Should Reading Lists Come with a Content Warning?October 23, 2018

The Me Too movement would divide readers on the case of Junot Díaz, the acclaimed novelist who is accused of sexual harassment. He would deny it, but it cast a shadow on his identity as a progressive icon on masculinity and race. Anyone who suspected Díaz of doing such things may be jealous of his literary success, yet his case won't be the first. There have been similar cases, which would go decades back. It happens that university students read and study their works. University administrators must put a content warning, right? It would be a yes and no, but it doesn't suggest that readers must be fence sitters on this issue.

It won't be hard to imagine an oppressive Middle Age, where reading would be a right of people of faith and noble birth. Not a few (cynical) observers point out that this should keep the masses in blissful ignorance, and they have a point. A content warning may be disguised as a sign of disobedience (and severe punishment) if any written work should end in their hands. It must not be compared with the colonial era, a painful chapter in Australian history. (Our aboriginal forefathers have thought of creative ways to express their ideas and beliefs. It won't be confined to Uluru.) But let's be specific.

A content warning could be issued on bush ballads, which may be considered outdated material among the younger generations. It would be hard to generate interest on the likes on Banjo Paterson on social media unless a fan of the poet could think of a hip idea to depict him in a mural. (Imagine the Bard's, with the colours of the rainbow emanating from his head, on display in South London.) On the other hand, European literature wouldn't have a shortage of such writings. Think of Marquis de Sade. Let's not overlook Philip Pullman. (This is not the reason on why "The Secret Commonwealth" isn't out yet.) And the Harry Potter series may be too dark if J.K. Rowling was around during the turn of the 20th century.

The university put emphasis on the freedom of thought, encouraging students to think out of the box. Paper writing would be a waste of time if these aspiring authors couldn't do such things. A content warning could be useful for another thing, though. It should prompt students to look at certain titles differently. After all, a certain piece of work, deemed too controversial decades back, could be overlooked during present time. We may be too laidback to react to such writings. It's not a thing when coursework comes to the fore.

But back to Junot Díaz.

What an Ideal Reading List Must be Like?

The titles must be the most popular of a particular genre. And it doesn't matter if you don't fancy at all. You might be saying it as a mean of justifying your preference, and you may be the lone voice in the wilderness. This would suggest that there's no need for a content warning. It could be true especially if you're aware of which titles would be hundreds of pages long. If you're familiar with the varying writing style of the authors, then you won't have a problem in comparing (or contrasting) two or three writers (or samples by a particular author). This should make your first year relatively uneventful compared to your reading during your second (or third) year. It's not too different from students pursuing a dual degree.

Controversial titles must be analysed with an open mind. One of your coursemates happens to be a film student, who have seen "The Night Porter". This Nazisploitation film explores a disturbing relationship between a former Nazi SS Officer and a Holocaust survivor, whom he allegedly protects her (during the war). A woman would write the script and direct it, which might turn the Me Too movement into a juvenile matter. It must not be compared to Nikos Kazantzakis's attempt to depict the final hours of Christ's life, an intellectual's understanding of the events that would be recalled while praying the rosary. You don't have to sweat about it, as this could be an option. You may want to play it safe, citing the lack of time. (And there would be truth behind it.) If you want to impress your professor, if not keep your admirers (in the department) follow you, then you would pen an essay on such topic. It won't be difficult to come up with a paper consisting of several pages in a day or two, but don't wander too far. You could end up misleading your readers (or your professor in this case) or you come up with an entirely different paper.

Emotions could play a part, so it's up to you to label it or not. Novels like "The Dressmaker" would emphasise on what is life in the rural parts of Australia. It could be similar to "Muriel's Wedding", but the difference is as wide as the Outback separating Perth and the largest cities in the easternmost end of Oz. This is an exercise on literary criticism, so try to keep an objective mind while writing about such works.

One More World

If this post seems hard to understand (after reading it twice or thrice), then don't think twice of bringing it up with your coursemates during your next group study. You must not agree (or disagree) with everything that you hear during that discussion, though. You can also ask your flatmate, who might be pursuing a different degree course. You should be considerate, if not be ready for a compromise. (You might have different schedules.) And no idea is too good (or too silly) Make sure that there won't be a scattering of different (or contrasting) ideas when your professor makes it to the third (or fourth) page of your assignment.

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