Three years ago, I wrote a post asking whether YA characters should be role models. I still feel there are gray areas in the answer to this question. I love reading in large part precisely because I believe in the power of books to change lives, move hearts, mold people. I believe the books we put into the world matter, especially those we give to young readers.
And yet…I also don’t want every story to become didactic. I recognize there are things in life that happen that I don’t like; there are people who make decisions of which I don’t approve. Literature is more than fairy tales. Not everyone who does something bad can be punished. Not everyone who is mainly good can be rewarded. People do all sorts of crazy things, and they face all types of consequences–or sometimes no consequences at all. If I want art to be true to life (at least sometimes, if I’m not looking for blissful escapism), I have to recognize that every type of life experience or choice has a right to be portrayed in a book. And the author doesn’t need to make a moral statement about whether they approve or disapprove of the material they present.
The issue of diversity in literature is complex one. Yet my most basic stance on diverse books is that every type of person and everyone’s life experience deserves a chance of representation. Though these things are important, this means more than making space on our shelves for characters of varied ethnicities, religions, sexualities, socioeconomic statuses, etc. It means making space for characters who have different perspectives on the world than we do–even if they are ones we don’t like. Anything from a character who is a serial adulterer to one who thinks she needs to lose weight to be loved to one we think is dating the wrong person should be allowed in a book because there are real people in the world who have done these things or thought these things.
And I don’t always need the author to tell me whether these characters are right or wrong. In the first place, there is a subtlety to judging whether an author is advocating or encouraging something just because he or she is portraying it (a topic I may save for a different post). In the second, part of being a thoughtful reader is learning to make your own judgments of the ideas a character espouses or the actions they take. Part of being a really thoughtful reader is trying to see things from the character’s perspective for just a moment before you pass that judgment, before you leave the book with the exact same opinion you started with. The point isn’t to finish the story thinking adultery is good idea, but have a more nuanced understanding of why someone might do it, even if you still think it’s wrong.
Some of the best books put me outside my comfort zone. They show me things I may not want to see and ask me to think about things that I may believe I already have all the answers to. They remind me that the choices I make in life are not the choices everyone else would make given the same situation. I value variety in books, even when the content makes me shake my head and wonder. And I am grateful to authors who respect me enough to show me something in a book and let me decide what I think of it, rather than hitting me over the head with a correct moral interpretation. There are books I disapprove of, certainly, and even ones of which I have voiced my shocked disgust, but I appreciate the variety of opinions and viewpoints that are expressed in books (even if they’re, you know…wrong).