Tuesday, November 29, 2016

DNF: Things I Should Have Known

Can I just write: "NOOOOO, not another 'autistic person as a burden' book?" and leave it at that?

Why do authors think that this narrative is still okay?  Why do publishers promote it as "heartwarming" and "invigorating" and, my personal favorite (in Bizarro World, obviously, where "favorite" means "loathed"), "inspirational."

NEWSFLASH: Neurodiverse people do not exist to make neurotypical people feel better about themselves.  Writing books that reinforce this stereotype is harmful and close-minded.  It is not Literary Fiction, which I'm sure everyone will be hailing this as.



As a confession, I did not read the entire book.  Maybe it gets better as it goes on.  It probably does not.  The plot of this is like a sad, outmoded romantic comedy, but without the romance or any comedy whatsover.  In the first few chapters, readers are hit with fat-shaming, the Evil Stepparent trope, the guilty sibling trope, the oversexed teens trope, and the "You complete me" trope.

Let me talk about that last one a bit.  As a single person, I think it would be nice if I found someone and fell in love with them and they with me.  However, I do not think that I need to find a person in order to become fully myself.  That's ... just a really strange idea.  Am I not enough as I am?  This is why that line in Jerry Maguire bothers me so much: it's manipulative and just plain untrue.

I may be trying to distract myself from the giant, flaming dumpster fire that is Things I Should Have Known by referencing a twenty-year-old Tom Cruise movie.  Yep.  Okay, time to face my anger head on.

Let's just pull some quotes, okay?  I know this is from an ARC, so these are subject to change, et cetera, et cetera, but honestly?  I've not read too many ARCs where a substantial change was made to a problematic quote (one I can think of is There Will Be Lies, by Nick Lake.  The main character's weight was upped from 100lbs to 115lbs, which takes her out of the Death Zone and into Still Pretty Darn Tiny).  Please remember that the narrator is a teen girl whose older sister, Ivy, is autistic.  Presumably, she has lived with this sister since she was born.

"I don't know much about autism, but I know about high school guys, and it looks to me like he's interested in her."  I beg your pardon?  The main character, Chloe, who has spent roughly seventeen years on this Earth with her sister, who is autistic, doesn't know much about autism?  Tee-hee!  It's so much more fun to talk about boys!  Boys!  Boys!  YOU, madam, are a terrible advocate for your sister.

" 'I will say I'm jealous of how you can eat whatever you want and stay thin, Chloe.  I never had your metabolism.' "  That's their mother.  And Chloe takes it as a compliment!  Hey, number one way to screw with a girl's head: make comments about her weight.

Chloe's main pastime is making out with her super-hot boyfriend, Jason.  Jason isn't exactly what I would call a prime catch, based on what he thinks of intelligence in girls:" 'If I have to choose, I'd say that brains are overrated.' "  Please go fall in a hole, preferably one with pointy sticks at the bottom.  Also, Chloe agrees with this sentiment (the bod over brains one, not the falling in the hole one).

" 'I'm going to make this my mission--to get Ivy a boyfriend before I leave for college.' "  Noooooooo.  Noooooo.  The author is using Ivy's autism to make her less than a person, and more of a Barbie doll to be dressed up and paired off with a guy.  Because obviously autistic people don't know how to date properly.  Obviously they would need their neurotypical siblings to play matchmaker/fairy godmother and explain the sex and the kissing and birth control and how humans love other humans.

Hey, here's an idea, Chloe: Let Ivy live her life.  She doesn't need you to fix her, and she is not your super special project.  She does not exist to make you feel better about yourself.  You don't get brownie points for "helping" an aneurotypical person to be "normal."  There is so much wrong with that.  You are telling them that they are not good enough as they are.  That you don't love them as they are.  That you don't think they could ever succeed by just being themselves.

I don't want any teen reading this to think, "Oh, I'm like Ivy.  I can't date anyone without help."  I don't want teens to feel othered and alone, but that's exactly what this book does.  And that's wrong.  Publishers, stop promoting this point of view.  Stop selling highly problematic narratives just because they make people feel good about themselves (oh, sorry, only the neurotypical people feel good about themselves.  Neurodiverse people feel pretty crappy.).

Autism is not a plot point.  Autism is not a curiosity.  Autism is not a project to be completed, or an error to be fixed.  It is reality, and YA literature really needs to step it up in having more Own Voices represent neurodiversity instead of this saccharine, Hollywood version that will end up giving you a horrific ache in the pit of your stomach.

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.


10 comments:

  1. Yikes, this sounds like a bit of a hot mess. From what you've written, it sounds as if DNF-ing this one was a good call. It's crazy to me how some authors and publishers still manage to write such harmful ideas. Thanks for the informative review!

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    1. Yeah. Coming on the heels of Kelly's review of a very problematic representation of a person with a disability in teen lit (http://stackedbooks.org/2016/11/skip-it-how-to-keep-rolling-after-a-fall-by-karole-cozzo.html), I was just so frustrated.

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  2. Does it say what type of autism it is? Just wondering, does the author even know? Perhaps you should read The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime if you want quality fiction on this subject. I have a nephew who is a high-functioning Asperger's kid. And incidentally, so was Isaac Newton. And Einstein. So is Bill Gates and, I'm guessing, so was Steve Jobs. My nephew - who is a brilliant musician and animator - can't read people's expressions or stop himself saying exactly what he's thinking. That kept him from making friends for a very long time. His mother tried hard to help him with that. But you know what? He spent his last two school years at a senior campus where everyone in his course had the same passions and abilities and he has friends now. Plenty. Without help.

    Sounds as if you've given yourself time to find a better book.

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    1. NOPE. I don't think the author realizes that autism is a spectrum. My little brother is ASD (pre DSM V, he would have been Asperger's). The author just picked the stereotypical traits of an "autistic person," like remembering numbers, and getting hung up on small changes, and being non-verbal, and made it almost into a pastiche of what it means to be autistic. GRR.

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  3. PS I know about ARCs. They do change. A reviewer was sent one of my book "Your Cat a Could Be A Spy". Because it was non fiction, the chapters could be juggled and there was a bad glitch in the chapter orders that the reviewer noticed; by that time it had already been fixed, without the reviewer's comment. But I doubt there will be too much change in anything but typoes here.

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    1. I can imagine that with non-fiction, it would be easier to change. The obvious errors in ARCs, well, I don't even comment on them 99% of the time, because they get caught and fixed before final publication. However, in this book, it's a fundamental issue with the entire plot and perception of autism. We are seeing publishers start to pull or delay publication of books with problematic content, but I think this one will go through and people will be all: "It was so INSPIRING!!!"

      Yuck.

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  4. As an autistic person who has been taken on as someone's "project," although in a less obvious way than it seems to happen in this book, I have some thoughts on this review. I haven't read the book yet, although I was excited to learn today that I had won a copy through a promotional giveaway. I entered every day for about a week, because reading the description made me so excited for this book. Reading a brief excerpt published online by Entertainment Weekly got me even more excited. I think I'm going to like Ivy. She reminds me a lot of myself at her age.

    You imply that Ms. LaZebnik didn't bother to properly research her subject, and I think that's off base. She is the mother of a son with autism, and has written two nonfiction books about autism (one of which is titled, emphasis mine, "Growing Up on the SPECTRUM") as well as included autistic characters in other novels. Now, I know that autism parents aren't always the best advocates for their children's genuine best interests, however much they sincerely want to be. (LaZebnik's other nonfiction book is called "Overcoming Autism," which makes me cringe a little; I don't think of autism as something I need or want to overcome as a whole, even though there are certain aspects I most certainly do.) But this isn't Ivy's story first and foremost, it's Chloe's. Yes, other things being equal, I would rather read a novel about a young autistic woman than one about a skinny popular girl with a boyfriend. But I don't think it's fair to accuse LaZebnik of appropriating something she doesn't understand based on the evidence you've presented here. She's a neurotypical person with an autistic family member ... writing about a neurotypical person with an autistic family member. No, that doesn't automatically mean she has the ability to create a three-dimensional, non-stereotypical autistic character. But I'd bet my collection of Disney Princess PEZ dispensers that she knows better than I do what it's like to be a neurotypical person with an autistic family member.

    Full disclosure: I haven't read any of LaZebnik's books yet. Maybe they're all awful. Maybe they're amazing. I don't know. The thing is, unless you've read something else of hers that touched on autism and failed to mention it here, neither do you. All those things you say in the paragraph that begins "Hey, here's an idea, Chloe" - what if that's literally the theme of the book? My immediate assumption when I learned what this book was about, and the reason I was so excited to win it, was that we, the readers, would get to watch Chloe learn to support Ivy, even to encourage and challenge her, in ways that had to do with Ivy's own personality and desires instead of Chloe's vision of how she ought to be. Believe me, I want to read about how Chloe taught Ivy to be normal, yay Chloe, about as much as you do. Probably less. But I want every neurotypical on the planet to read a story about a good person with the best of intentions who sets out to "fix" a person like me, only to discover she's actually doing harm. This review is useless to me. Based on what you've described, this could be either the stinkiest flaming turd since "Kristy and the Secret of Susan" (The Baby-Sitters Club #32) or the book I've been waiting all my life for, and you can't even tell me which, since you were so outraged on my behalf that you couldn't bring yourself to finish the book.

    (continued below)

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    1. (continued from above)

      Reading the excerpt from Entertainment Weekly - in which Ivy interrupts Chloe's make-out session with Jason and Chloe wonders for the first time if sex and/or romantic love is something Ivy secretly desires - gave me a lot of hope for this book. I too was the person that no one ever stopped to think might yearn to take part in the great game of wanting and being wanted. What sets off the story is Chloe's realization that she has been taking Ivy for granted. It's not "Ugh, my autistic sister is so embarrassing, maybe I can train her to act normal" or "I wish I had the kind of big sister who would be my best gal pal for life, so I'll just have to shape Ivy into that person" - it's "wow, here's this person I really do care about but I've been kind of annoyed with, but maybe she has a whole inner life I know nothing about." You don't go from that first glimmer of insight and honest empathy with someone "other" to a point of deep understanding without a few clumsy, even offensive, missteps. You just don't.

      It actually doesn't bother me that Chloe claims not to know much about autism. It's entirely possible to grow up with something all-pervasive in your world and never become an expert. My father has been, since before I can remember, a self-employed income tax preparer who worked in the home. My mother usually worked with him. As a kindergartener, I asked for a bedtime story in February and was told to wait for April 15. In high school, I helped with filing and record keeping. I grew up in a fog of W-2s and 1040s and itemized deductions and depreciation/amortization. And here I am 34.4 years old and I have no idea what amortization is, or how one would itemize a deduction. I was in my twenties before I learned what "withholding" meant. It's not a stretch for me to imagine that Chloe grew up learning practically how to deal with her big sister, without ever making a special study of autism. Heck, she may have been as tired of hearing about autism as I was of hearing about the IRS, and as resentful of competing with it for parental attention, at an age at which most children have barely heard of either one. Also, maybe the text of the book makes it clear that autism has been a part of this family's life since Ivy was a toddler, but based on Ivy's apparent level of "functioning" and the fact that she's female, I wouldn't be at all surprised if she hadn't been diagnosed until relatively recently. If Ivy was diagnosed when, say, Chloe was 12, and wanted more than anything just to fit in with other seventh graders, I would be surprised if she had decided to put more effort into understanding autism than into understanding boys.

      As for Jason? It's pretty clear from the publisher's summary that he is *not* Chloe's endgame love interest. He's not supposed to be our new book boyfriend, we're not supposed to think "Chloson" is #goals. You can't tell a story about a girl who learns what's really important in a relationship and stops selling herself short unless you start with a girl who has immature priorities and sells herself short.

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    2. (continued from above)

      I'd like to know what exactly you think the title, "Things I Should Have Known," means in the context of what you read, especially considering the cover art that strikes out all the words and letters except "Things I Know." If I knew nothing about this book AT ALL except the title and the fact that it was a novel, and asked to guess in general terms what the plot might be like, my FIRST GUESS would be "Character is ignorant in some way. Character makes a right mess of things. Character learns and changes as a result." The cover art suggests to me a twofold interpretation, most obviously that the things Chloe should have known (but didn't) in the beginning will become, by the last page, things she does know - but also, that Chloe is likely in denial about just how much she does know: what she would like to think of and present to the world as things she knows are actually things that she didn't truly understand (but should have). The cover of this book screams to me, almost too obviously, that here is a protagonist who is wrong about things, who needs to try a different approach. And yet you stopped reading the book because ... she's wrong about things, and you don't like her initial approach.

      If my impressions are correct, you did this book a grave injustice by using your respected platform to denigrate it without even giving it a chance to do what it set out to do. And if this really is exactly the book you were afraid it would turn out to be, you missed your chance to use your platform to tell the YA readership from a place of honest authority just how deceptive and dangerous it is. I review books on Amazon when circumstances allow, and I could write a review that answers the questions your review left me asking. But I'm a nobody. You're not. I wish you would give this book another try, and finish it this time. What's at stake here matters so very, very much to people like me, either way.

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    3. Hi,

      Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I really do appreciate it. No, I have not read any of the author's other books. I believe in taking each book on its own terms.

      You are correct about the cover art--it's twofold. Deep down, Chloe probably did know all these things about her sister, but never wanted to acknowledge them. I generally don't comment on cover art because 99% of the time, authors don't have control over that, so it may or may not be representative of the actual book.

      I misspoke when I said that the author was using Ivy's autism to make her less of a person--that's obviously Chloe as a character, and I apologize.

      I am also a person with a sibling on the spectrum. I would not characterize myself as neurotypical. I was also approaching this from a personal standpoint: even as a teen, making stupid decisions and assumptions as teens do, I would never think to interfere in my brother's love life or make him something he wasn't. I was just glad he was making it through school and remaining stable.

      I am flattered that you see this blog as a respected platform. I don't think it is, and I would very much like to read your review of this book once you receive and finish it. I did order it for my library. Your thoughts have much more weight than mine.

      However, I would like to point out that the treatment of Ivy as a person with autism was not really the main issue for me personally. I really disliked the language used, the slut shaming, the fat shaming, and the idea (however incorrect) that people can be "cured" through love, or that love/relationships are the only things that matter in life. That's something teens have heard for a long time, and I want them to hear the other side of the story.

      I am sorry that my review hurt you. If you do write a review of this book, I would very much like to read it.

      Thanks.

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