Should you write in the voice of an oppressor?

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In January, fans’ excitement over a promised prequel to the extremely popular YA Hunger Games series, written by Suzanne Collins, turned to dismay when it was revealed that the prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, would be told from the point of view of one of the central villains of the original series, President Snow. For anyone who is unfamiliar with the premise of the Hunger Games, President Snow ruled over a dystopian North America whose most vicious act was the staging of an annual ‘Hunger Games’, where twenty-four teenagers chosen by lottery from the twelve oppressed Districts were forced to fight to the death on live television. While many fans seemed unhappy that the prequel wasn’t focusing on a different character, framing Collins’ choice as a missed opportunity, or were simply uninterested in hearing from President Snow, some (adult) fans have been putting forward a different argument. In short, these writers suggest, it’s morally wrong to write a prequel from the point of view of a younger President Snow because it will ‘humanise’ him and ‘encourage readers to sympathise with an egotistical dictator.’[1] The prequel ‘can’t redeem’ Snow because he is not ‘a cog in the machine… he is the machine… It’s telling that Collins seems more invested in humanizing the architect of cruelty than exploring its aftermath.’ [2]

While I’m not hugely invested in a Hunger Games prequel of any kind, although I enjoyed the original books and (especially) the films, this debate is interesting to me because it’s based on no evidence at all – at the moment, all we have about this book is its blurb and a brief excerpt, neither of which indicate the direction in which the story is going to go. Obviously, this book might be awful, but nobody knows that yet. In the absence of a text, then, all we can argue about is whether it is ever OK to write from the point of view of an oppressor – and some of these angry reactions seem to me to indicate either a fundamental misunderstanding of what fiction can be for, or a firm belief that fiction can and should only ever have one function.

As I wrote recently, certain readers seem to think that the purpose – the only purpose – of fiction is to ‘give voice’ to people whose stories we need to hear. As a historian, I find this interesting because it parallels particular developments in the discipline of history, recalling a set of historical ‘turns’ that kicked off in the 1960s that promised to write ‘muted groups’, like working-class people, women, and people of colour, back into history. At the same time, though more recently, historians have become increasingly reflective about how who they choose to write about affects power dynamics in the contemporary world. Kathleen Blee’s incredible essay [paywalled] on conducting oral histories with female members of the Ku Klux Klan is a great example. Despite the fact that she sought to understand why these women were drawn into violent white supremacist far-right politics in order to condemn it, she reflects that ‘perhaps the nature of oral history research… itself empowers informants, by suggesting to them, and to their political descendants, the importance of the Klan in American history.’ As a white woman from Indiana, Blee found that her interviewees would simply assume that she shared their political views: ‘Even challenging their beliefs had no effect on their willingness to talk. They simply discounted my spoken objections as ‘public talk’ and carried on the ‘private talk’ they assumed was universal among whites.’

Blee’s concerns are genuine and important, but things become more complicated when we turn to fiction rather than oral history. Most obviously, President Snow isn’t real, and there aren’t a lot of disaffected President Snow diehards out there longing for someone to finally pay proper attention to his story, even if they write a critical account. This does not mean that Collins should write a novel that seeks to simplistically ‘redeem’ Snow, but as of right now, there’s no evidence that she aims to do that. Some of the articles on this subject seem to have a very limited sense of what it means to be a protagonist, assuming that, because Snow is the narrator, this must be a story that aims to elicit sympathy with Snow, and that the overall structure of the novel will be a redemption arc.

These takes also assume that because Snow holds ultimate power in the original trilogy that he must always have been a free agent, even though The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes place sixty-four years earlier. This argument is especially bizarre because the protagonist who is unwillingly or unknowingly complicit in evil is the central concern of the series, moving from the microcosm of book one, where Katniss is forced to enter the Hunger Games and kill other tributes in order to survive, to the macrocosm of book three, where Katniss realises she has been a crucial part of bringing a new regime to power that looks like it could be as bloodthirsty as the last.

What I find particularly concerning, though, is the persistent use of the word ‘humanise’ and the idea that humanising Snow would be wrong. If Collins wrote a novel that simply showed that Snow was ‘evil from birth’, and, like little Voldemort, he ‘never cried’, that, to me, would be just as much a betrayal of her readers as a novel that expected us to forgive Snow everything because of his tragic past. If we all believe that all oppressors are psychopaths, then we won’t be able to recognise how ordinary people oppress others. That, for me, is why it is not only permissible, but vital, to write in the voice of an oppressor; because the origins of oppression don’t lie with its victims, but with its perpetrators.

[1] ‘Opinion: We don’t need a President Snow origin story’, Jerrett Alexander, Indiana Daily Student.

[2] ‘Snow Thank You: “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” can’t redeem Coriolanus Snow’, S.E. Smith, Bitch Media.

29 thoughts on “Should you write in the voice of an oppressor?

  1. This is interesting as the work Atwood did in The Testaments to show how Aunt Lydia became who she became was extremely powerful and thought-provoking. People do like their worlds to stay the same, though, don’t they, and maybe this is a product of the current crisis, people wanting their comfort from things that they know and understand and are not constantly shifting beneath their feet.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, I know the portrayal of Aunt Lydia was pretty controversial, but it was actually one of the things I liked most about The Testaments. I think Atwood did a good job of not making her a misunderstood victim, but showing her complicity in the system as well as the ways in which she’d suffered.

      Both this post and the articles cited were actually written before Covid-19! My blog has been so full of Women’s Prize coverage I haven’t had space to post it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent article, thank you! I think it’s even more dangerous to assume that people who commit evil acts are not human. There is a danger in seeing the world as a good/evil dichotomy. I think for one, it allows people to justify terrible actions from people they love or admire when they are determined to see them as “Good”, rather than admit that normal people can do evil things.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the example you discuss in Blee’s work; her statements really illustrate that there’s a fine line between presentation and validation, that in many ways presenting work on a certain topic implies that is indeed worthy of being presented on.

    I think one thing that’ll be interesting to see with the release of this book is how the public reacts to it given the current cultural/social/political climate. The Hunger Games came out at a really specific time when there was an appetite for dystopian stories in both books and movies, and that appetite just isnt as prevalent anymore now, I think.

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  4. Bang on. There are plenty of examples of bad fiction that seem to valorize or excuse villainy; there’s also plenty of good fiction that explores the banality of evil, and acknowledges the rarity of someone just being born with both lots of power and the conscious desire to actively oppress. I’m not sure Collins’s track record with The Hunger Games convinces me that she thinks at a particularly profound level about this stuff, but I do think she does think about it (as you say, the complicity of ordinary people is something the books are interested in, even if the films do give Snow’s armies the stormtrooper treatment; look at Caesar Flickerman or Effie Trinket, neither of whom are terrible people and both of whom enable and profit from the commercialized murder of children!)

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    • Yeah, I’m using Collins more as a jumping-off point here; I think odds are pretty even as to whether this new book will work as well as the original trilogy does (I agree that the first three books are not deeply profound, but have a reasonable go at thinking about this issue) or whether it’ll be genuinely terrible. However, I do find it a bit weird that – in one of the articles I cited – people who care enough about the Hunger Games to write a whole article about its prequel are now slating Collins’ prose, saying she doesn’t have the ability to write well enough for this subject so she shouldn’t try it. I know adults being snobbish about YA is nothing new, but this is a variant I haven’t seen before!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post! This is such a great response to all the anti-Snow takes that have been going around. It always baffles me a bit that readers can dislike a book solely because of unrelatable or unlikable characters, when so much can be done with those view points!
    I’m on the fence about reading this one, since I did enjoy the Hunger Games books and movies back when they were new, but it’s been so long I’m just not sure I’m still interested. I’ll probably wait for some reviews to come in and only pick it up if Collins does manage to do something meaningful with Snow’s character.

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    • I had the opposite reaction to a lot of fans – I wasn’t that interested at first but I love the idea of seeing the Hunger Games from the pov of a mentor (whether or not that person is Snow) so I’ll definitely give it a try.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I had a similar conversation with the Orangutan Librarian a while back on cancel culture. In my opinion, this all boils down to how readers view books and the role of a reader: are books a product and the reader a customer, or are books a craft and the reader an independent thinker?

    If books are products, there’s the expectation that the book is “fixed” – it has to be straightforward and say everything it is by the end of the story, and if it didn’t, the reader writes a customer complaint. “This book is broken!”

    If books are works of craft, they aren’t held up to such a holy standard. Readers KNOW books are slippery, untrustworthy creatures, and that they only have themselves to make up their own opinion. A bad book to this type of reader is not return-this-to-the-maker- bad, it’s “this book doesn’t reflect my understanding of good writing, or how the world works, and how people really are, and here’s why”.

    I recently came upon this epigram: ‘“use books as bees use flowers.” Use books to make up your own mind.

    Zadie Smith said it better:
    “But the problem with readers, the idea we’re given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principle is, “I should sit here and I should be entertained.” And the more classical model, which has been completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know, who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That’s the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this really interesting comment. I both agree and disagree with the Zadie Smith quote. I definitely don’t think that the reader’s (or viewer’s) attitude should be one of passive absorption – and I think this is as true of good films and TV as it is of good books. However, I guess my hesitation is that it does seem to resist valid criticism from readers to some extent. The main problem with the Hunger Games controversy so far, for me, is that nobody has read the text and so nobody is really entitled to have an opinion on it. I have much more sympathy with readers who put forward ‘cancel culture’ critiques that are properly informed by a thoughtful reading of the text.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fair enough!

        It seems though that some of these readers equate writing a story from the villain’s perspective with crowning them as a Disney princess. That main characters have to be morally good because stories serve to model proper behavior.

        I am super happy about the movement for writing diverse, authentic, humanizing stories of marginalized peoples, but it is simply not true that all narrators are written as role models to readers.

        Yet that seems to be their frame of mind for assuming the choice of POV will ‘encourage readers to sympathise with an egotistical dictator.’

        Take ‘Lolita’. I was never able to finish it. I thought the writer was trying to write a love story. It disgusted me. I threw it in the recycling bin. Then I learned that the novel is written in such a careful way that the real story, Dolore’s, is underneath it: the claw marks he excuses as cat scratches etc. I don’t plan on ever finishing it, but it taught me that novels do not have to spoon-feed us the answers.

        Now, imagine that I waxed poetic about this only for the book to end up being trash! 🤣

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, 100% agree with this! I’m also worried that Collins’ prequel will now turn out to be terrible even though none of these arguments are based on it actually being good…

          Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m baffled that we’re still at this stage. This whole “protagonists can only be good people” and that books “need to be normative” is old. As if the whole fiction/nonfiction market is only compromised of children and people seeking self-help books. I mean if that’s your thing then cool. but it’s less cool when you insist it should be everyone’s thing.

    Fiction is a much bigger platform from which to explore interesting ideas, instead of just rehashing “good people good, bad people bad” and other tedious morality plays.

    Armchair sociologist time, but this perfectly reflects how there’s been an “Us versus Them” scenario since the start of time (and only getting worse).

    Evil isn’t just a thing psychopaths do, as you yourself write, but it’s mundane. And yet people still believe the opposite, that evil is rare and extravagant instead of the transparent and ordinary thing it actually is.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. There are any number of adult books told from the PoV of an evil character, and they definitely have their place. Seems that the thought police are out on this one because of its YA audience, which isn’t a reason for not writing it. I’ve not read the Hunger Games books, but enjoyed the movies.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Friday's Further Reading | 4 - The Owlery Reader

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