Standing Up

As you may well already know, there’s been a recent controversy in romance publishing about a particular book, For Such a Time, by Kate Breslin, published by Bethany House. The book was entered in the Romance Writers of America RITA contest and was a finalist in two categories, Inspirational Romance and Best First Book (the second an almost automatic effect of the first). Many people were outraged to learn that this book, featuring a romantic relationship between a concentration camp commander and a Jewish woman, was under consideration for the award. The book received positive coverage from RT and from Library Journal, and had overwhelmingly positive responses on GoodReads and Amazon, but that was when it was under the radar of anyone except readers of inspirational romance. Once it had broader exposure, others had a lot to say. Sara Wendell from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books wrote a letter to the RWA that really got the ball rolling, and soon there were a lot of other voices raised in criticism and condemnation.

I decided to read the book because I wanted to be able to say that I had; I wanted to be able to make criticism from an informed perspective. I was horrified by the premise, particularly by the idea that this situation could EVER result in a consensual romance — I have BIG ISSUES with power difference in romance. I even joined a group of other readers, some of them authors, who were reading the book at the same time and keeping a shared document of their reactions. I had requested the book from my local library, and that took a few days; I read what the others had to say, but couldn’t really contribute.

Then the book arrived, and I read the first few chapters. At this point, I wondered if I would have anything substantive to add to the discussion — others have expressed, eloquently, pretty much everything I felt about the first part of the book. I read a bit more, and it was just too much. I cannot bring myself to finish it, although I’m skimming to confirm various aspects.

However, conversation with others, especially Janine Ballard, convinced me that I should still write this post. I want to stand up and say “me too,” in solidarity with other voices. I want people to know that I, too, found this book offensive, and I think that its publication, the initial positive response, and the stubborn refusal of its author or publisher to see how offensive it is, are all signs worth noting and decrying.

First, I agree with others that the “Stockholm Syndrome” romance in this novel is not its worst aspect. Wendy points out that problematic power differences abound in romance, and Sunita notes that there are other instances of Nazi heroes in romance, so the book is hardly unique in that aspect. I still decry the severe power imbalance; Aric has literally the power of life and death over Hadassah/Stella, and i don’t think she has the freedom to make a real choice about how to respond to him. But the first few chapters, where she is wondering what will happen to her and why he is acting the way he is, and he is thinking about how beautiful she is, felt familiar from other romances. It takes a more skilled author than this one to bring such a pairing to a place where I believe that the heroine has both agency and other options, so that this is really a relationship she has freely chosen.
ETA: Keira Soleore has a great analysis of the romance, just posted today.

Far worse than this is the way that the Jewish faith and culture are misrepresented in this book. Errors of terminology, practice, thought and theology abound, although the author has supposedly researched extensively. I am not Jewish myself, and my undergraduate minor in religious studies is a few decades old, but it’s clear that the book presents a poor picture of what it means to be Jewish. For details, I suggest reading Laura Curtis’s excellent analysis. Janine also makes excellent points about this aspect, based on the part of the book she read, at Dear Author.

I also want to point out the response of some Christian readers who recognize the problems with this book. Emily put it really well in her letter to the publisher, and Kelly makes some excellent points in her review, too. From a theological studies perspective, I think the book, an “adaptation” of Esther, really perverts the source story. As Kelly says,

[A] “Christian worldview” of the Holocaust is NOT OUR STORY TO TELL, and it never will be.

The Holocaust is our EVER-LASTING SHAME of APATHY and SELFISHNESS and COWARDICE. Our story is the UTTER FAILURE to do what was right.

And you know what, Kate Breslin and Bethany House? That right there is THE OPPOSITE OF THE STORY OF ESTHER.

The worst, WORST thing from my perspective (as if all the above wasn’t bad enough) is how this book appropriates and then erases the horrible Holocaust experience. The author doesn’t just use a historical setting, she CHANGES HISTORY to give a “happy ending” to her novel that DID NOT HAPPEN in real life. Sunita’s response really sums up what I think needs to be said about this historical revisionism: “It’s one thing to alter facts to create a more real-feeling ‘truth.’ It’s another to write a lie to get your main characters to an HEA.”

I made myself skim the book, and I forced myself to read the “happy” ending. It made me ill. I’m going to borrow a quote from someone else for this, and you can read the rest on Joanne Renaud’s Tubmlr:

I just—don’t know where to begin to deconstruct with how fucking HORRIBLE this is. It’s bullshit on so many levels. It’s a shit sandwich, with a new layer of shit every time you look. It’s shit in infinite dimensions. It’s a shit tesseract!

This story completely co-opts the Shoah and turns it into a neutered, tacky soap opera where the Jews are stripped of their culture, religion and traditions and are turned into a mass of ambulatory MacGuffins that Aric and Hermann can fight over like they were in the last act of a Michael Bay movie. It rewrites history—it takes a very real genocide where millions of people were murdered viciously and brutally—and uses it for grist in a cheap melodrama where the real issue is just how a misunderstood Nazi gets to show everyone that he’s really a swell guy. It’s like someone turned the Killing Fields of Cambodia into a heartwarming, life-affirming musical comedy. It’s garbage.

So, yeah. This is an awful book. But it’s an awful book that a lot of people and publications liked, praised and recommended before anyone spoke up and said “it’s awful!” Until the day that Sara’s letter was published, this book had no reviews below three stars on Amazon, and most were four or five stars. And that’s why I felt the need to write this post, even though all I’m really doing is pointing to the comments of a lot of other smart people and saying “I agree.” Because the louder we are, the wider we reach, the better the chances that this won’t happen as easily again.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Janine Ballard
    Aug 14, 2015 @ 16:15:01

    Thanks for posting.

    Reply

  2. laurakcurtis
    Aug 14, 2015 @ 18:19:46

    I know some people think that all the controversy just sells books for Breslin, and certainly Anne Rice is doing her best to make that the case. But people persist in saying “you can’t say it’s offensive if you haven’t read it”, so it is important to have places to point to where people HAVE read it and STILL think it’s disgusting, inappropriate, offensive, etc. So, yes, thank you for standing up and being counted. It matters.

    Reply

    • sonomalass
      Aug 14, 2015 @ 19:59:38

      I said on Twitter that I feel like in this case, “piling on” is appropriate. Especially if we’re going to get ignorant pushback from people who don’t know what “bullying,” “censorship” or “lynching” actually mean.

      Reply

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