Leni Riefenstahl, Eminem and Kate Breslin

Today I was made aware of a controversy raging in the world of romance. The gist of the storm centers on a debut novel by Kate Breslin titled For Such a Time. Released in 2014, the story focuses on a rather unusual couple, a Jewish woman placed in a concentration camp and the commandant of said camp. Not every reader’s cup of tea. The outrage spun into a tornado when the book was nominated for the RITA, a prestigious award given by the Romance Writers of America.

Most reviews agree that it is well written. And many of them believe it to be the story of a captive who develops Stockholm syndrome and falls for her abusive captor, who is the hero of the story. They feel the development of the story is problematic and it should have never been published as it is offensive and racist.

I read many of the comments and reviews about the story and its controversy. Doing so reminded me of something I have found to be true about both art and artists: artists come with an agenda. All of them. Let me explain it with a couple of examples.

In a film class I took in college we discussed the work of Leni Riefenstahl. She pioneered certain film techniques and had a blossoming career. Then she became Hitler’s propaganda machine. Over the years of WWII she made films promoting the Nazi party, a choice for which she paid dearly after the war. The fact remains that she was a creative and talented filmmaker. She was good at what she did.

I was introduced to the music of Eminem by a co-worker. I found his music brutal, honest and engaging. Many people found his music misogynistic and racist. But he was and is a talented, creative musician. He was good at what he did.

From the reviews I read, Ms. Breslin is a talented writer, capable of excellent visual imagery. Her writing talent does not appear to be in question. One of the strongest complaints against the novel is the fact that at the end of the book, the heroine converts from Judaism to Christianity and this is what “saves” her. Kate Breslin is a writer of Christian fiction. That’s her agenda. From what I’ve read it sounds as if she wanted to show that no one is beyond God’s love and the teachings of Jesus can bring hope and salvation to anyone, even a Nazi.

Honestly, I doubt she looked beyond that agenda when writing this story. One of the other complaints about the story is they felt she worked so hard to make this “romance” work that it actually didn’t. In spite of her struggle to be as historically accurate as possible, she bent her own rules by forcing her hero to be a Nazi. She ignored the fact that no one who achieved a high enough status as to be in charge of one of the death camps would be anything less than a completely committed follower of Hitler. Her story needed him to have some qualms, so she gave him some. Doing so fit her agenda.

With her focus on accomplishing her goal with her story, the idea that many would find her work offensive likely never occurred to her. As I said, I believe every writer, every artist has an agenda. There’s a reason every woman in Nora Roberts’ books ends up empowered, and usually in business for themselves. Female empowerment is her agenda and the romance is part of that. When I pick up a book by Sherilyn Kenyon I know going in that the hero, and probably the heroine will have suffered a painful and abusive childhood. Her agenda is to demonstrate that can be overcome through love.

And that is the big question to me. How important is our own agenda when we write? Do we recognize what our agenda is? And do we recognize it in the work of others? There were a number of people who commented that this novel should never have been published, that it was so insensitive and so offensive it should have been rejected. But we need to remember that the publisher and the author share a common agenda: to spread the word of Christ. Simply because we may not share that agenda doesn’t mean they aren’t entitled to have it.

Rather than censoring the work, it might be better if we understood and evaluated that work in terms of the agenda behind it. There are always going to be things out there which grate on the edges of our nerves, or stir intense and disturbing feelings in us. Even better, they make us stand up and say this is wrong, this is bad, this is hurtful. The more we practice standing up for what we believe, the more chance we stand of changing other people’s agendas.

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8 thoughts on “Leni Riefenstahl, Eminem and Kate Breslin”

  1. Excellent post, thanks for raising the topic of agendas. I know my writing agenda, what I refer to as my core truths. Employing and exploring my core truths is helping make me a better writer and a stronger person. I hope I help my readers find their truths in the process. Isn’t growth the best part of the creative process?

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  2. Excellent, thought-provoking post. I agree that every author has an agenda (or world view, as I usually think of it). I realized long ago that the most popular authors are popular because their world view/agenda jibes with that of large numbers of readers. Most romance authors connect with their readers because we write stories where “love conquers all”. People who think that world view is unrealistic and naive tend to denigrate romance.

    I know that some of my early romances are too gritty and realistic for some readers and I’ve gotten some serious flak on some of them. But that is my world view and I can’t change it, or fake it. I think what’s helping me in romance is that as I grow older (and more and more weary of the violence and suffering in the world), my world view has softened and become more “warm and fuzzy” and less gritty.

    And agree that it’s wrong to tell a writer they can’t write a story about a certain agenda or world view. That is how they see the world and they can’t really change it. And we are fortunate as artists to have the freedom to write stories with all sorts of agendas; for many, many years artists were suppressed and censored.

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  3. Interesting post. I write stories that bring up racism and sexism in the context of historical novels. It was there and it works as a conflict many times. That story wouldn’t be one I would read, but some would like it. Makes you think.

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  4. Regarding Eminem: I spent quite a lot of time listening to his music a few years ago, and I always had the impression that what he was mainly doing was a form of self-expression or self-analysis, where he dealt with his fears, tried to understand himself, whatnot, through his music. His songs about women and his wife e.g. are not so much misogynist in my eyes, as they are an exploration of his own problems in the area.

    As for racist: Dre (black) was instrumental to his career and a long term collaborator, and Eminem also had a number of personal friends and collaborators who where black, which makes the claim very odd to me.

    The more common claim about homophobia is easier to understand.

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    1. I agree and what I always liked about his music was his honesty. I suppose homophobic would have been the better choice rather than racist, because that was what he got nailed for a lot. I feel he was trying to express what was inside him, his agenda if you will, and those were the words that came out. He made his music his way and if people got offended by it, oh, well. We all as artists have to live with how our agendas are perceived and the influence they have on the work we produce.

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  5. This book blames Jews for the Shoah-since they do not accept Christ they were abandoned by G*d and got what they deserved The bigoted author and publisher stated after they were caught being bigots that Jews were to blame for being upset and that it was okay to steal and abuse the story of Esther because to them Esther is about Jews redemption-Jews were not nor did they need to be redeemed in Esther. The author’s agenda is one of complete hatred for Jews

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    1. In my opinion, you’re right. After reading many, many comments from readers, however, I had to admit that was only my opinion. I think both the author and the publisher are so caught up in their “Jesus is the only way”agenda they never considered they were appropriating a story that was not theirs and changing it in a racist manner (part of the problem in having the Old Testament and the New together to me). The more I thought about it, and the more comments I read from those who had read the book, the more I began to realize the author would totally disagree with you and I and say she had love for everyone. I am not a christian, but I have christian friends who were fairly normal people until this rabid form of that religion took hold and now demands everything turn on whether or not a person is “saved”. This is an agenda I feel the rest of us need to be very aware of when we read. It simply won’t happen that this type of book will never get published, and it shouldn’t happen. It’s too easy of a step from saying this book shouldn’t have been published to saying a LGBT book shouldn’t be published or erotica shouldn’t be published. From what I’ve heard, this woman writes well, much as Leni Riefenstahl was a talented filmmaker. It is a neon sign about their agenda that both of them took their talents and used them to bludgeon others with.

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