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Tolerance And Stories? A Discussion Of Carve The Mark

what are Christians to write? What are Christians to read? If general fiction is to be whitewashed of anything that could possibly be considered offensive, what kind of stories will that leave us?

How does the emphasis on tolerance affect our stories?

As I see it, the push for tolerance has spawned an overly sensitive culture that now finds offense in . . . pretty much everything. And it’s affecting the publishing industry. I recently learned that publishers have begun to hire “sensitivity readers” to check out potential manuscripts to see if there’s any “offensive” content.

Of course, that begs the question: offensive to whom?

What one person assumes or ignores or believes in, another person finds offensive.

The latest Veronica Roth novel, Carve The Mark, is an example of a book receiving negative reviews because of its perceived offense. One such review is entitled “Why You Shouldn’t Read CARVE THE MARK.” In short,

Carve the Mark has been called out for being racist and problematic by various readers who are much more informed than I am and feel directly affected, offended or hurt by what is written in Carve the Mark. While I’m white and I’m obviously not in the position to declare what’s racist and what isn’t, I’m a strong believer in calling out problematic representation and racism and I believe that we should all be reading more diverse books.

As it happens, none of the made up races were directly identified with any actual races, but early readers deduced that the group of people with evil intent was similar to people in North Africa. In contrast, the heroic group is “coded” as white.

One early reader listed these coded racist elements in Carve The Mark:

· The Shotet language is described as harsh, with sudden stops and closed vowels, unlike the beautiful, open vowel sounds of the Thuve

· The Shotet carve marks into their arms when they kill someone, meaning that both men and women have many scars, and this practice is seen as barbaric by the loving and peaceful Thuve

· The female main character, Cyra, describes her mother’s kinky hair as curly enough to trap fingers, while her curls are looser and allow fingers to flow through. The Thuve have straight hair.

· The Shotet have no home planet, rather they travel around the universe in pursuit of the current, a unifying life force that allows people to have gifts (all of which seem to manifest in violent ways in the Shotet, and it is even stated by a doctor that the reason Cyra’s gift causes her pain is because of her people’s tendency to violence)

· The Shotet ruling family is one that embraces violence, so much so that the matriarch is famous for having killed her brothers and sisters, contrasted against the scene of Thuve familial love that opens the story. This is further reinforced by the cruel treatment Cyra receives from her brother

· The Shotet kidnap Akos and his brother, who are Thuve, and force them into a life of what can most easily be described as brutal slavery.

If racism isn’t a great enough charge, Carve The Mark has also been criticized because one of the characters has received “the gift of chronic pain.” That apparently is an example of an already rich and famous author exploiting those with a disability.

Then there’s the issue of cutting which some thought was being thrown into a dangerous light because the race of violent people “marked” themselves as “a means to record a number of kills” (Review). While criticizing this use of cutting as antithetical to the African society which the fictitious people supposedly mirror, the same review then criticizes the cutting aspect as selling “something many will construe as self-harm as glorious and noble.” (Ibid).

In other words, the same reviewer found fault in the fictitious practice because it put a certain African culture that also used cutting in a bad light while simultaneously selling cutting as something glorious and noble.

Understand, I have not read Carve The Mark, so I might find the book problematic too. But I have to wonder if perhaps our society hasn’t become too caught up in what we find offensive. The odd thing is the “we” comes with limitations. What we’re offended about has to fall into the acceptable categories. For example, I’m mildly offended for my Hispanic neighbors because Hispanics are woefully underrepresented in the media. Nobody else seems to even notice.

But more underrepresented are evangelical Christians. There have been and are some TV programs that feature openly Catholic characters (e.g., Father Dowling Mysteries from some time ago and Blue Bloods more recently.) But characters that hold an evangelical perspective, who pray, read their Bible, go to church, believe in Christ as their Savior . . . these characters have been set aside. Once a surprising number of shows had at least the external trappings of the life of a Christian, but no more.

All that to say, Christianity may have become too controversial for the media in general and publishing in particular. Would sensitivity readers ever allow a Christian worldview to permeate a story without flagging it as offensive?

Which brings up the issue: what are Christians to write? What are Christians to read? If general fiction is to be whitewashed of anything that could possibly be considered offensive, what kind of stories will that leave us?

Who will be the victims and who the heroes of our stories going forward. Will white men be cast in the role of villain from now on? (See Avatar.) Or will we be so worried about offending someone that we simply do away with conflict all together and write only about coming of age and learning to look within ourselves to become better people?

Or are science fiction and fantasy able to transcend the problem and continue to tell good stories—as long as we do our homework and make our worlds so other that no one can assume we are coding people groups to fit races on earth. (Or that we aren’t encouraging cutting, or denigrating people groups who once cut, or exploiting people with disabilities or . . .)

Your thoughts?

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

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Kessie Carroll

This boggles my mind, because what’s described in the thick of all the gnat-straining is a pretty interesting story. African tribes would horrifically scar themselves and put bones in their noses and stuff so they’d be too ugly for the slavers to take. Eventually it became a tribal fashion statement. But that kind of thing is historical and true. People carving marks on themselves for how many people they’ve killed? Not much different. Did any of these virtuous culture-judges ever stop to notice that this is FICTION?

Oh heavens. I don’t think this sort of thing is even worth discussing, except to laugh at. SJWS (or facists, as they used to be called) hate to be laughed at. It’s the worst thing we can do to them, aside from ignoring them.

Autumn Grayson
Autumn Grayson

I don’t know anything about this book, so I can’t comment on it in particular, but it does bring up some topics on how to write villains and how not to offend people. Racism is wrong, and it would be bad if an author truly singled out a race and wrote it as if they were trying to say that race was evil in real life. But sometimes I wonder if people who complain when a white character is depicted as good and a minority character is depicted as a villain have a double standard. I rarely, if ever, see anyone complain if a story acts like all the minority characters are good and all the white ones are bad. If we truly wanted to end racism, then wouldn’t we realize that both whites and non white have equal potential to do wrong?

One way I tackle this is to show variety in each culture. Even if the main villains in a story are from a certain group, I try to show other individuals from that culture who are good. I also have groups and cultures go through cycles when I can. I may, for instance, have a culture start off as relatively good, turn bad because of a catastrophic event or manipulation by a villain, and then eventually find redemption and turn good again. Somewhat like what Germany went through before, during, and after the Nazis.

Jessi L. Roberts

I saw this with another book, Inhuman by Kat Falls. Some people took issue with on quote in the first few chapters and gave the book bad reviews, then liked each other’s bad reviews on goodreads, thereby stacking the deck. Since the author isn’t nearly as popular, it didn’t make waves in the publishing community, but I’m guessing it hurt her sales.
Here’s a story about an author who got in trouble for having something perceived as anti-abortion. http://www.nickcolebooks.com/2016/02/09/banned-by-the-publisher/
I find it interesting that these people preach tolerance, but they are intolerant of everyone who disagrees with them, which makes them much worse than the people they attack.
It seems to me that authors should be given the benefit of the doubt, especially in cases where they obviously weren’t trying to do something controversial.


Sometimes these controversies remind me of the section in “The Great Divorce,” where McDonald explains the difference between the pity that drives people to help others, and the pity that people use to manipulate others into doing what they want. All too often, the constantly offended groups seem to fall into the second category, especially when they actually start to control what’s published. And I don’t think any writer has an obligation to cater to the perpetually offended. People who go out looking out looking for something to be offended by, will find it.

JJ Johnson
JJ Johnson

I don’t talk about it that often- But I once submitted a short story to a pretty prominent short story publisher. I got rejected but what boggles my mind was the reasoning for the rejection… They were looking for diverse stories- I have no problem with diversity in stories by any means- But as I read the rejection email they went on to explain that they wanted stories where LGBTQ and other characters were excelled and placed in Main Character rolls- Agaian I don’t have a problem with these characters- (someone wants to write a gay character write a gay character- Icould care less) but my issue was I was being rejected based not off the story being good, being well written, etc- I was rejected simply because I was not a diverse / sensitive enough writer. I laughed it off and just moved on- I get publishers have their “own” platforms and if something doesn’t work for their audience they have the right to reject it- still, made me think, if One (a debuts author that is) was to crossover from the CBA to the general market (in the Sci Fi / fantasy community) would they be accepted or utterly ridiculed…?

HG Ferguson
HG Ferguson

Great post, superb comments. I agree with all of you. I may be proved 100% wrong, but I do not think this trend will last, not if they want to sell books and make a profit. Some of this is the intolerant Left digging their claws in where they still can, in reaction to and resistance against what happened this past November. The Left was thoroughly rejected by the majority of voting Americans, regardless of how one feels about who won. As a result, the Left is doing every single thing it can to hit back where they still hold sway — in the media, on campus, and in publishing, which is of course a form of media. What’s a Bible-believing Christian to do? Be faithful. Endure hardship. Trust Jesus. And press on. YHWH rules, not the media, or the Left — or the Right either. Let’s have and keep some perspective here, brethren. Pray for open doors. We may all be surprised at what God may yet do through us!

Leeann Betts

These are all great comments, and I agree with you, HG — trust Jesus. And press on. I recently watched a webinar about Contemporary Romance — not Spec, obviously, but another popular genre. And CLEAN Contemporary Romance is growing exponentially as a popular sales category on Amazon. I think the general population is tired of the slippery slope we’ve been on for the past 8 years or so, maybe more, and they want something different. Writers of faith, persevere. God rules, He reigns, He sets our feet on high places.