Can Books Become Problematic? // Discussion Post

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.

lets chat

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. 🙂 

11 Comments

  1. October 9, 2018 / 4:51 pm

    Oh, I love this discussion, Elizabeth! I’m of the same opinion as you — I don’t think books necessarily BECOME problematic; they already have problems that are recognized at different times. I definitely love the point about how there is no reason not to be writing non-diverse books (in our year of the lord 2018), and there is definitely no reason to be writing tropes that have been discussed as problematic for a long time (ie the bury your gays trope, the token diverse character, etc). And I of course agree with you on the whole JK Rowling thing — it’s very obvious that she had no intention to include marginalized characters when she first wrote HP and at this point she’s trying to win brownie points for… doing nothing lmao

    • October 11, 2018 / 5:23 am

      Brownie points for doing nothing is the most accurate way to describe JK Rowling. Also, I am so happy other people say Brownie points. I said it at our staff meeting and our tv staff just stared at me. And I was like, ya’ll like brownies right? Do this week’s broadcast right, and I’ll bring brownie’s to our next meeting. THEY DIDN’T GET IT. It was so weird 😯

  2. emmareadstoomuch
    October 10, 2018 / 12:23 pm

    YES GIRL GET JK ROWLING GO FOR HER LIFE!! i have massive issues with her, especially because i think by acting as though she can retroactively insert representation into her books, she’s allowing other creators to think so. i.e., after Solo came out last year, some of the creators were like “yeah donald glover’s character is pansexual.” but there’s no evidence of that in the movie – they’re just trying to score points, but they’re not allowing for any of the countless benefits that actual well-done representation can allow.

    i agree with you completely! i’m taking a Book Publishing Overview class this semester and learning about the ways that publishing has been biased through its history, and the ways it has maintained those biases – it’s both really frustrating and not at all surprising. literature in general has a LOT of work to do

    • October 11, 2018 / 5:25 am

      Oh, it’s so annoying! Dear creators, do not JK Rowling your work. It is insanely frustrating and DOESN’T WORK.

      I would LOVE that class! And I wish I could take it! I wish I knew more about how publishing works 😭 But I have no time for anything outside my major this evil senior year.

  3. October 10, 2018 / 12:54 pm

    I don’t think we can judge old books by today’s standards because times have changed. If a book was written in 1700’s and the main character owns a slave I don’t think we should throw the book out because that was just how it was during that time. I think we need to realize and discuss why it is wrong but I don’t think we should judge the book or the author.

    I think I disagree with the whole adding mixed characters into your writing. I think authors write what they know. I live in Colorado and I am a white girl. I work for a software company where almost everyone is white as well. If I were to write a book I think it is natural not racist for characters to be white. If I were to try and write a homosexual character I would probably get more hate because of how bad it would be written. I can’t write a character I don’t know.

    I do agree that the bias in publishing needs to go away tho! If people write what they know then we need more LGBTQ+ authors and authors of color! We need to let their stories have every chance and then people can read their books and learn from them!

    • October 11, 2018 / 5:30 am

      I think it’s important, especially fantasy to not use what we don’t know as an excuse. We don’t know magic or fae personally, and yet we write stories with magical elements. Not the perfect analogy, but the concept of not writing diversity because we don’t understand it, is used by publishing to simply not write it.
      I’m writing a contemporary set in Philly. Some of the characters experience I don’t know personally, but I talk to my friends who might have this experience and see what they think. The internet is so vast, especially the book community, that even though we might not know marginalized readers face to face, it’s much more accessible to interact and hear from marginalized readers.
      Research is such a heavy, and overlooked part, of being an author.

  4. October 11, 2018 / 3:32 pm

    I think that diversity is important in books and that books all have their problems. However, a book written decades ago should not be under the same scrutiny as a book written today. People lived differently before and saw the world differently. It would not be fair to expect them to include marginalized characters in their works. I do see how today it’s something that we all are around and it should be included in the books we read today because that’s the norm of society.

  5. October 16, 2018 / 11:00 pm

    I love this discussion, Elizabeth! I agree with you so much that there is no excuse for non-diverse books being published right now. IT’S 2018, and the books being published now should definitely reflect that!

  6. October 18, 2018 / 6:52 am

    I don’t know what’s worst inserting diversity retro-actively or including diversity BUT playing w/ words? either way, it’s cowardly and transparent. You won’t win brownie points.

    We should be allowed to read the books we want without having a horde of bookworms on our trail asking for our kidneys because we love a story– if we acknowledge its issue, it’s okay to like bits of the story. Awareness is the key!

    Interesting topic to reflect on, Elizabeth! 😃

  7. October 22, 2018 / 2:54 pm

    I don’t think books become problematic. They always were, but non-marginalized society didn’t recognize it until marginalized society pointed it out. (And sometimes even then, it’s not acknowledged). We place so much emphasis on the authors though, but what of the readers? I can acknowledge the race and sexuality issues present in the Harry Potter series. But…it’s still my favorite series, and I’m still going to re-read it every year and gush about it to my friends and go see the movies and buy the memorabilia. Does that make me a problematic reader? (Yea, probably)And where are the essays critiquing readers and consumers like me who knowingly buy into problematic stories?

Drop some knowledge!