Columns

Malik ’18: Dealing with damaging elements of literature

By
Staff Columnist
Monday, September 12, 2016

I love books. I love losing myself in their depths and beholding the power of their language. When I read them, I feel the barrier around my mind dissolve so my thoughts can blend with those of the authors. This gives me a kind of joy that I cannot find anywhere else.

But the joy I feel when I’m immersed in a book is undermined when I come across harmful elements. This happened when I read Albert Camus’s “The Stranger” and Kamel Daoud’s “The Meursault Investigation” during the summer. Daoud’s brilliant novel, which is in part a retelling of and response to “The Stranger,” made me see a detrimental aspect in Camus’s book: the dehumanization of the Arab man who is murdered by the protagonist Meursault. I faced a question that I’m sure all readers have engaged with: How do you handle the damaging parts of a literary work?

By harmful elements, I mean representations, attitudes and ideas that are disrespectful, unfair, immoral or dehumanizing, which can directly or indirectly serve as the basis for mistreatment, injustice or violence. Not all harmful elements are destructive in the same way or to the same degree. Some examples include misogynistic tropes, denials of climate change based on improperly conducted research or dishonest representations of data, racism and homophobia.

In this column, I am not talking about triggering material; discussions about triggering elements are vital and necessary but beyond the reach of this column. Nor am I talking about material that conflicts with the reader’s ideas or that challenges the reader’s worldview. When readers engage with these ideas, they can further develop their beliefs or adjust their views based on what they encounter. Regardless of these caveats, damaging parts of literary works can still present problems for readers.

When individual readers pick up books for leisure, they can stop reading if they come across harmful material. But I have a deep appreciation for books. I think that books are important and that many texts are worth reading despite their harmful aspects. The approach that I take, which fellow readers may also find useful, is weighing the damaging elements against the merits. If the merits of a particular work — the work’s profundity, its insight, its prescience — are more fulfilling and vital in my eyes than the harmful parts are destructive, then I continue reading. When the bad outweighs the good, then I stop reading the book. This strategy allows me to enjoy and appreciate the great things in a book without ignoring the destructive pieces.

Returning to “The Stranger” and “The Meursault Investigation,” Daoud’s novel points out that the Arab man who is killed has no name and no dialogue. Also, the trial of the killer Meursault primarily relies on Meursault’s behavior during the days surrounding the death and funeral of his mother. Little weight is given to the actual murder. I am not saying that what Camus did in his novel does not serve some artistic purpose. Yet the dehumanization and neglect of  the victim is irresponsible and harmful, particularly in the context of the French colonization of Algeria. But when I weigh this detrimental element against the book’s merits, including its profound philosophical insights, I can say that in my eyes “The Stranger” is a great book that is worth reading.

But how should a student handle a book with damaging elements that is assigned in class? Instructors assign texts for a class due to their relation to the themes and goals of the course. Therefore, I think we students should primarily analyze books that we read for classes through the frameworks established by the courses. Also, in my experience, instructors have done a great job of addressing the potentially harmful aspects of books as they have arisen. I have attended discussion sections in which students analyzed whether or not the representations of prominent women characters in a book were misogynistic, for example.

But if we want to further discuss the damaging aspects of a book, or if we have concerns about how the material is handled in class, then we can talk to our instructors and teaching assistants. Through this communication, we can find solutions to our course-related problems, and instructors can determine if they should adjust their lesson plans.

Though I’ve dedicated this entire piece to the detrimental aspects of certain books, I want to conclude by explaining that I do not think books should be banned because of their harmful elements, nor do I think books should be defined by their worst characteristics. I am not encouraging readers to be extra vigilant as they search for harmful elements in a text. Rather, I hope that I have shared ways for readers to address destructive elements when they reveal themselves.

Ultimately, we cannot completely ignore the damaging representations, ideas and attitudes in books. From personal experience, I know that books have the power to change people’s lives. We have to make sure that lives are not changed for the worse and that people do not develop destructive beliefs because of what they read. If we identify and acknowledge the harmful elements in books, we can prevent them from seeping into our minds and becoming part of our worldviews.

Ameer Malik ’18 can be reached at ameer_malik@brown.edu.

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