Oppression chic, Equality-core
On Elaine Castillo's HOW TO READ NOW | Plus: A Goodreads Giveaway.
Hello and welcome, friends new and old! This month’s letter is a chonky boi, and will take you about 20+ minutes to digest. Strap in.
State of the Suyiverse: Vacation scorecard
From the Desk: Advance copies + a Goodreads giveaway!
Essay: Oppression-chic, Equality-core: On Elaine Castillo's "How To Read Now" (Or, on Good Literary Citizenship, Part II)
From the Grapevine: Dehiscent launch
For the Road: Between the Covers
(If you’d like to ask more questions about anything you see in this letter, come by our water cooler AKA our private Discord and do so!)
State of the Suyiverse
I’m back on home turf! I’m finishing up this letter on the balcony chair while The Youngling throws a ball around on the deck. Every now and then, the ball bumps against my screen. Come sit by me, but prepare to get intermittent boinks on your head.
I promised some downtime while out west, so let’s look at that scorecard. Play football? Check. Meet up with friends? Check-ish. Attend a local cultural event? Bzzt! One-half out of three. Not bad for a local boy from Benin.
Since my return to Ottawa, though, I’ve been trying to make up for those losses. In one fell swoop, in fact—this past week, I hosted a local book event with two author comrades, and we had a lil’ pre-game that involved sweet wine and other shenanigans. 3/3, check.
Listening: Between the Covers, a podcast by David Naimon and Tin House Books (and for good reason; see For The Road section below for more)
Reading: How To Read Now by Elaine Castillo (notes in essay below)
Watching: Warrior S02; We Are Lady Parts S01 (I praised this show on Instagram so much that the actors responded!);
From the Desk: Advance copies + a Goodreads giveaway!
Here’s a 1-minute video showing all the cool bits. Preorder campaign coming soon, but for now, good news for US readers: a Goodreads giveaway of 100 Kindle advance copies is currently on! Toss your hat in the ring until August 21.
Oppression-chic, Equality-core: On Elaine Castillo's How To Read Now (Or, on Good Literary Citizenship, Part II)
If you’ve ever spent some time in literary circles, you must’ve heard about the death of the author. In the 1967 English translation of his original French essay, Roland Barthes debuts the theory that author and work must be separated, and the work interpreted without much reference to its creator. After quoting from French author and playwright Honoré de Balzac’s novella Sarrasine, Barthes asks (emphases mine):
These are good questions, ones I agree should be asked by every discerning reader. The problem, though, is that the answers Barthes offers are not robust. It is not “impossible to know” what voice speaks in a text—we may not be sure, but we may discern (and do so intelligently, with sufficient foreknowledge of allied matters) who speaks in a text. That is literally what the whole field of English Literature (or literatures in other languages) rests upon. And sure, we may not be able to “assign a specific origin,” but that, in itself, does not immediately make literature a “neuter…where all identity is lost,” especially not that of “the body that writes it.”
When I learned of this concept, the first question that came to my mind was the same I ask with most things: Who profits from the erasure of the authorial identity, and who suffers from the refusal to bind author and text? The answer should be obvious, but in case it’s not, I may simply point to how every piece of artistic media, literature inclusive, in the history of humankind, has been employed for purposes both good and ill. Literature has been equal parts a source of joy, progression and furtherance, as well as a backbone for erasures, wars and regression. To disconnect author from work is to assume that the author has no intent, that the author makes art for art’s sake. But the author always has intent, even when it’s subconscious. The fact of this hasn’t stopped this point-of-view from being accepted and employed at all levels of literary engagement, though—from institutions of teaching and practice to the public sphere.
So, to phrase this differently: When an author-as-person is revealed to be someone of ill-intent and ill-will, what do we do? Still consider them dead, their art disconnected and standing on its own? Or do we engage with the art with acknowledgement of—or, better yet, through the lens of—who and where it came from?
I’ve never been to a big-venue music concert. When I recently let this info slip at work, a colleague who’d just been telling me about his recent visit to a Taylor Swift Eras stop was aghast. Did I not love any artist enough to attend their concert? Of course! I could totally see myself investing in going to watch Janelle Monáe, Paramore, Rihanna, Aṣa, Lous and the Yakuza, to name a few, perform live. But my colleague, once he'd recovered from the incredulity, was of the belief that not even once attempting to watch these artists perform meant that perhaps I didn’t actually care about them as much as I thought.
That’s not quite the case (I avoid most concerts because I struggle with crowds & ear-blasting noise), but even if it was, I wonder: Does it really matter? If one loves an artist just an okay amount, does that de-legitimize their enjoyment of the artist’s work? I understand the origins of his position, though. I can see how choosing not to make a significant personal investment in an artist and/or their work may be interpreted as the lesser choice. Afterall, we live in an age of fan hives and armies, an age where anything but effusive praise of and uncritical support for an artist (or any other person of celebrity status) is often unwelcome.
These same tendencies are also very much present in the literary world. Authors, unhelped by the constant push to promote the self alongside (and even more so than) the work, have to become “personalities” in ways that are not always detachable from their work. (We can talk about how this often pressurizes and complexifies matters for authors from historically marginalized communities, but I digress). Authors, in essence, increasingly occupy the same space as performers who sell art by also selling an image of themselves. And readers, increasingly, occupy the same space as fans, consumers who increasingly establish a relationship with the person as much as they do with the work.
And therein lies the first conundrum: because by building this kind of relationship with the artist—sometimes even more so than their work—the very process of reading begins to shift, becomes less of its own activity and more of one filtered through the lens of “What relationship do I have with this author?” The author, at some level, begins to precede the work. On its own, that is not an issue of significant concern—people have always read and supported their favourite authors. This only starts to come under the microscope when, one day, the reader suddenly learns that they’ve been in a relationship with, say, a not-so-great person, or even more commonly, a person who is quite human, with all the blind spots and fallibility to go with it.
When your favourite author suddenly becomes “outed” as “problematic” (to whatever extent that term can capture various positions on the moral totem pole), it can feel like a betrayal. Suddenly, the reader is not just a reader, but a jilted lover. It doesn’t matter that the author behaving badly hasn’t actually jilted us, and that “good writing” and “good stories” have never been synonymous with “good person”. We have opened our hearts and made room for the person beyond the story, and therefore will feel the pain of an imminent break-up. It’s unlikely that we will pick up said author’s work in the future without completing some form of mental reconfiguration.
And therein lies the most important lesson: that the art, and its maker, are so intertwined that it’s truly impossible to completely separate one from the other. And yet, in the same way, it’s just as impossible to completely separate the action of reading from the reader and their thoughts, feelings, and positionality.
This, and many other concerns surrounding our current reading dispositions, is at the heart of a recent essay collection by Elaine Castillo, titled How to Read Now.
I’ve spent the last few weeks noodling through the gems in this book and their tangential concerns. I won’t venture into review territory here, as others have done better justice to that than I ever will. I particularly enjoyed Kathy Chow in the LA Review of Books boiling down the collection’s ethos to a simple question (“Who is this writing for?”), and one goodreads user usefully getting at the book’s essence in a lengthy sentence:
Instead, I want to hone in on one specific passage in the chapter, “The Limits of White Fantasy,” wherein Castillo explains why some authors, after writing fantastic narratives about oppressed peoples defeating evil villains, sometimes so easily go down the slippery slope of becoming near-oppressors themselves (content note for allusions to rape):
Oppression chic and equalitycore are not terms I would’ve ever believed would be so illuminating to me, but the moment I heard both, they immediately cemented the mixed feelings I’ve had about certain stories I’ve witnessed being mass-embraced without the accompanying critical engagement they deserve. Worse yet, oppression chic and equalitycore have taken so many forms in the global publishing world (specifically in the major English-language markets of the US and UK) that they’ve become synonymous with certain tropes or genres. The lowly or oppressed rising up to overthrow an oppressive monarchy is a staple of sci-fi and fantasy. In horror, the defeat of a monster by any means possible. In crime or thrillers or spy, the defeat of “bad guys” by “good guys.” And in the barrage of these narratives that wear the fashion of anti-oppression and pro-justice, we forget to look at where else in these very same narratives the storytelling is pointedly closemouthed about oppression and injustice.
I could point out a myriad of examples, but a cursory filtering of the 2-3-star Goodreads reviews of many overwhelmingly popular novels in, say, sci-fi and fantasy, will reveal at least one or two reviewers pointing out places where the author’s blind spots show. Some authors will have more blind spots than others, and when these authors have editors, publicists, reviewers, etc with similar blind spots, we end up with stories where the oppression is more chic than not, the equality more core than not. I’ve read novels that yell against caste-based oppression in their imagined world, while not only presenting rampant misogyny and homophobia in the same world, but also letting it go unexamined by the story to whatever level. If I could speak to Barthes, I’d ask him: “When an author writes a character that acts in ill-will against others but the text offers no signal for the reader to recognize an examination of said ill-will, where else do we attribute our understanding of this ill-will other than to the author who offers it?”
Perhaps it is due to this realization that we—authors and readers alike—will be forced to do this work of complexifying, that we attempt to find solace in positions of less discomfort. It’s a fantasy world, anything is possible, not everything is political. But that’ll be the wrong kind of solace. It’ll be doing the very thing Castillo describes: presenting a cosplay-level understanding of oppression, a wearing of the skin of the real-world oppressed. It is wilfully refusing to engage with the very essence of what art is for: to read with openness, with depth, with constant complexity, as that goodreads reviewer says, rather than to shift burden, absolve debt, or refuse the intimacy of sitting in discomfort. It is choosing to participate in oppression chic and equalitycore for the duration of reading; to be freed from thematic pressure to orient toward a real-world concern like actual oppression or justice, while being comfortable with an appropriation of, in Castillo’s words, its language, its culture, its aesthetic, its narrative style.
Defenders of not only this kind of reading, but also this kind of authorship, practice a deficient kind of literary citizenship. Perhaps there is a fear of letting go of the relationship one has built with the author who writes this way, a fear of examining the self, of an honest answer to the question, “What does it say about me that I didn’t realise or don’t mind that the author writes this way?” In answering this question, one will become forced to acknowledge the ties that bind the reader and their reading positionality, the story and its connections to the real world, and the author and their own positionality.
To strip away any of these aspects does not constitute a crime, but it is a wilful acknowledgement of only halfway participating in the consumption of art. We may prefer, for a while, or forever, to sort, sift and separate, to opt out of looking this truth in the face because we don’t have to. And truly, we don’t have to. But these truths will remain, whether we dress them in different, more palatable clothes or not. And honest, good literary citizenship requires allof us—reader, creator, publisher, everyone who participates—to turn our heads toward these discomforts, breathe deep, and look.
From the Grapevine:
Last week, I joined author Ashley Deng in conversation (alongside another fellow author, New York Times Bestselling Amal-El Mohtar of Bigolas Dickolas fame) to launch her new eco-horror novella, Dehiscent, into the world. It was a wonderful event at Perfect Books, one of our cozy little literary corners in the city. The palpable joy and exciting conversations reminded me of all the reasons I love attending book/author events. Go support Ash and grab a copy of Dehiscent if you can.
For the Road:
Last month’s takeaway: An intimate portrait of Okun Alfa, a Lagos seaside community under threat of extinction through incessant flooding.
I’ve spent the past month trawling the archives of the literary podcast Between the Covers, hosted by David Naimon in collaboration with Tin House Books. As someone who prides myself to be a purveyor of lit podcasts (in all senses of the word lit), I was surprised to only learn about this after David followed me on Bluesky. I say this because it may just be the most intelligent, in-depth, no-frills literary podcast I’ve encountered so far.
It’s one of those podcasts that’s not just one thing—it’s interviews and craft lectures and ruminations on authors and writing and the work of doing so (many episodes are dedicated to the work of Ursula K. LeGuin). It’s like Authors-on-Authors mixed with Authors-on-Writing, with a dash of an MFA grad class and pop socio-cultural commentary. Better yet, there’s a ton of episodes, each its own kind of treasure, which makes this a gift that will keep on giving for a long time. Host David Naimon is careful, observant and kind, and reminds me a bit of the host of Hot Ones.
Go check out the podcast if you’re looking for something new and cerebral to listen to. My fave episodes so far, if you wish to begin somewhere: Elaine Castillio, Mariana Enriquez, Neil Gaiman’s Crafting with Ursula and Rebecca Makkai’s live lecture, “The Ear of the Story.”
If you’d like to ask a question that’ll be featured in a future letter and answered in an essay, you can drop your question in our private Discord channel. Feel free to share this letter with a friend who may find it useful. See you at the next go-around!