When I was little, I used to play a game in my head whenever I was bored. This is how it worked: I would pick two random, unrelated things, and then challenge myself to connect them in some logical daisy-chain. For example, if the two things were “tablets” and “backpacks,” I might come up with, “they both could be used at school.” If I picked “pencil” and “door” I could say, “they both are inside my house.”
Fairly quickly, I realized that it wasn’t ever very hard to link any set of two things in some way. Some effective catch-alls included “they’re both on Earth,” “they both exist in this current universe” or even, “I thought of both of them just now to use in this game.”
It wasn’t that fun to play after that.
So, why am I bringing up my weird childhood habits? Well, I think the a similar thing is happening in the book world with regard to “problematic” content— at least regarding the lengths to which people go to in order to label something “problematic.”
Welcome back to another post in which I use my cancel-proof irrelevance to dive into another example of well-intentioned-things-gone-off-the-rails in the book community. The blogosphere is pretty chill, but I used to stumble upon a ton of this stuff when I was on bookstagram and I still see it on Twitter fairly often, perpetually bringing me closer to deleting my account and never venturing onto the Internet again.
Today I’ll be focusing on the book community’s eagerness to dismiss books and authors as “problematic”often based on subjectivity, hypersensitivity, perpetual reaching and little evidence.
1) If You Want To Be Outraged, You’ll Find A Reason
There’s a reason I opened my post with that little anecdote: it’s not very difficult to find something “problematic” when you’re out looking for it.
And why would you be out looking for it? Well, because social media rewards people for being loud and
“virtuous”, for pointing out problematic content and for being the spokesperson. This is one of the reasons cancel culture is such a problem. People have an incentive to cancel authors. It gives you social clout. It gets you tons of likes and retweets. It gets people commenting and asking you for moral advice. It makes you a virtuous authority.
Take J.K. Rowling, for example. Now that the whole controversy surrounding her has made its way into the mainstream sphere, I’m sure we all know that she’s become a bit of a pariah in some parts of the book community. (Perhaps “pariah” is a bit of an understatement)
It’s now cool to hate on Rowling. (I even saw a post from someone talking about how she wrote a book in which J.K. Rowling dies, to much support from Twitter. Perfectly sane behavior, right?)
Anyway, it’s recently become a more common thing for people to talk about how problematic Harry Potter is. Apparently it’s racist, sexist, fatphobic, and of course, transphobic. I’ve talked about this in another post, but it seems like these accusations exploded after Rowling got canceled. Some universities are now even putting trigger warnings in front of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The Trigger Warnings Database site has five times more triggers listed for the first Harry Potter book than for books with extended torture scenes.
So why did Harry Potter go from being canceled by the religious right to twenty years later being canceled by the woke left? Because, you see, now that we KNOW Rowling’s transphobic and evil in every conceivable way, we can see all of the biases in her work that we couldn’t see before! It’s totally not confirmation bias gone haywire. Bigot!
To be fair, criticisms of Harry Potter existed long before all of the controversies, and I have only anecdotal evidence to say that this scrutiny has increased after Rowling’s “cancellation.” Additionally, it’s not a bad thing to be critical of a book series, especially one subject to so much blind praise as Harry Potter is. Regardless, though some of them are valid, many of the criticisms of Harry Potter that I have read require quite a bit of reaching to find offensive. (And this seems to be the case often with Book Twitter’s targets of the day)
This is not to say that there aren’t books that are racist or bigoted. There are. (Heart of Darkness immediately comes to mind)
But I’ve noticed a lot of people reaching a bit to call something offensive when many people would say that it’s not, and even more disturbingly, sometimes their reasoning is “I know this person is bad, because they said something I don’t like, and now that I know this, I see all the problematic things with their books that I didn’t notice before but they are still obviously offensive!” This is clearly not always the case, but I think the trap of reasoning is easy to fall into.
I once started writing a satirical post in which I analyzed Fahrenheit 451 in the most woke way possible, looking for ways that it could be construed as offensive, and made a list of all the reasons it should be banned. I didn’t post that post (maybe I will one day), but after writing it I Googled “Fahrenheit 451 problematic” and lo and behold, I found an article describing why the book should be canceled for many of the same reasons I came up with as a joke.
I truly believe that, much like it’s not ever very hard to link two objects in your mind as a bored child on a long car trip, you can really find something “problematic” in anything.
It’s started to become difficult to tell satire from reality in some of these problematic-book cases, and that’s where I think maybe we’ve gone too far.
And it’s going to create a “boy who cried wolf” phenomenon. The more people get outraged over petty things in books they find to be offensive through this sort of convoluted chain of inferences and jumping to conclusions, the less seriously people will take it if something actually is offensive.
The more people get outraged over petty things in books they find to be offensive through this sort of convoluted chain of inferences and jumping to conclusions, the less seriously people will take it if something actually is offensive.Tweet
2) The Inevitable Subjectivity of Offense
There’s also the problem of subjectivity. Whether or not someone is offended by something is extremely subjective.
Is it offensive if a character uses the word “crazy” in a book? Should To Kill A Mockingbird be declared racist because Atticus Finch is white? Is Rita Skeeter a transphobic caricature? Does not providing trigger warnings for their books make an author problematic? Should we cancel a book whose premise is about everyone but cis women disappearing, because it “perpetuates the gender binary”? Should we cancel Casey McQuiston for putting a satirical quip about Israel-Palestine in their book? Is Animal Farm sexist because it has few female characters (despite being a historical allegory of a time and place in which only men were in power)?
In my opinion, the answer to each of these questions is a definite no. However, these are all things I have seen sanctimoniously debated online.
Everyone has different life experiences and outlooks, and will become angry for different perceived slights. Some people are way more sensitive than others and everyone has a different perspective that will influence how they perceive a statement, joke, or character in a book.
The answer is not to cater to the most outraged. Just because one person is offended doesn’t mean that the book is now irredeemably problematic and the author must repent and issue a formal apology (which will subsequently be rejected by the Twitter mob anyway because they cannot be forgiven for such a Horrible Mistake)
I think the “if some people are offended, everyone should be” approach is one of the most damaging parts of this trend.
On the stated rules of the Tumblr blog “your fave is problematic”– a now-inactive blog on which “problematic” celebrities were called out– one scenario outlines what to do if you’re a member of a marginalized group and don’t think that something they have called problematic is actually problematic: “If you don’t find something offensive, but much of the group you’re a part of does, that is something you should take up with them because we do not have the power to say “this is not offensive” when so many think it is.”
This is exactly the problem, and it applies to canceling books as well: You are placing the burden of proof on the wrong person. Calling a book and by extension its author racist or sexist or transphobic or homophobic or any of the other various -ists and -phobics is a serious accusation. And the burden of proof must be on the accuser, not the accused.
Imagine if you were accused of murder, but instead of asking the prosecution to prove that you murdered someone, you were instead asked to prove you DIDN’T murder someone, and then you were informed that because a bunch of people think you’re a murderer, you are.
3) The Conflation of Speech with Violence and the Inability to Ignore Mildly Offensive Things
What’s the saying again? Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… are literally killing people!
Words are not violence and I will die on this hill. I’m really sick of people online talking about how reading or distributing x book is “violent.”
The conflation of “offensive to me” and “violent” with regards to speech is a very disturbing trend, especially since violent speech is one of the only exceptions to the first amendment.
The conflation of “offensive to me” and “violent” with regards to speech is a very disturbing trend, especially since violent speech is one of the only exceptions to the first amendment.Tweet
“Violent” speech would be something like: I am going to kill you. Unless it is a threat, unless it is advocating for use of physical force against a person or group, it is not violent.
An offensive book is not violent. A book you disagree with is not violent. A book cannot be violent.
People also have this idea that you cannot read anything that has flaws.
I once saw a Reddit post from someone complaining that he could not read classic sci-fi because of all the sexism. I am female and I read classic sci-fi fairly often. There is a ton of sexism. However, I am not so fragile that I cannot simply ignore it. For me, the overall merit of the books generally trumps any annoyance I may have over misogynistic comments or characters. I am confident in my abilities as a woman and to me, a line in a book published 50 years ago poses no existential threat to feminism.
3) The Power of Groupthink and Gullible People
If you peruse the comments of posts trying to cancel an author, the comments will be full of people saying things like, “wow, thank you for educating me, I had no idea” or “I had no idea this author was racist/transphobic/whatever. I won’t buy their books anymore.” or something along those lines.
Twitter is also rife with posts like “is this author problematic?” or “I just found out this author is problematic, now I feel horrible for buying their book.”
Many people jump on the cancel bandwagon without even reading the source material.
These people are clearly empathetic and well-meaning. Of course they don’t want to support someone hateful or alienate any marginalized group by reading something that’s been declared “harmful” to that group. Twitter said this is racist! How could I continue to read it without being complacent in racism?
I think that a lot of the time, people just want to do the right thing, and the problem is that we have created this culture where it’s promoted that in order to show that you are doing the right thing and “educate” others on topical issues, you must listen to whoever is claiming a book is offensive and spread the word to avoid said book unquestioningly.
Internet culture is also extremely quick to condemn anyone who does not conform to this. You can’t question anything. For a community of people who love reading, it’s disturbing how much some people lack critical thinking.
However, we need to remember that it’s not bad to read something in its entirety and evaluate for yourself whether or not it is “problematic.” If you do that and conclude that it is indeed offensive, then you’re well within your rights to share that with others.
However, I believe it is very, dare I say, problematic, to jump to conclusions and accuse someone of racism or some other form of bigotry when you have not even read the book yourself.
4) Character vs. Author Beliefs and Books as Moralistic Tools
Sometimes, people conflate an author’s beliefs with that of a character.
For example, the subreddit r/menwritingwomen is a forum where people poke fun at awkward/creepy/misogynistic depictions of women in books. This subreddit is very funny. If you were in doubt about how often Stephen King unnecessarily compares things to boobs, one minute on there will enlighten you. However, from time to time, someone will share an excerpt that is from the perspective of a (perhaps unlikable) character, and the comments will still be full of comments like “ugh, I can’t believe [insert author] would write this.”
But characters aren’t authors. Authors write bad people into their books all the time. Oftentimes this is for the purpose of theme.
I also constantly see items on trigger warning lists that include qualifiers, i.e. “homophobia (challenged),” implying that the homophobia perpetuated a character in the book is not problematic simply because it was challenged in the narrative. This rubs me the wrong way because it’s not the purpose of literature to didactically educate readers on every social issue. Most of us know homophobia is wrong.
Literature is supposed to reflect the world, not paint everything with an idealistic brush. The world isn’t populated by perfectly politically-correct spokespeople who moralize loudly about every offensive situation. Authors should be able to trust their audience to comprehend when a character is doing something wrong without having to explicitly state this.
Literature is supposed to reflect the world, not paint everything with an idealistic brush. The world isn’t populated by perfectly politically-correct spokespeople who moralize loudly about every offensive situation. Authors should be able to trust their audience to comprehend when a character is doing something wrong without having to explicitly state this.Tweet
The Problem With “Problematic” in the Book Community
Overall, I have quite an issue with the book community’s hyper-vigilance with regard to “problematic” content.
It greatly exasperates me, and seems to simply pour fuel on the cancel culture fire that rages on YA Twitter maybe once a month. Luckily I’ve kind of moved away from this side of Twitter, but it pops up on my timeline still… a little too often.
So, what do you think? Do you believe the book community is too quick to label things problematic? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments!
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