From time to time, we see this come up in book twitter. A book is flagged as problematic, or has some content that we have an issue with.
First of all, this is NORMAL. Not every book is going to be perfect. I dare say we are all problematic from time to time, and make decisions that not all agree with. As you know, POC are not monolithic, and we often tend to disagree on a bunch of things. And that’s OK! It’s normal!
That being said, there are degrees of problematic.
For writers, our ultimate goal is reaching out to readers. When writing a book, we think about how we hope it offers comfort or joy to whoever picks it up. That they can find themselves in the page and identify with the characters.
But when that book is problematic, this can completely turn around. Instead of the reader finding joy, you can actively hurt him with your words.
That is especially true for books that contain racism. Racism is so common in our society that we often don’t see it on the page if we’re not deeply involved and hurt by it. When it comes to racist books, you should usually listen to what Black women have to say — they have lived in this society, and they know better than us.
I understand why some reviewers get frustrated when we talk about problematic books. What one book does for you may hard another person, and that is why we still need to talk about it. For example, a Black girl may love “Everything, Everything” because she gets to see a person like her on the page, while a disabled person may despise that book due to its plot and how it treats disability and illness. I’m not saying we should have double standards, but white women writers are always given chances to improve, whereas Black authors like Nicola Yoon are often dragged and people will take her mistake more seriously than others.
Don’t get me wrong: we should still talk about how problematic that book is. And if you know a person who was hurt by it, definetly let them rant or talk about the book and why they don’t like it. Please always listen to marginalized people when it comes to hurt regarding representation.
What we have to keep in mind, however, is the degrees of problematic. For example, a lot of people don’t like Sarah J Maas’ writing and how often her POC characters get killed to further the arc of white characters. That is something deeply problematic, but as I read her latest book, I found that she’s made a bigger effort to include more POC and LGBT characters. The representation in the books are by no mean perfect and still need a lot of work, but I liked how she tried to incorporate it more. In the future I hope that she’ll try harder to make sure she gets it right.
We should have this for all authors. Because she’s white, SJM’s career is rarely at stake when her book is deemed problematic. But a Black woman is more fragile when it comes to this — simply because our society doesn’t protect her as we protect white women. In case you don’t get why, it’s that simple: racism.
A few weeks ago people were giving one-star reviews to a book that won’t come out till late 2018 — “A Blade So Black” by L.L. McKinney. LL is very outspoken on twitter and has often called problematic books at the expense of her own career, which was proven over how people in goodreads reacted to her calling out problems in publishing and how whiteness perpetrates problematic behavior. She was accused of being racist against white people. By the way, THAT IS NOT A THING. IT DOESN’T EXIST. But the people who were some months ago complaining about the one-star reviews of The Continent or The Black Witch were the same people one-starring LL’s book to try and sink her career.
I can’t even say this kind of behavior shocks me because honestly… we live in a society where that is normalized. Trying to hurt Black women and WOC’s career is seen as normal. Many other WOC and Black women may not agree with all that LL says (me included), but there should not be backlash for when she’s trying so hard to diversify publishing and talk about its problems.
When we give one star reviews to racist books, it’s to call attention to the publisher to make sure they do something about it. As for ‘The Continent’, it got pulled further back and the author (I hope) is making big revisions on her view of the story so it isn’t harmful or racist. That’s the end game — for the publisher to review the book. When you are talking about white women’s career, no one is going to stop white women from publishing because one of them is not successful. But for WOC, if one book gets the hit… publishers will easily put the blame on the fact that it didn’t sell because it’s a book from a WOC.
Newsflash: Angie Thomas’ THE HATE U GIVE has been on the bestseller list on number #1 for over ten weeks. So that’s all I have to say about Black Women not selling.
Ultimately, there are strategies for calling out a especially problematic book in all aspects. “The Continent” and “The Black Witch” hit all the problems, and you should listen to marginalized reviewers when they say the book harmed them. We should try to push back against books that are problematic and make sure that everything that is being published is safe for all kids to pick up without being hurt. One strategy is one-star reviews on goodreads, the other hashtags, and so on. This is normal, and we should not repress people who want to talk about how they find a book problematic.
Some may not agree with me: but when we have ‘lesser’ degrees of problematic, you shouldn’t try to stop a person from reading a book they loved. Or to do the opposite — tell a person they can’t talk about how a book harmed them.
“But Laura,” I hear you cry, “how can you tell which books are more problematic than the others? How can you measure that?”
Well… the thing is, most of the time, you can’t. Most really awful problematic books don’t get a pass (As I said of the two examples above, EVERYONE is talking about them and how they rely on harmful tropes and racism to tell a story). But that doesn’t mean that just because everyone is talking about it, you shouldn’t support these people and RT them.
When marginalized people say a book is hurtful, they’re not saying it fot sport. They’re not doing this to attack the author. They’re doing this because they want to protect other marginalized people from being hurt by the same words. They are doing this because they don’t want other people hurt.
It’s never a personal attack on the author. NEVER. And as authors, when you’re putting your work out there, you should be able to be mature and understand that your work will never be perfect and will never agree with everyone. But what you should keep in mind is how it should welcome all readers, and not hurt anyone. But instead of expressing their concern and apologize, what we usually see is authors digging a bigger hole. Here’s a guide on what to do if your book gets called out.
So, just to wrap up all the things:
- If a book is problematic, listen to what marginalized reviewers and people are saying.
- You can decide to read the book for yourself to see, but remember: we are raised in a racist, sexist society. Sometimes people who have not been raised with your privilege are better at identifying its problems. That’s why you can go back to point one, and LISTEN.
- DO NOT tell a person how they should feel about a book, or even tell them to “read it again because they didn’t understand”. Everyone is entitled to their feelings towards a book.
- Problematic books can have nuances. It can have great POC representation and still be ableist. It can be great in LGBT representation and disregard POC. These aspects should all be discussed.
- Do not tag the author ever in any of these conversations. Tagging authors is completely rude and unwarranted. If people are calling out their book for being problematic, you can bet they know. Their agent and publicist and editor have probably already talked to them about it.
Representation in books is often a nuanced discussion, something we don’t see a lot of in twitter or even goodreads. People are often keen on taking sides, as if we’re on a football field. You should always comfort the people who are hurt by these things and listen to them, to learn. To do better in the future. This is what these discussions ultimately provide: a place for learning and for doing better.
Calling out a problematic book isn’t racist or attacking. It’s necessary so we can build a better future in publishing. And no, it won’t hurt white women’s careers in general. We’re just holding everyone accountable for a better future.