Something I’ve seen a lot of recently, is bashing book series that are older and well loved. This seems to happen when producers try to change around aspects of the book, or it comes to light that an author is super racist, or when a marginalized voice speaks up about how certain aspects of a book bother them.
It makes me wonder – can books become problematic over time? As in, if it’s lauded and loved when first published, can it become problematic later?
You might be thinking that I’m talking about a SPECIFIC series, but I’m not picking on ONE author or book. I am going to talk about several books and authors, but I’m NOT bashing, just pointing out my thoughts relating to problematic elements in books.
I also think people WILL disagree with me but I am NOT trying to ignore or speak over marginalized voices with this post. In fact, if a marginalized reader feels like I’m overlooking their perspective, please let me know! I would love to edit and include another perspective, so please share your thoughts in the comments. Marginalized readers voices are very important and we should listen to their voices more than what I, a privileged Caucasian American girl, have to say.
Now let’s get ready for some tea
Publishing has been biased for a VERY long time.
I think we can all agree that for a LONG time publishing has been overwhelmingly biased. First it was all white men, and now it’s pretty much all white men & women. White people dominate the book industry, and people of color are rarely made part of the story.
When it comes to books, especially older YA books, they were published in this inherently biased environment. Authors catered to white men, and wrote stories for white men’s kids. The books can be very problematic.
Does this mean the author is actually biased?
Some authors are dead, so we might never 100% know for certain. Other authors are still alive and can make amends for excluding marginalized voices.
I consider some books to just be very European focused and not inherently biased, stories like the Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings. I would like to think that if these books were published today, they would include nuanced, well written marginalized voices. I could be very wrong!
Since I’m not a marginalized reader, I might not have picked up on biases in these books that I just mentioned. I know in The Horse and His Boy the Middle Eastern society is portrayed as Narnia’s enemy, is this a bias? Later in the last Battle, Aslan praised the Calormen and the way they worshiped sincerely.
There’s also, the idea of Narnia always being a country that one longed for – i.e the Calormen girl in the Horse and His Boy longed for “true Narnian air” her entire life. (now, The Horse and His Boy is my actual fav Narnian book because of the orphan boy’s story and the larger world)
If you have thoughts about this or can point to me to a post on Narnia and Calormen, I would love to learn what you guys think!
Which leads me to my NEXT point…
Can you insert marginalized voices into a non-diverse story?
I do not think you can, because personally, it feels like the author is just trying to win these readers over. Now, some authors could genuinely be trying to fix white-focused stories. But for the most part, I feel like inserting people of color and other voices into a story, is somewhat forced.
And yes, this is the whole point for the whole Dumbledore is GAY! Nagini is an ASIAN women! problem. It doesn’t feel like the author actually cares, but is just trying to avoid criticism of their white centered work.
I mean, no one asked for my opinion on JK Rowling, but here it is so, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
If an author is still alive, they can write other stories that don’t try to dump marginalized people into already published books. Look at Rick Riordan’s example. The first books he wrote were VERY white focused. But as Riordan wrote more, he began to write more diverse stories.
Personally, I think this shows more dedication and commitment on an author’s part, especially when you need to work with marginalized voices to write authentic stories.
I think it is cheap to try to retro-actively enforce diversity on a story. It feel insulting to marginalized readers and is a a very lazy way to fix your problematic books.
Now for my Next, Next point….
There is no excuse for largely white focused, non-diverse books published today.
History is about learning from your mistakes, and the publishing industry is learning (albeit, slowly) that marginalized voices NEED books that are representative of ALL people’s experiences. And I would also say that everyone needs to read diverse books because we can all learn so much from reading.
I have read books that are not diverse. Especially, before I started actively book blogging. At first, I didn’t recognize this problem, but as I started reading more book blogs and talking to my friends, I realized that all-white cast books are harmful.
These books exclude people of color, people with disability, diverse sexualities, diverse life experience, people of faith, and many other readers. This is wrong.
(Maybe you’ve noticed that I don’t use white as a term referring to just skin color. I define a white character book™️ as one featuring an imperialistic, heteronormative culture and ignoring everyone else’s experience)
I think some writers can start out writing stories that may appear white-focused. I recently read The Grisha Trilogy and I noticed how much more diverse Leigh Bardugo’s writing becomes with Six of Crows. And even the Grisha Trilogy isn’t completely white-focused, because it incorporates mythology and stories outside the very-English stereotype of fantasy.
But some writers just DON’T seem to get it?
I remember reading Throne of Glass and noticing this problem. The main characters are all white – and finally, finally a person of color is introduced. Only to be killed off! How frustrating. And 5 books later – there are still no other major characters of color. Sexuality is also blurred, with representation being written in almost as an afterthought.
Did this kind of problem get fixed later on in Mass’s writing? I don’t think so because I really don’t think saying a character is tanned means a character is a person of color. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ And DO NOT get me started on writing in representation as an afterthought, ahem *cough, Mor, cough*
Now, Bardugo is NOT the perfect example, but I do think she is an example of a white writer listening to readers and including diverse books.
Ideally, the best books featuring marginalized characters are written by #ownvoices writers.
Do perfect books exist?
I don’t think books become problematic. (keep reading 🙂 )
I think there are always problems in books, we just might not have realized. Does this mean there are no perfect books? I honestly have no idea.
People are always growing and as we listen more, we learn how people have been hurt. Books we laud today may actually be harmful in other decades. That’s how society works – it improves and should become more inclusive.
Every person is flawed, and I think stories will have inherent problems. We should have the freedom to point out problems in books, the courage to write better stores and the ability to elevate books written from #ownvoices authors.
Okay, I’m sure there’s lots more to say, but my thoughts have mostly come to an end.
I’m going to wrap up this crazy long post by adding that I don’t judge people for reading anything.
Read what you want, yay for reading! But I will not recommend books that are inherently problematic, without talking about the problems. When authors are terrible and push harmful agendas, it makes me pause before recommending or reading their books.
Your turn! What tea do you have to spill about problematic books and authors? Do you think we should judge books written in other eras by today’s standards? (I didn’t even talk about this but I kind of think this is the BIG question about older, problematic books)
How do you approach books that have problematic elements? Do you avoid reading them, or simply point out problems when writing reviews? Or do you have another approach then what I’ve mentioned? Because I am SURE there are more than two choices about problematic books. 🙂