Calendar Girl (kirilaw) wrote,
Calendar Girl

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I've been reading A.S. Byatt recently. Currently, the book at hand is Still Life. I've been enjoying it -- her writing is quite pleasant and only occasionally excessively 'literary' (what I mean by that is another discussion entirely). And I'm interested enough in the characters to want to know what happens to them.


On page 274 of my copy (not the copy I linked to above, incidentally; a hardcover from the library), she makes a word choice that has completely unsettled and perturbed me. She describes a (very) minor character's dress as "nigger-brown and cream". And now I don't know quite how to react.

Now, potentially offensive words don't generally bother me very much -- if "fuck" is appropriate to the story and the characters, then there's no point in writing "make love" or some other euphemism. Similarly, I am not offended by Huck Finn's use of the same word currently under discussion. Or Toni Morrison's, or any other author who uses it consciously and with purpose.

What's upset me here is that it was just so offhand and irrelevant. It was jarring. It served no purpose -- it seemed to be genuinely used as "just" an adjective. And that I can't quite deal with. If it were a character's description or written in a subjective third person that put the thoughts in a character's head, that I could deal with. That would, perhaps, suggest something about the character. Maybe. But this book, although it regularly dips into character's minds, is largely written in an omnicient third person (it even sometimes becomes self-referential, referring to "this novel" and "my intentions"). This passage is no exception. No matter how I twist and turn the paragraph around, I can't make it anything other than an apparently objective description. And that's profoundly unsettling, to say the least.

So now I don't know how to feel. I will, of course, finish the book. But I can't recommend it to anyone. And I feel slightly guilty for having enjoyed it up to this point. As if I am somehow complicit.

What bothers me, I think, is the way an extremely offensive, sensitive word is used so offhandedly. It tells us nothing about any of the book's characters (the individual so described is a walk-on's lady-in-waiting, and neither she nor her "mistress" is ever encountered again), or about anything, really, except the author. It tells me that she is, at least, careless and thoughtless in her adjectives. And that she likely holds, at least on some level, attitudes with which I am profoundly uncomfortable.

Where do I go from here? I don't know. But since this is a musing journal entry and not an essay, I don't have to have an answer. ;)

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