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.