Welcome back to Read, If You Like, my occasional book chatter series. I don’t love doing book reviews, so I usually style them as recommendations. I think I’ll add a few more thoughts to this one, though.
Read Red White and Royal Blue (Casey McQuiston, 2019) if you like:
- American politics. I know, I know, trust me
- A fictional world where Trump was never in the running for the presidency
- He’s not mentioned once. It was like getting into a warm bath
- A diverse cast of characters, but not in a ‘look I’m checking a box!’ way (I say this a lot about the books I recommend. But I never get bored of it)
- Moderately explicit gay sex. Can something be moderately explicit? I’d put this book up the ‘adult’ end of the young adult shelf
- The phrase ‘British accent’
- Look, I didn’t say I liked that phrase
- Polo (the sport, not the shirt)
- Posh parts of London. Is Kensington Palace even in London?
- The Internet has reminded me that Kensington Palace is in the, um, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. I used to work just up the road.
How did I make it into higher education
So, my other thoughts. Firstly, this novel reminded me that US politics is a shiny, shiny unicorn filled with toilet water, and even though everyone knows that the toilet water is dripping constantly from the unicorn’s nose, everyone upholds the sanctity of the unicorn. ‘That unicorn has integrity,’ people might say fondly as unicorn season rolls around. Not everyone respects the unicorn, but many feel that they should. ‘This unicorn season, we’re going to re-establish the integrity of the unicorn.’ I wanted to believe the unicorn had integrity too! I felt quite warm and fuzzy. This has never previously happened to me in a novel about anyone’s politics.
Secondly, it reminded me that in the UK our politics consists of: middle aged men dancing; middle aged men lying; middle aged men jeering at other middle aged men across the Commons. If there was ever a unicorn in Great Britain, it limped out to pasture somewhere between the English Civil War and the poll tax riots.
It’s probably worth mentioning that my library copy is an older edition – last year, the author pulled a line of dialogue about US-Israeli diplomacy because some on social media suggested it was pro-Israel and therefore implicitly anti-Palestine. (That link is a good summary of the controversy, as is this one.) I don’t think I’d have thought that if I’d read the book before knowing about the edits. Having read it knowing about them, my two cents is that the line should have stayed. Partly because I’m not convinced that mentioning Israel in a book ‘unnecessarily,’ as one Twitter user suggested, actually ‘normalises’ the occupation of Palestine. Palestine has been occupied since 1967. We’re past normalisation, surely? Instead of haranguing authors, could our energy be better spent pressuring non-fictional politicians to work harder to end the conflict, and questioning why they haven’t already? I’m not convinced McQuiston’s joke is the problem, is all.
The other reason I think the line should have stayed is that, as an author, I’m not sure how I feel about publishers bowing to readers’ demands that passages are cut from published work.
That’s a lie. All my instincts say that it’s almost definitely a terrible idea. Unless there’s a genuinely accidental fuck up (getting a fact wrong or misusing a word in good faith) why not leave the piece as a time capsule? Every creator looks at past work and sees a thousand opportunities for improvement – it’s part of the job to learn and move on, creating something that’s better because time and practise makes us a more skilful writer and a more nuanced person. Making edits post-publication feels like we’re pretending that the new edition was the only one, like we never went through a learning process. Why does the original work have to change? Why is it not enough for the author to say ‘shit, yeah that line/plot point/passage did not come off as I’d hoped, but I wouldn’t write it now,’ or ‘I didn’t know about X issue when I was writing! It would have informed my work if I had.’ While we’re here, why do some readers think they can demand that an author changes their work? Spending £4.99 on an ebook doesn’t mean you own the author, dude. Point out an issue with a manuscript if you like, but the author’s reaction is their call – they don’t have to listen to you, let alone change their finished work. You didn’t both sign a contract when you picked up the book you’ve taken issue with.
I dunno, it might be because I’m finally reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, but publishers bowing to a small group of shouty people feels like a dangerous precedent, for free speech, for creative industries and for, well, humanity. It could harm writers, who might avoid exploring difficult, important topics for fear of backlash. It could lead to a rigid, unadventurous publishing industry that’s unwilling to fund anything that could lead to controversy – even though every book ever published has infuriated somebody. And it could harm audiences, especially younger readers, because teaching someone that if they shout loudly enough that they’ll get what they want never leads to a humble, empathic human being. Sometimes, Complete Stranger from Anywhere, Northern Hemisphere, you’re going to encounter things you don’t like, that make you uncomfortable, that you disagree with vehemently. This does not mean the thing owes it to you to change.
As readers, I think we have a responsibility to use our little grey cells and figure out if a character making a joke or a shitty comment is the same as the author making a joke or shitty comment, or if the author’s trying to make a wider point. Maybe the author is hoping the reader notices the subtext they’ve woven in. Maybe they’re assuming the reader has enough critical thinking skills to make the distinction between a character’s beliefs and the author’s, or to reflect upon why that joke is there in the first place. In my last book, a man breaks a glass over his daughter’s head. As a writer and as a human, I have to assume that my readers will perceive that character as a bad guy without needing me to pre-empt the scene with ‘PERSON ABOUT TO DO A MORALLY REPREHENSIBLE ACTION I DO NOT SUGGEST YOU DO.’
I’ll probably still have to defend myself at some point. Or defend the bit where – wait, spoilers. Hehe.
Back to Red, White and Royal Blue, because I really enjoyed it once I got over the fact there’s a Prince Henry and a Prince Phillip. And a Princess Beatrice… (I was unreasonably tickled by this, and I have no business being so because I once named a princess Beatrice, too. I was going to change it when I thought of a better name and then forgot. I don’t even know which sister is the real Princess Beatrice. I am digressing. Insomnia! And also I was woken up at 4am by a game of Cards Against Humanity.)
I hope that, if there’s a sequel one day, we get to see actual Britain. It’s always fun seeing outsiders’ interpretations of the UK, because they usually involve pomp and ceremony. The touristy bits. But I’d quite like to read about a cheeky Nandos with the lads, a post-Wetherspoons trip to Maccies, a football fan sticking a firework up their arse. I want clandestine trips to Greggs and a scene set somewhere that isn’t London. Ooh, now I want a pasty. In real life, not in a book. Well, also in a book.
Remind me to set a short story in a Greggs. That got long-ish, huh. I think a lot about critical thinking and fictional work and the author-reader relationship. Probably too much? Part of me wants to write something about a hugely difficult topic, yeet the book onto the internet and log off forever, leaving generations of readers to debate my true intentions and to pick apart lines trying to figure out what they’re meant to learn from the work. I’d have to stop thinking about pasties to do that, though. Ooh, speaking of stories, I asked my patrons the other day about a potential Easter-inspired Bezzina’s story. Let me know if this is something you’d like to see!
Look after yourselves,
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