I fear that contemporary publishing sows the wind. The phrase, taken from a passage in the book of Hosea in the Bible, refers to planting the seeds of one’s own destruction. This is the direction fiction publishing is taking and the whirlwinds are starting to come in; it’s harvest time.
Recently, the novel American Dirt was targeted by several disgruntled advanced readers for being “coated in mayonnaise” for a white audience. Critics alleged that it was full of stereotypes of Latinos and Latinas, that it wasn’t written by someone dark enough to understand the plight of migrants, and that it sanitized the migrant experience. The author was threatened. The book tour was canceled. Oprah, who’d featured the novel as a Book Club selection, had to backtrack her endorsement to a degree.
No, read that again.
American Dirt is a work of fiction.
In a similar vein, despite the brilliance of the film, Joker was criticized for pandering to “white male rage.” The protagonist (or anti-hero) is Arthur Fleck, an unfortunate man stricken with pseudo bulbar affect who must take care of his mother while scratching out a meager living as a clown-for-hire. When the systems of society fail him and the truth of his past comes to light, he snaps and turns on the people who’ve abused him.
Again, like American Dirt, Joker is fiction.
Or, rather, it is art.
And here’s the problem the critics don’t understand because they just don’t understand psychology. If people want to see true social justice, then societal transformation must occur. In order for societal transformation to occur, people need art. They need to see the emotions in art and feel them. This is the first step in the three-tiered cascade model of emotional intelligence. It is also the first step in transforming individuals, and so the first step in transforming society.
Far from promoting violence, Joker may’ve done more to end school shootings and the violence some young white men have displayed recently. If a person can see the emotion in art, they can feel it within themselves. That’s the second stage in the three-tiered cascade model of emotional intelligence. From there, the third and final stage is recognizing those same emotions in others. Once a person realizes that others feel the same things they do, empathy is the natural consequence.
Empathy and empathy alone will save us. The ability to see ourselves in the faces of the other begins with books, film, sculpture, and the printed word. When we find our innermost feelings in art, we come closer to being able to articulate and differentiate our own inner emotional landscape. Once that map is made, we find the continents of our feelings peopled by those around us. Everyone, no matter their nationality, religion, sex, race, sexual orientation, or gender identity occupies the same planet, both physically and emotionally. Realizing the latter will help rectify the problems we encounter on the former.
So, to the publishing industry I say, “Be wary.” Be wary, lest you sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. Be wary, lest your zeal for social justice skip the vital step of engendering empathy in the very souls you think ought to change. The vitriol of self-righteousness serves no useful purpose despite how well it plays on Twitter.
American Dirt may not have been written by an undocumented migrant. Joker may seem to glorify white male violence. In truth, both serve to connect people to the other. Perhaps that’s why they’re so heavily criticized; some people just can’t see the emotion in the art and so can’t see the other they demonize.
Sow the wind; reap the whirlwind. Be mindful of that.