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 is a very 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!