On problematic books

I’ve been thinking about posting something about this topic for a while now. I feel strongly about it and I wanted to speak up, but I also wanted to be sure to find the right words. I’m not sure I have, and there’s lots more to be said, but it’s a start.

There have been several instances where a book, having been called out as problematic, raised some kind of discussion or debate – for lack of a better word. People keep supporting the book – taking pictures of it, talking about how they love it or want to read it either without acknowledging any of the problems, or even excusing them – even though they know it’s been called out. Sometimes even because of that. I want to ask you to stop doing that, and I want to explain why.

When a book is called out as problematic, it’s often done by people from the marginalised group that’s hurt by that book. They write long reviews detailing why the book is problematic, and ask everyone to please, please stop supporting this book, because it hurts them and people like them, and when people support books like these, more of them will get the opportunity to be published. The more support for hurtful books, the more hurtful books, and the more hurt for marginalised people.

Maybe you want to know what all the ‘controversy’ is about. But you don’t need to read the book for that! Simply look up the reviews that called the book problematic and you’ll find out everything you need to know. Maybe you still want to ‘see for yourself’. In that case, I ask you: why don’t you trust the people who called out the book? They have 1) read the book and been hurt in the process, 2) exposed themselves to more hurt by writing a review detailing exactly why the book is problematic, 3) had people doubt them and hate on them for writing that review. They’ve received insults and threats because of that review. They are not doing this for fun. They are doing this because they want to warn other marginalised people, raise awareness among non-marginalised people, and prevent more problematic books from being published. These books are killing them – and that’s not an overstatement.

Plus, they know more about this topic than you do, so you might not even see why this book is problematic when you read it. You will probably understand more about the issue if you read the review(s). Example: I’m white. I have never experienced racism, so I don’t always notice that certain books or parts of books are racist. Reviews by POC have helped me a lot in noticing racist tropes that I didn’t know of before. The fact that I didn’t notice those things at first, doesn’t mean they weren’t there.

Another thing that I’ve noticed recently, after an aphobic passage in A Court of Wings and Fury caused uproar on bookstagram, is how defensive people get about their favourite books and authors. Instead of spreading the word, warning people of the aphobia, I saw so many people saying things like ‘SJ Maas probably didn’t mean it that way’ or ‘in the context it isn’t so bad’ or ‘by all means discuss your problems, but don’t tell us what to read’. Part of me wonders why you have to be so defensive about this – no one told you, specifically, that you were wrong. So maybe you should assess yourself and think about why you’re so upset about this, even though you’re not the one that’s been hurt. Let me explain, though, why those kinds of statements are so incredibly invalidating.

“the author didn’t mean it that way”

Intent doesn’t matter. The problematic sentence, passage or book remains the same, no matter the intent of the author. The author should have known better, or at least the editors, proofreaders, anyone who got to see the book before it was published. They all either missed the problem, or didn’t care. Maybe they’re all wonderful people who would never do something like this – but it still happened. They made a mistake and they should fix it, or at least avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

“it’s not so bad in the context”

One: that’s not for you, as a non-marginalised person, to decide. Two: it doesn’t matter. That one sentence that’s just wrong, no other way to put it, will not be less wrong in any context. The only context that can make up for a problematic sentiment, is one in which that sentiment is called out.

“don’t tell other people what not to read”

In most cases, I’ve never seen anyone tell people what not to read. I’ve just seen warnings, people saying not to promote a certain book, maybe people saying they would unfollow anyone who did. And even if someone has told you not to read a certain book, they couldn’t do anything about it if you did (in most scenarios anyway). This statement just misses the point so badly! Were you even listening? People have been telling you something is wrong with this book. They’ve been asking you not to post pictures of it ignoring the issues. What’s wrong with that? How much does it cost you not to talk about something on the internet? How much does it cost you to listen and maybe think a little on why people are so upset about this thing you don’t understand?

All I ask, really, is that you listen to marginalised people. They are the ones being hurt by problematic books, and it’s not your place to question that.

The same goes for when you say or do something problematic. Maybe you didn’t mean it that way; maybe you didn’t know it was problematic. When someone tells you it is, listen to them. Don’t get defensive, don’t argue. Listen. Think. Try to understand.

And another important thing: listen even when people are angry. Anger does not invalidate someone’s voice; rather, it gives it more urgency. Because only things that are very important to someone can make them angry. In fact, I’ve been very angry about this for a long time. It is exactly the fear of being (even more) invalidated that has stopped me from speaking up, and is still stopping me from ranting about this. Sometimes I feel like shouting my frustrations from the rooftops, and who cares if that chases people away. So far I’ve only ranted in private, to my boyfriend, in the hopes that I’d be able to write a more calm post about it here. But please understand that I’m not calm. I’m very, very upset.

Some resources

  • The Bookavid writes amazing educational content on problematicness and diversity. Please support her patreon.
  • B00kstorebabe writes great reviews, calling out problematic books and boosting diverse ones.
  • Booksaremarvelous is very active in the diverse book community and hosts a diverse book challenge on instagram every month.

I’d like to make a more comprehensive list of diverse book bloggers and bookstagrammers some time, but these are the ones that opened my eyes to problematic books and the diverse book community, and that consistently post about diversity.

I want to encourage discussion in the comments of this post (and I hope I’m not going to regret that), so please leave your thoughts and/or questions below.


4 thoughts on “On problematic books

  1. I really appreciate your thoughtful response on this topic, and even though I don’t completely agree with all the points you made, I respect that you took the time to discuss such a difficult issue in such a respectful manner.
    I err on the side of reading things for myself, not because I discount the views of others who have been marginalized or hurt, but because I have found, many times, that the passages were completely taken out of context and when put in context, they don’t even mean what the reviewer/ranter was saying they meant. In fact, often the passages are in the book to point out the ignorance of another character, and thus are more helpful than harmful. (NOT every time, and not every case of course.)
    I absolutely agree that it does no one any good to promote problematic books out of a sense of spite, but if you support an author and you can discuss the problems people have raised with their books in a thoughtful manner, I think that sharing about their work can be more helpful than not ever reading what they write, or worse, bullying that author because you don’t like what they wrote.
    Essentially, I think we all need to respect that everyone has a different life, a different story, and a different experience, and not one of us has the mental capacity to always get everything right, so if we get told we’ve done something hurtful, we should listen and try to grow/learn from the experience, and if we are hurt, we should let someone know without bullying them in return.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, calling out someone’s work (or part of it) as problematic should lead to them learning and not repeating the same mistakes. I also think it’s okay to post about a problematic book as long as you talk about that in your post and take it with you in your review (if you make one). Though some books are so problematic it would be better not to buy them at all in the hopes things like that won’t get past editors any more in the future.
      About context: as I said, when the problematic sentiment is challenged in the context, that’s good (it’s still important to warn people, though, so they know these remarks are there, even if it’s clear the author/narrator doesn’t support them). And it’s true that things often look worse out of context, but they can still be hurtful because they unintentionally tie in to prejudice. Like connecting lack of sexual attraction to being soulless: even if it wasn’t meant to be directly related, the connection is still there, so it will still hurt asexual people. That’s what I meant with ‘the context doesn’t matter’.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Okay, yeah, that absolutely makes sense to me. I can see why people get so angry and upset that they begin to veer towards being harsh to other readers and the author, but it’s more helpful for everyone, no matter which perspective you’re coming from, if we can keep these discussions civil, and as you mention, warning people is good if you feel the warning is needed, but we can’t expect everyone to point out every flaw in each book they read. We can certainly hope that phrasing is paid more attention in future books if that’s an issue brought up, or that harmful stereotypes aren’t used again.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m impressed by how clearly you’ve explained all of this! It was great to read, and I definitely agree with you. You’re so right in saying it’s impossible to judge or sometimes even recognize problems if you’re not directly hurt by them. I can’t really be considered marginalised in any way, so unless something is misogynist, I’ll have a harder time recognizing problematic aspects in books than POC and/or LGBTQ+ people. I’ve been trying to put in the effort to listen to them, and read their reviews and warnings, and take those into account when I review a book myself by pointing out its problems. Also, I’ve been trying to read more diverse books. I just think it should be only natural to have diversity in books!

    Liked by 2 people

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