Political correctness. It’s a big scary phrase many of us have heard blasted out frequently across the media, especially over the past few months because of Brexit and Donald Trump’s US presidential campaign. By definition, it’s about avoiding forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, discriminate or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged, or often prone to discrimination. But somehow it always seems a more complex and loaded issue than that.
What is OK to say? Do people feel unable to express themselves honestly in case they are attacked by the dreaded (if entirely mythical) “PC brigade”? Can a recourse to political correctness - and this, rather than the somewhat defensive and self-justificatory nature of the questions above, is the key question - sometimes be a means of preemptively shutting down debate around certain issues?
Political correctness can without doubt be a good thing. Taking the thoughts of other people into account is a fundamental part of life, as is demonstrating that our world is becoming a fairer place in which everyone - regardless of gender, sexuality, skin colour, religion, and more - has an equal chance and the right not to face discrimination. But, political correctness as a concept can be a double-edged sword, too; deployed as a quiet form of censorship, it may mean that people feel as though they must inherently avoid certain subjects, which may be deemed controversial.
Admirable in principle, I feel this has had unintended consequences for “issue”-based Young Adult (YA) fiction.
Take one example, a relatively new book on the shelves called The Art Of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson. It explores the troubles of high school, the urge to fit in and be normal even if it means hiding who you are. It explores the struggles of being transgender as a teenager, being in love and wanting to keep your head in the shadows. In all honesty the book is brilliant; it is a very realistic and well-researched book (Lisa herself spent two years working with a gender identity development service), which makes audible the voice of a transgender community that up until that point had not been heard by many in the world of YA.
Asked about whether she felt her novel was “politically correct”, Lisa summed up in an email to me what authors should strive to achieve in terms of their literature: “I guess I just like to write stories that reflect the world around me. I don’t intend to tick boxes, I just want my books and the characters in them to feel authentic and representative of real teenagers’ lives. As authors, the more diverse characters we write, the more we can explore and break away from stereotypes or the temptation to ‘play it safe’. It’s kind of a joint responsibility, I think. At the same time, I think it’s important we try to write without fear and remain true to the stories we need to tell. I think it’s important to acknowledge that there’s a big difference between being politically correct and embracing diversity. If you look at UK YA, there are loads of amazing examples of books that are incredibly positive and not at all preachy in their representations of diversity. I think for the majority of authors, it’s not a case of ticking boxes, and more about telling a wider range of stories.”
A valid point to make.
Diversity: recognising that we are all equal but are also unique and special in our own way; trying to tell a story that teaches us that we are all different. People should not be made to follow in the steps of another, they should be allowed to make their own path without fear of being judged, or made to be ashamed of themselves, or threatened.
Political correctness: Making the voices of everyone heard so nobody is being left out. It’s a very fine line between the two and although some authors endeavour to write a book, which embraces diversity, it can be so easy to fall into the bracket of just trying to please everybody.
Very few YA books are written with the intention of being politically correct; rather, these books seem to me to be the product of a publishing industry whose prevailing atmosphere is metropolitan and liberal, and therefore the vast majority of books published partake of the same moral, ethical and social values.
It’s exceedingly rare, for example, to find protagonists in teen fiction with right-wing beliefs, despite the fact such teenagers must exist in reality! The effect - of homogeneity - is the same whether such bias is deliberate or not, and I can’t help but feel that something is lost by this foreclosing of narrative possibility.
It seems as though there are certain tacitly agreed-up topics on which the boundaries of representation can be pushed - sexuality, gender identity, mental illness, for example - but others, which authors are much more reluctant to address. Poverty, say, or drugs (it has been 20 years since the publication of Melvin Burgess’ Junk, and there are still very few books exploring teenage addiction or casual drug consumption) - or religion.
Again, I do not believe this is not a conscious decision on the part of authors or publishers; but it’s a curious phenomenon that after the publication of some trailblasing books certain taboos are taken up and exploded (think The Art of Being Normal and transgender characters), while for others that’s not the case at all and authors continue to shy away from writing about it.
This safety-in-numbers approach has more in common with political correctness than is commonly realised. It’s sad to see books at this point in time, in a society where so much diversity is being embraced and celebrated, that are written so that they can feel a part of the crowd by including politically correct characters just for the sake of it.
To Kill A Mockingbird, the first book that springs to mind when you think of politics, diversity and fiction, provides another example. When it was originally published nearly 60 years ago, To Kill a Mockingbird challenged the despicable racism that was so ubiquitous in society. Now, however, and especially after the publication of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s first book is being viewed as a perpetuation of those very same racist assumptions and offensive values of a culture most people would like to forget. It makes for an interesting case of cultural relativism - an important reminder that values we take for granted today may change in the future.
I think the idea of political correctness is dreadfully complicated. Growing up I always liked the idea that books were different. They taught me things that at the age of 17 I can safely say I never learnt at school.
Looking For Alaska taught me to not judge people based on their smiles, but by the secrets they keep. Fangirl taught me that it’s okay to be who I am; even if others judge, you will always find happiness in embracing yourself. And The Hunger Games taught me the value of family. But, it’s all about how such subjects are handled.
To me, politically correct books espousing diversity for its own sake hold no purpose and make no influence on the reader; they have no genuine substance to them. Books which have been specifically written to bring certain issues into the book, playing no part in the actual plot and sticking out like a sore thumb in the story, simply do not work.
I remember reading The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, which incorporates discussions of mental illness, and at first being shocked at the twist with the aunt and Charlie. To most teenagers at the time this was one of the first standout books to discuss mental illness and over the years has engendered a stream of new books dedicated to the topic. But, the most irritating thing is the illness is pretty much always used as a plot device; even in TPOBAW Charlie was not made to feel in any way equal to his friends, and though when suffering from depression it is common to feel distant from your friends an effort was clearly made to make Charlie the complete opposite to anyone else in the story.
In a book which embraced diversity you’d expect (or at least I would expect) to find out that Charlie had a close relative who was depressed, to show the reader that they are not alone in the world, and to try and portray the main character as realistically as possible, but at the same time show the reader that its nothing to be feared.
Books have always been a symbol of freedom in my eyes. They are a form of expression, proof that we all think differently, create our own stories for everyone to enjoy, which cannot be censored or covered up. That doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried, of course, but the censors invariably find that the books in question are distributed anyway, because that’s not how the world works.
Even now, we have parents and schools trying to ban books such as Looking for Alaska because they didn’t approve of the smoking or underage drinking, completely ignoring that it highlights topics such as grief, and mental disorders like PTSD and anxiety.
Books should 100 per cent embrace diversity and teach us to accept that everyone is different. But it should be done for the right reasons, in the right way, or the meaningless perpetuation of the same old issues and concerns will do nothing to challenge assumptions and move us forward as a society.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd.