Slate Plus members get more Care and Feeding from Jamilah Lemieux and the other columnists every week.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a 17-year-old daughter, “Melissa.” In Melissa’s AP English class, they got an assignment to write a report on a non-traditional prose work, specifically to analyze how it deviates from genre norms and what, if anything, was achieved by this. Melissa wrote hers without any input from me, which is normal for her classwork, which is always of high quality.
Earlier today, I got a call from her teacher.
The book Melissa chose to analyze by this rubric was titled Ass Goblins of Auschwitz. The teacher said this selection technically didn’t violate any standards, and the essay was competently written, so academic punishment is not really in order. Still, he felt that it was disturbing enough to call the parents, and I got the distinct impression he was hoping he could dump the problem in someone else’s lap. I don’t have that luxury, but I have absolutely no idea what to say or even where to begin. I’d never even heard of this book before her teacher mentioned it to me.
— Where Do I Start?
The book your daughter chose was a work of bizarro fiction, a genre that, according to Goodreads, “often utilizes elements of absurdism, satire, and the grotesque, along with pop-surrealism and genre fiction staples, in order to create subversive works that are as weird and entertaining as possible.” Per a review of this specific book by the Haunted E-Zine, “The ass goblins themselves have nothing to do with Nazi Germany. Swastikas are mentioned abundantly, and Adolf Hitler is the name of the most hideous and powerful of ass goblins, but Auschwitz is merely the city they live in, and it really has nothing at all to do with World War II, the holocaust, real Nazism, Germany, etc.” The reviewer suggests the use of Nazi imagery is tacked on in the worst way, and was “probably a very self-aware decision by the author to provide additional marketability to his concept and add a sort of shock-rock factor.”
In other words, your daughter didn’t pick a book celebrating Nazis, but one that incorporated them to be subversive and edgy. That might not provide a ton of comfort, but at least it doesn’t look like she’s going down the right-wing, modern-day neo-Nazi rabbit hole, which would be much more horrifying. With all due respect to bizarro fiction fans, it sounds like she picked something that takes one of the most horrifying events in recorded human history and uses it for fiction fodder just because.
You definitely need to check in and see exactly what she was thinking with this selection. Was she attempting to be cheeky or controversial herself, or did she simply see the book as something that fit the teacher’s requirements for non-traditional prose? How did she find it? Is she a bizarro fiction fan, and if so, what about the genre appeals to her? Did she consider how her Jewish classmates might feel about elements of the Holocaust being used as fodder for entertainment in this way? Is she clear on what took place during the Holocaust and why the majority of people would take issue with a book like that? (I’m assuming that your daughter’s critique of the book did not call out the unnecessary usage of Nazi elements, which might have prevented the teacher from feeling like they needed to bring this to you.)
She should understand both the potential academic ramifications of her act, as well as how it could have affected other people. This is an opportunity to talk about empathy and understanding. She may feel disconnected from the horrors of the Holocaust because she isn’t Jewish, and now is a great time for her to recognize that we needn’t be so cavalier about other people’s experiences just for entertainment; remind her that a funny, shocking story could have been told without making light of something so painful. Just because the author has the right to tell such a story doesn’t mean that he should want to, and just because such a book exists doesn’t mean that it has any place in a high school classroom. Does she feel it has a place on her bookshelf? Is this her new thing? You should have a lot of questions for her right now, and some answers too.
More Advice From Slate
My oldest child is in third grade. He’s in an established gifted program at our public elementary school and gets perfect grades (knock on wood), but he seems to have a lot of time to himself. Yesterday, for example, he read Mr. Popper’s Penguins and at least one Calvin and Hobbes treasury at school, start to finish, on his own time. (I thought he may have skimmed these books, but he seems to remember them in detail.) He has read many, many novels and nonfiction books on his own this year.
I hear from his teacher that he’s no trouble to have in class, other than when he is absent-minded during transition periods. My son does not have close friends at school, only acquaintances he observes very carefully. He sits alone at lunch and reads during recess.
Is any of this—his free time during school, his social isolation—a problem, or should I be thankful that we don’t have larger troubles?