I’m in the middle of reading Harriet McBryde Johnson’s essay collection Too Late To Die Young. I’m enjoying it; Johnson’s an excellent writer, and one of the essays included in this book, “Unspeakable Conversations,” would certainly make my “desert island” list if I had to pick ten essays rather than ten books. (By the way, Johnson’s novel, Accidents of Nature, is due to be released tomorrow).
But man, does the most prominent quote on the back cover suck. Here it is as it appears on the back cover (you can read the full review on the book’s Amazon page):
There is a small but discrete literature by writers who have experienced personal or family tragedy: William Styron on his depression, Reynolds Price on his paraplegia, Kenzaburo Oe on his brain-damaged son… To read these stories can deepen everyone’s humanity. Too Late to Die Young can proudly take its place among these other important books.
Let me just say: Oh, vomit.
If there’s any single point Johnson’s book makes, it’s that her disability is not a “tragedy.” And to say the stories of her life “deepen everyone’s humanity” is condescending in a way that reminds me of the Jerry Lewis Telethon (and Johnson makes it clear that she loathes the Telethon). Contrast the back-cover quote with this one, from Johnson’s introduction:
Because the world sets people with conspicuous disabilities apart as different, we become objects of fascination, curiosity, and analysis. We are read as avatars of misfortune and misery, stock figures in melodramas about courage and determination. The world wants our lives to fit into a few rigid narrative templates: how I conquered disability (and others can conquer their Bad Things!), how I adjusted to disability (and a positive attitude can move mountains!), how disability made me wise (you can only marvel and hope it never happens to you!), how disability brought me to Jesus (but redemption is waiting for you if only you pray).
For me, living a real life has meant resisting those formulaic narratives. Instead of letting the world turn me into a disability narrative, I have insisted on being a subject in the grammatical sense: not the passive “me” who is acted upon, but the active “I” who does things.
It’s not really in keeping with the spirit of Johnson’s book to have a back cover quote selling it as a Hallmark Inspirational Narrative ™, is it?
I realize that authors don’t get to control what the publisher puts on the back cover. But I wonder what Johnson herself thought of it. Did it piss her off? I suspect it did. Or did she think “well, maybe the people drawn in by that quote are exactly the people who need to read my book”?
By the way, this post is part of blogging against disabilism day. Follow the link if you’d like a list of other participating blogs to browse around.