Carve The Mark: A Further Reflection

I am an Indigo Employee, and an aspiring bookstagrammer: @readwithmeemz — I have never done a book review, or anything like this before, so I don’t really know what I am supposed to say, but probably something like, my views are not at all reflective of the views of my employers.

As many of you may know, today is the release date for the highly anticipated book, Carve the Mark, by popular YA author Veronica Roth (The Divergent Series). I’ll admit that, although I LOVED Divergent the first time I read it, I found my interest in the series decreasing with each consecutive book, and was ultimately so dissatisfied with the conclusion to the trilogy that Veronica Roth’s future work wasn’t even on my radar.

When I first heard she was releasing a new book — it was at an event held by the publisher (HarperCollins Canada), where they invited booksellers to preview the big new titles coming out in Fall, Winter, and (in the case of Carve the Mark, early the next year). I figured I would eventually read it, but I didn’t really think much more about it. That is, until I got an email from the publishers at HCC Canada, asking if I was interested in reviewing an advanced reading copy of the book — of course I said yes, because I thought it was a cool opportunity to get the chance to read a (sure to be) bestselling book before it was even released.

When I first read the book (months ago)— I absolutely loved it. I thought it was a fresh storyline, and a great mix of sci-fi and fantasy. I’m a huge sucker for magic/superpowers, so that part of the story was exciting. Ultimately, I was very excited about the book, giving it 5-star rating on Goodreads, and recommending it to customers, coworkers, and friends.

However, over the last few months, I have become more and more aware of controversy surrounding this book, especially as I have started bookstagramming, and following a lot of vocal book bloggers who are also passionate about diversity in literature. Carve the Mark has (often) been called out for being racist, but most recently it was called out for being ableist as well. When I first heard about the latter, last night, it really caused me to reflect deeper about this book. I was originally going to just change my rating on Goodreads, and stop recommending the book — but the more I thought about it, the more inauthentic I thought that would be.

As somebody who is passionate about social issues, and diverse representation, and as an aspiring book blogger, who is hoping to constantly champion diversity and intersectionality — even though I don’t have a huge platform, or a huge follower-base, I do have a platform — as a bookseller, as a (very amateur) bookstagrammer, and as a person — I have a platform, and I have people who listen to me, and I have a duty to speak up about this book — and any other book — that could be toxic, or harmful, or problematic.

I won’t share my original review — which I sent only to the publishers, and to head office of the book company I work for (because it was FULL of spoilers)- but I will tell you that I raved about how much I liked the book, how fresh and interesting I thought the story line was, and how much I felt like I could relate to the main character Cyra, because I thought she was such a great metaphor for chronic pain. I talked a bit about how I thought the world building was lacking, and about how I thought some of the characters and some of the relationships still needed development, but ultimately there was a lot of gushing, and not a lot of critical reflection[If you want to read my full review, message me, and I’ll send it to you].

Even though I loved the book, I felt like certain aspects of the two warring races in the book were a bit cringeworthy — One race, the Thuves, had super colonial vibes — constantly trying to enforce their culture and beliefs on others, and when others didn’t follow them, they were considered savages. The other race, the Shotets, were aggressors, and savages — with a lot of their culture seeming to be reflective of certain North African tribes and their cultures. When a colleague asked me what I thought about the controversy surrounding the book (http://justinaireland.com/dammit-this-is-a-blog/2016/12/4/the-continent-carve-the-mark-and-the-trope-of-the-dark-skinned-aggressor) that was the first time I had heard of it, and although it was eye-opening to hear that kind of analysis of the book, and the (potential) harm it could cause, I essentially said that I hadn’t really seen those problematic elements, but clearly they existed, and were valid — and maybe I wasn’t the best person to talk about them, because I hadn’t been as affected by this book as so many of the vocal critics who had spoken out against it.

I now realize that that was also wrong of me. Although I do still think that it is probably better to defer to someone who noticed these microaggressions, and harmful tropes by themselves, I also feel like I should have used that opportunity where I was given a platform to speak, in order to share the views of the people who seemed most affected (Even though I was outside that group, it is my responsibility to listen and validate them).

Ultimately, I think I was a bit dismissive about these things — I remember speaking to a colleague about how I had essentially accepted that books I read would sometimes be uncomfortable and/or hurtful and/or racist — especially in an industry such as publishing/literature, where marginalized voices are so rarely given the opportunities to showcase their diverse stories, and non-marginalized voices dominate the spaces, the attention, and the bookshelves.

Looking back, that was a really stupid/defeatist way of thought. Although it might be the case that bookshelves are dominated by problematic authors (read this thread), and books (just google: ‘The Continent’ by Kiera Drake — or check out this link I shared earlier), that doesn’t mean that that’s the way things should be, or that that’s the way they will continue to be.

I am very used to feeling let down by popular culture — by its lack of diverse representation, and by its (often) harmful portrayals of marginalized populations. And now that I have a platform to speak on — small as it is — it is MY DUTY to use my platform to speak out.

Although I enjoyed the storyline the first time I read the book, I think that too many (VALID) issues have been brought up since, that should not be ignored. Many people have found the dynamic of the Thuves vs. the Shotets to be super harmful — characterizing a whole race as savage and violent is a very harmful trope, especially when there is no critical reflection, no nuance, and no real explanation — is super super harmful, and problematic (regardless of the race of these aggressors.)

Author Justina Ireland said it so well here:

These coincidences in world building aren’t happenstance. Rather, it’s because [both] authors, whether consciously or not, are pulling from the story tradition of the white hero versus the dark enemy. We see this construct in many facets of fiction, such as Westerns where Cowboys versus Indians or thrillers where the American hero (usually white) faces down a dark skinned third world villain. It’s a popular construct, and one that relies on othering people of color to make it work.

But what is difficult is realizing that these same constructs of white versus not white (where not white can be people of color or even a created non human species such as the Uruk-Hai) exist in the real world and have a real impact on how readers perceive a story. The same cultural programming that lets us immediately recognize that the Topi and Shotet are “bad” with relatively few details are the same ones that lead to real world racial profiling and structural inequality in treatment of minorities”.

Another issue I would be remiss if I did not address is the ableism depicted in this book. This is something that I only really, critically thought about last night. Although (as far as I remember) I thought Cyra was written really well, as a strong, badass female protagonist, who was also a great metaphor for chronic pain- when I heard the author discuss Cyra’s ‘powers’, it was honestly like a punch in the gut.

Roth was recently interviewed by NPR (http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=509650409&ft=nprml&f=509650409). During this interview, the interviewer was discussing Cyra’s powers (the ability to inflict pain on others, which comes at the cost of Cyra constantly being in pain), and they related them to chronic pain — and the interviewer framed chronic pain as being ‘a gift’:

ummmmmm?!?!?!?!?!?!?!??!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

Yes Simon, you ARE getting carried away with the metaphor, because chronic pain is very definitely #NotAGift.

And although it was Simon who called it a gift, Roth did nothing to correct that, even describing chronic pain (earlier in the interview) as something Cyra had to feel “WORTHY OF”.

I have lived with chronic pain — in the form of Lupus- for years. And to hear somebody who really DOES NOT SEEM TO GET IT romanticize chronic pain and illness in such a way was honestly so frustrating and upsetting. It’s nothing I would wish on my worst enemy, and it’s definitely not something I think anyone is ‘WORTHY OF’.

I get that Roth thought she was trying to do some good by bringing awareness to readers about what chronic pain can look like, it’s frustrating to hear how she described Cyra and her ‘gift’ in the book, because (as Emma Kath said in her blog):

“…this is the problem with any kind of illness-narrative. The need to be inspirational is more important than the need to be accurate and authentic.

Sure, people who suffer from chronic pain are brave. But they’re also angry. And they’re sad, and frustrated, and a lot of it is just as ugly as their bravery is beautiful.”

Upon further critical reflection, I’ve decided to change my review of the book, and drop it down from 5 stars to 3 (really 2.5). Although I enjoyed the book so much at first, I did not think critically about it, even going as far as to ignore problematic tropes and issues. As fun and fresh as I found the plot, I think it’s about time I [and we, collectively] stop ignoring harmful and hurtful tropes, when we enjoyed other aspects of the book. [You] can’t separate a book’s plot from it’s writing, any more than you can separate plot points from harmful stereotypes and ideologies. [We] need to stop ignoring problematic authors, and problematic ideologies and stories, and start calling out authors, and publishers and book reviewers — we need to challenge ourselves — and others to think critically about books, and to listen to other people’s voices — especially when we, ourselves, are outside of the group being affected.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to really think critically about my review of a popular book, and it won’t be the last. I really regret not re-evaluating my review, and my attitudes towards this book earlier, and I hope that this ~review~ will at least convince you to think a bit more critically about this book, and books you read in the future.

I am really frustrated with myself that I did not call myself out on supporting this book even though there were many problematic elements showcased in its pages. I did update my review, and I hope to change the way I look at and review books in the future. I apologize to anybody who felt hurt or otherwise negatively affected by this book, and I am sorry for what I might have done to propagate these negative ideals.

Storyteller, Bookworm, curator of themed playlists, & tailored book recommendations. I write about books, unruly bodies, & my own lived experiences.