind — over the actual danger of schoolyards and streets.

These questions are of tremendous interest to me in the middle of rewriting the first novel, Chinese Gucci, and have heartened me about some of my instincts and decisions. I believe very much in a visceral connection (even if it’s repulsion) with a book, believe that good books and good characters “contain multitudes.” The book is a hopefully clever indictment of a certain brand of adolescent hyper-masculinity, and as such, it has some pretty unpalatable stuff in it. Add to it the largely untested ideas about race and success that many young people start off with, and there are plenty of hot-button issues in the book that may well end up scaring off some readers and distracting from the book's larger intent.

And that's a terrifying concern.

It seems, in our race to never offend, never belittle or shame, never visit microaggressions upon another, we've become hyper-aware to the point of near mental inaction. By that I mean we've lost the ability to accurately parse intent from the larger mash-up of content. Someone says something that, on it's face, seems offensive — okay, yes, offensive ideas should offend. Ah, but why did they say it? Did I even hear it correctly? Did they accidentally tank what they meant to say instead? Is there another way to take it? Are we even talking about the same damn thing? This feels like something we are rapidly becoming either unwilling or unable to do any more. It’s much easier to simply fly off the handle, and launch into our own screeds and tirades. That feels perilous. Ideas, words, world views, differences — these can and should be evaluated — not just on their face, but through the lens of intent. If we lose that, why even bother with language?

So what do you think? What’s worse: a dangerous book, or a painfully safe one? An offensive book or an inoffensive one? Should anything ever be off limits for readers? For writers?