Sunday, 2 September 2012

Casting Pearls Before...?

US fantasy magazine Weird Tales published an extract from Victoria Foyt's self-published YA novel Revealing Eden: Save the Pearls Part One, which is set in a sort-of dystopian world where a black-skinned race dubbed the Coals lord over a white race called the Pearls on a sun-scorched Earth. To survive on the surface, the Pearls cover themselves with a substance that makes them look 'black'.

The premise of the novel touched of one of those fires where everyone can look righteous by calling it for what it is: racist. Just how long has it been since another issue about colour in books was raised?

Weird Tales has since removed that excerpt and apologised for publishing it. In that apology, publisher John Harlacher, concluded that "the use of the powerful symbols of white people forced to wear blackface to escape the sun, white women lusting after black 'beast men', the 'pearls' and 'coals', etc., is goddamned ridiculous and offensive. It seems like the work of someone who does not understand the power of what she is playing with."

Foyt denies racism, and says that, on top of the positive reviews it has received, her work aims "to turn racism on its head in order to portray its horrors and its inevitable road to violence. I believe that anyone who reads the novel will understand its strong stance against racism." However, she doesn't boost her case by saying that "if you ask if all these reviewers are white then consider that you have a racist point of view".

From the reviews of the book here, here and here, Foyt's novel looks like the literary equivalent of a collapsed and burnt soufflé. The standfirst for the first review alone says it all, with phrases such as "falls at every hurdle" and "awful prose with negligible plot". The 'heroine', said to combine "the most irritating characteristics of Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele with a predilection for dropping the full Latin names of bird and animal species once every paragraph", could probably be enough of a turn-off.

This reminds me of an author who, at this year's Edinburgh Literary Festival, suggested that political correctness may have weakened the stomachs of readers and maybe writers, making them sensitive - perhaps, more than before - to certain hot-button topics. Has the message in the book (which sounds like the first part of a series) been eclipsed by the portrayal of the characters and seemingly bad world-building?

Highlighting complex and sensitive issues such as race, religion and the origins of dishes - through writings, artworks and film - can be a dicey affair akin to making a soufflé. Most attempts generally fail. The timing of the book's release may not have been a good idea as well, as this commenter points out in his response to Foyt's defence.

Still, could some of the reactions have been more measured? I don't think this "fantasy action romance" intentionally propagates this world view, so why behave like it does? And how much did the outrage against Foyt's book help fight racism which, from incidents such as this and this, still persists?

I think the Guardian review was one of the better responses to this book. Racism is too easy to call out, so a critic should delve deeper to see if it accomplishes its purpose and, above all, if it is a good book - which said review suggests otherwise.

Maybe the final verdict should be withheld until the series is released in its entirety.

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