Lila Wonders…Can You Like A Book That You Also Find Problematic?

Recently there’s been a lot of talk surrounding problematic books and what authors, bloggers, and readers should be doing about those books. Inevitably, the question was raised: is it possible to like a book, yet still recognize it as problematic. So today I’m going to be exploring that question. Bear in mind, I’m not writing this post to necessarily come to any conclusions, but to explore the many facets of this question.

So before I jump in, I want to clarify what I mean by “problematic.” When I say a book is “problematic,” I mean that the book has a flawed, stereotypical, discriminatory, and/or harmful way of treating marginalized characters. Who are marginalized people? Anyone who is not straight, white, able-bodied, Christian, neurotypical, physically and/or mentally “well” (for lack of a better word), and/or wealthy or middle class.

Okay, so now we’ve cleared that up, let’s get back to the main topic: can you like a book while recognizing that it’s problematic.

I think it’s complicated. In truth, a book can be problematic in one facet, yet empowering in another. There’s also the fact that the issue of whether you can like a book while recognizing that it’s problematic is tried up in many other tangled issues.

For instance: there are often varying opinions of what’s problematic. Marginalized people (obviously) aren’t a monolith. There are plenty of things that some view as “problematic” that others don’t view as problematic. Who do you listen to???

In all honesty, I have no right to answer that question, even as a marginalized person myself.

Then there’s The Big Money Issue. By reading problematic books, you’re giving money to an author that actively puts out problematic works (yes, even if you just borrowed the book from the library). This sends the author and the publisher the message that the fact that the book is problematic really doesn’t matter.

Now I’m not trying to tell you how to live your life or spend your money. I’m a woman of color who’s disabled and poor, yet there are plenty of books that I’m split on–they have some problematic aspects but I also really enjoy them. Take for example, one of my favorite book series: the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas. This series is overflowing with problems! The author killed off the single person of color and used them as a plot device to further the white protagonist’s story! The minute a character became disabled, Maas cut that character out of the story! Until very recently, there was no diversity of sexual orientation in the series–and when it did finally show up, it felt as though Maas had just thrown it in there as a afterthought to combat the previous criticism that her books weren’t diverse! But…I still kinda love the series?

Now, for me, as a woman of color who is disabled, that is a personal choice that I get to make based on the fact that Maas’s work directly perpetuates negative stereotypes of people like me. It’s not that I’m okay with that, but I understand the issues of my people enough to recognize that these stereotypes are untrue and harmful. But a white, straight, able-bodied person may not be able to recognize that. They may take those stereotypes to be truth rather than fiction. And that isvery real problem for people like me because when that person takes those stereotypes to be truth, they treat actual people like caricatures rather than living, breathing human beings. And that’s a problem.

So now I’m between a rock and a hard place. Do I give money to this series that is harmful to my people, thus sending the message to publishers that the harm they are doing to us is totally okay, or do I abstain from a series that I love?

I’m going to be honest here: I don’t know what to do. Both sides of the debate have valid points and I’m the unfortunate soul stuck in the middle.

I think that at this point, for me, personally, it comes down to the author’s words and actions. Have they recognized the problems with their story? If so, have they either a) given a satisfactory explanation as to why their story has problematic elements or b) accepted responsibility, apologized, and begun to actively work towards fixing the issues in their story?

So you see how this question is much more tricky than one way or another? Like I said, I don’t want to come to any conclusions. Marginalized or not, it is not my place to tell you what to read. The best I can do is present what I know to be the clearest, most unbiased view of the issue and allow you to come to your own conclusions, because even I am not free from flaws. I encourage you to think this over and discuss it in the comments and to come to your own conclusions. However, I must insist that you be respectful to me and to others.

Thanks for reading y’all and have a great day!

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Lila is a 27-year-old college student studying physics and a lover of literature. When she's not busy reading or saving the world through science, Lila can be found singing jazz and blues and obsessing over hedgehogs (a.k.a. the cutest animals in the multiverse!)

12 thoughts on “Lila Wonders…Can You Like A Book That You Also Find Problematic?

  1. I do think sometimes there is no ill intention on the part of the author, it’s problematic by way of exclusion and I’m not saying this is right but it is not necessarily something they have thought through properly. So raise it, point out that they are missing minority/disabled characters because absolutely they should have them in future books but it is maybe not a boycott situation.
    When an author has written characters which are a very negative stereotype and there is no good reason for it (ie telling a moral outcome story/historically relevant etc) then I have an issue, there’s nothing original in it and even as a white woman I take offence to that. Everyone should be equal, make the good looking blue eyed, blonde haired, white guy the evil one for a change. I always suspect him anyway!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a great post. As someone who doesn’t usually feel marginalized and misrepresented, I’ve never really thought about that but after thinking about it I think for myself it would come down to the author’s intentions.

    While an author should be aware of the power their words hold it is entirely possible that they accidentally disrespect a group of people.

    Thanks for writing this! It really made me think and I think i will read books differently now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thank you! i’m glad you enjoyed and i’m so glad to hear the post affected you so much! i think often in the heat of our hurt and/or anger, we often forget to leave room for human error. we are all flawed and it is impossible to write The Perfect Book–in terms of style, in terms of inclusion/diversity, in terms of *anything*. and that’s okay. the important thing is that we learn and grow.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. wow – very thought provoking post.

    Honestly I don’t think authors ever intend offence by cutting back on diverse characters, most people just write what is familiar to them – and some people, particularly authors – can live in very small circles. I also believe if you look at any book hard enough you will always be able to find something to huff about, but I imagine the author just wanted to tell a good story.

    I don’t think you should let this ruin books for you – unless the lack of unrelatable characters spoils the actual story for you. Instead why don’t you think of it this way – If you wrote a book how would you portray your characters? What would their heritage be? Would they have a disability? But would anyone find fault with them… probably? Why? Because you can’t please everyone. All you and an author can do is try…

    But such a brilliant post 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thank you! i’m so happy to hear my post got you thinking!
      on the one hand, i think what people find difficult of the defense of “we’re writing what we know–and we don’t know diversity!” is that technology has created a much more board, global society. it is hard to believe that unless you’re a hermit you’ve never interacted with someone who’s a poc or lgbt+ or disabled or etc., ya know? so people, *especially* young people who have *only* known this global society which technology has created, find that defense harder and harder to believe.
      *on the other hand, though,* writers have been taught for forever–and *still* are taught–to write what they know. so how do you write characters who have had different experiences from you when all of your training tells you not to? then bring in the whole “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” thing (because writers who don’t include diversity are yelled at for not including diversity, however, non-marginalized authors writing about marginalized characters are often yelled at for writing inaccurately/using harmful tropes, cliches, and stereotypes/etc.) and it’s a mess.
      i *do* believe authors should be allowed to write who and what they want–*however*, if you’re writing about an experience outside of your own, you must do in depth research, just as you would for a historical novel or a sci fi novel or a fantasy novel. because every good author is a good researcher.


  4. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately – less in terms of supporting the author/publisher by reading the book, though, and just about liking it. There’s definitely a lot to think about there, but in general, I think it’s okay to like a problematic book as long as you recognize the problems with it. A couple of years ago, I read Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley and absolutely loved it. Last week, I found out that the book is actually really problematic. It was really hard for me to acknowledge that I’d somehow missed all of that the first time I read it, since I’m usually looking out for problems like that. I’m going to reread the book with those things in mind to see how they affect my reading experience, but frankly, I don’t think it’s going to make me hate the book. It’s definitely going to make me include a note about its problems if I recommend it to someone, but I don’t think that a book being problematic makes it inherently unlikable.


  5. I’ve just seen this and posted something along the same lines! I completely understand what you mean and I do think it comes down to the author a lot of the time. It’s very important that if an author gets called out, they respond and aim to do better. But I know that Sarah J Maas is known to completely ignore everything about the discussions about her books which, as someone who also likes them, is worrying :/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. that’s hilarious that you wrote something similar b/c aine at writing on a vintage typewriter just posted aot the exact same topic the other day! guess great minds think alike! I think it does very much come down to the author’s action and explanation. I tink the fact that maas’s books aren’t diverse isn’t s much the problem so muchas the fact that she a) hasn’t addressed the issue and b) clearly hasn’t really fixed he issue in ANY of her novels or shown any attempts t correct the issue in future book. and that’s an issue. even t, I think its okay to like her book, just so long as you push or her to be better at the same time. but in the end, its her world and no one can force her hand :/

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Short answer: absolutely.

    Long answer (ish): everything is problematic. I don’t think you/we can really look at problematic content in a vacuum of simply just X or Y or Z being terribly (terribly) represented. Well, I mean…you can, but readers are much more dynamic and intersectional than even the best 3-dimensional POC-or-otherwise character is on the page. You mentioned this precisely in that one facet being an issue to some might be empowering to others but it’s difficult to really know who it’s going to affect and how they’ll be affected by it.

    Further to this, an individual could try but is unlikely to have the capacity to acknowledge every thing that comes their way. So those readers who love something than find out a book has truckloads of issues often feel “terrible” for not noticing it but is that really your fault at the time of reading? The best you can really do is accept it for what it is and learn from that.

    The actual difficulty I find with SJM being harked on by the masses is that I don’t really know what readers can expect from this call to more diverse rep in her stories (for example). She can add more in but I feel like she’s already established her TOG series, at least, until the ending and throwing in token chars might make them be super flimsy, trope-y and just…bad? I just don’t think she can un-canon everything and make amendments to Crown of Midnight and release another version or something. I don’t know. I haven’t read anything of hers so I hope this doesn’t sound too defensive in her favour haha. I’m just perplexed.

    TL;DR I don’t even think I answered your question at all but talked in circles. (That’s what you get for requesting word vomits). But I do think it’s possible to like books that may have hurt another individual but it -should- say more about the author than the reader; especially if it comes down to interpretation and misinterpretation/diversion of intent.

    ANYWAYS, THIS IS LONG. Wonderful thought provoking post, Lila!

    Liked by 1 person

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