Jenny's Library

Whose Stories Get Told? and Who Gets to Tell the Stories?

Posted on: July 14, 2015

Last February I was able to take advantage of a wonderful opportunity to not only go to ALA Midwinter in Chicago, but also to attend the ALSC’s Day of Diversity.

Diversity, in all it’s meanings, was very much on my mind that weekend as I went to meet and greets, attended panel discussions, joined in on a story time underground session, met people I had previously only known on twitter, listened to publishers sales pitches, got to hear teen’s opinions on the books marketed to them, and wandered around the exhibit hall picking up way too many free books.

One of the sessions I was unable to get to was the incredibly packed Diverse Debuts panel.  Instead, I listened outside the curtain and took notes and kept wishing I had faces to put the the smart words I kept hearing.  I made sure to grab the fiiers they were giving out though, and managed to pick up the ARCs of a number of the books listed.

One of those ARCs was None of the Above by I. W. Gregorio.

When I finally finished a few weeks ago I tweeted:

“FYI @IWGregorio’s None of the Above is fantastic. And if you are a librarian you should order it for your YA collection.”

I’m clearly not alone in this opinion, as it got a starred review from Publishers Weekly, a 5Q from VOYA, and Amanda McGregor of Teen Librarian Toolbox said in bold that “This is an essential purchase for all libraries.

This morning I handed in my rationale (defense, for those of you unfamiliar with library speak) for purchasing the book to my Library Director.  Not because a patron has challenged it, but because, upon hearing about the book, she became nervous that there might be one.

(For the record, I don’t fault her for this.  (So far) she’s simply being a good Library Director, which is one who is aware of potential controversies and is ready for them.  It still makes me nervous though. And I wouldn’t take bets on her keeping the book in the YA collection.  Also….I haven’t had to write a rationale for all of the other titles in the collection that don’t deal with gender identity.)

And then I come home to the news that white men are once again defending their lists of recommended reading that just happen to include only white men with the claim that they are being gender and color blind.

I suggest to anyone who has, or plans to, make any claim of that type that they all read None of the Above and then spend some time thinking about whether or not they “see” gender. Or race. Or any other identity.  Somehow I doubt that these white men who can only ever think of other white men to suggest to others to read would really react any differently than Krissy’s boyfriend does to a revelation like hers.

(“I don’t see gender” my ass.)

But mostly, I just want them to think about how their words are laying the foundation for censorship.

I realize that they think of themselves as intellectual freedom fighters, arguing that we judge the book by it’s literary value! Not the color of the author’s skin! Or the author’s gender.

But if they are really intending to make the argument that these are the best books – that the best books just happen to all be by white men – then they should do that.  They should make that argument. But they can’t.  Because it’s clearly a racist, sexist, and bullshit argument.  It’s a losing argument. So they don’t make that argument.

Instead they claim to not “see” gender or color. Arguing that the rest of us are being sexist and racist by doing so.  That the author’s gender or race should not matter.  Which, by the way, is news to me, as a librarian, because my inability to be an expert in everything means that I routinely judge the quality of books in part based on the author’s experience and expertise, which can and does at times include identity.

Furthermore, by using the idea of color and gender blindness with regards to lists and not simply individual books, they are arguing that such things should not matter even in the aggregate.  That patterns of power and influence are unimportant and unconnected to the capitalist enterprise of publishing and selling books.  That considering whose stories are allowed to be told, and by whom, is a distraction rather than a fundamental question of artistic and intellectual freedom.

By making this argument instead of the other, while they may be obfuscating the issue just enough to convince some people that they are in the right, what they are really arguing is that certain identities are unimportant.

Which means they are arguing that certain stories are unimportant, regardless of who writes them.

Which means that they are arguing that books like None of the Above are superfluous rather than necessary.  That they are only for some people, not for everyone.

Or, at least, that certain stories are not important enough to justify investing in them or fighting for them.  That they are not worth the job risk involved in keeping them on library shelves. On the correct library shelves.

Which means that they are providing ammunition for the people who would rather remove books like None of the Above from library shelves, particularly in youth collections.

“Yes, all the best books I’ve read are by white men,” would be a clueless and infuriating statement, but at least it potentially invites argument and discussion.

“I don’t see color/gender, and you shouldn’t either,” is an attempt to end any discussion or analysis.  It’s a smoke and mirrors justification for the status quo.  It’s an argument against the existence of books like None of the Above – or Ancillary Justice or Kindred or The Handmaid’s Tale or Love is the Drug or Zeroboxer (another excellent Diverse Debut ARC) – all of which revolve around an exploration of ideas like gender and race and identity and privilege.

“I don’t see gender or color!” is not a cry for intellectual freedom, it’s a foundational argument for censorship.

2 Responses to "Whose Stories Get Told? and Who Gets to Tell the Stories?"

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