On Writing Problematic Books

On Writing Problematic Books

Every time I think I’m done writing terrifying posts I prove myself wrong.

I’m going to be incredibly open right now. Like, way more than I’ve been in the past. I’m putting myself completely out there now, and I’m going to be genuine in stating I’m terrified to post this. Problematic books and the issues that surrounded them are huge, and I know that as a half-white, cis American woman there are a lot of things I don’t know. A lot of things I can’t know. I’m terrified of saying the wrong thing, of hurting people or making the situation worse.

But as an aspiring author, I feel like it’s my responsibility to immerse myself in these subjects. I feel like my attention has been brought to more and more problematic books lately, and every time I see one people ask the same thing: Why is this still happening?

Maybe I sound idealistic. Maybe I sound silly or stupid or naive. But at least I’m being honest when I say that a huge reason I write my books the way I do is because I want to be a part of the solution, NOT the problem. I truly believe in being the change we want to see, and even though I’m not #OwnVoices for everything I write, I still strive to include a wide range of diversity in my books. But are good intentions enough?

There’s that line. That careful rule of not writing FOR groups of people, but writing ABOUT them is more acceptable. But does that line grow fuzzy? Is it easy to pass without even realizing it? I worry about this all the time And I don’t have any answers. I’m constantly going around in circles, trying to make sense of where I’m allowed to fit, and how I can use my passion for writing for good. That’s what makes this so scary, that the ultimate answer is to stop writing if I can’t figure out how to do it correctly.

The way I always see it, there are two major reasons why problematic and offensive material is still making its way into current literature: Ignorance and Hate. Truth be told, more often than not, I err on the side of assuming if an author includes something problematic in their work it’s likely due to their own ignorance. I don’t have any proof backing up my reasoning for this assumption, only that I’m holding onto hope that most people aren’t intentionally trying to hurt others with their words.

Obviously, the world is more nuanced and complicated than fitting people into 2 little groups, but it’s the best I can do in trying to understand why problematic books are still so common.

Hate

Hate is intentional. Hate has a purpose. The way I view it, hate is understanding the weight of what you are doing, why you are doing it, and going forward with it. I know this is probably incredibly black and white of me, but I see hate-fueled words as written with the sole intention of inflicting negative stereotypes, fear and disgust. 

Ignorance

Ignorance is a tricky thing. It’s so easy to claim, yet at the same time, where is the line crossed between genuine naivete and purposeful obliviousness?

For example, I often used “food” words to describe my (usually pale-skinned) characters. Ex. ‘milky skin’ and ‘hair the color of toffee’. These are the types of descriptions that have never been objected to or brought to my attention, so naturally, as I started creating more diverse characters, I fell back onto these sorts of descriptions, Ex. ‘chocolate skin’. Because I have pale skin myself, and I had used these sorts of descriptors for my white characters, it never even occurred to me that food words are considered offensive when used on darker skin. Of course, I knew not to use hateful words like “dirty” or “ugly”, but because “chocolate” wasn’t a bad word in my mind, I never thought to research if it was okay to use.

Thankfully, this type of information is pretty easily found on many writing/research websites, so I still learned fairly quickly to eliminate these words from my manuscript. Yet, somehow, despite how widespread this information is, I continue to see even current, traditionally published books use words like “exotic” and “milk chocolate” to describe their POC characters. Why? Are all of these authors trying to use hurtful words? Or were they all just ignorant like I was? Does that ignorance matter? Or should they have known to look up these sorts of things to begin with? But if that’s the case, how would they have known in the first place? I know it’s cliche, but I do think it’s true: you don’t know what you don’t know. And sometimes even the most well-intentioned beta readers and editors still won’t catch everything.

But again, it’s a slippery slope because there is still that point where personal responsibility comes into play. We live in a vast, diverse, mixed-up world; shouldn’t we know something about the other people we share it with? Yet, how are we supposed to know everything? There’s far more information in the world about people, their histories, cultures, beliefs, values, pastimes, for any one person to ever fully learn. Does that mean we should just stop trying? Of course not. But I do think it means we’ll make mistakes. And like I said, I‘d rather believe that if someone does mess up, it’s not because they are trying to be cruel.

When I say this, I think people get the impression that I think problematic work gets a free pass. I don’t think that at all. NOT AT ALL. But I don’t think it helps to call the author or people who enjoy those books, racist, bigoted or human trash either. I don’t have a solution for this, for either side. I know at this point it feels like a joke to ask for patience and open communication. People are angry, and rightfully so. But I truly DON’T believe that yelling at people who had no intention of inflicting pain is a good way to changing things for the better.

My biggest fear for this post is that my argument for ignorance sounds like an excuse. I suppose in some ways it is, but on the flip-side, I genuinely wonder it’s a valid one. I can’t get angry with my friends for not knowing what asexuality is because they have literally never even heard of it before or had any reason to research it. I’ve likely asked one my best friends incredibly stupid questions about Mormonism because I simply didn’t know any better, but she always answered to help me learn without getting upset.

If I’m being incredibly truthful here, one of my hugest fears is being viewed as INTENTIONALLY HATEFUL if I make a mistake. I knew when I started writing seriously I wanted to write books about people like myself, about people who weren’t always in the limelight. I also knew I wanted to go past that, creating characters that shared different experiences than me (sexualities, abilities, culture, etc.) but again, were often ignored in fiction. It’s why I don’t rush my writing, because even though my writing is set in a fantasy world with fantasy-centered plots, I still wanted to be as careful and respectful as possible.

But…IS that even possible? During a discussion I had about my Chinese-inspired princess, I had someone ask me ‘What gives you the authority to write about a Chinese person?’, and it made me pause. I didn’t know what to say. I have NO authority, I never claimed I did, and the whole purpose of the discussion was because I was terrified my writing was inadvertently racist. But it’s definitely made me reconsider everything, and every time I look at this particular book I find more and more things that I fear are perpetuating negative or harmful stereotypes. For example:

  • white hero visits a Chinese-inspired island to help save their ailing princess
  • Chinese-inspired fantasy island (private from the rest of the world)
  • cute, bubbly, energetic princess (Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope)
  • chronically ill princess ( ableist?)

To be perfectly clear, yes, I fully intend on hiring sensitivity readers!

More than once I’ve considered completely scrapping the book altogether. But I admit, I haven’t been able to completely convince myself to do so yet. Truthfully, this book is very precious to me as the entire idea of it came about as a dedication for my aunt who passed away from cancer a few years ago. It’s a bit of a personal project, and I’ve been told that offensive writing doesn’t inherently lie in what the trope is, but how it’s written. Another example:

HARRY POTTER

  • white, cis male is the ‘chosen one’
  • lack of diverse races and sexualities within a long 7-book series
  • arguably perpetuates rape culture (love potions)
  • anti-body positive

Yet to deny the love and dedication the Harry Potter series has is laughable. Despite its very real flaws, it continues to thrive. Why?

Honestly, I can’t answer that because I don’t know. I stopped reading at Book 5, so there could be plenty I missed. Maybe all of these issues are addressed. Maybe it’s simply a matter of Rowling handling these topics sensitively. Or maybe people just love the rest of the story so much they are willing to overlook its flaws. I really couldn’t tell you. But the point is, almost any book can be broken down to sound simply awful and offensive, but does that make them so?

It looks like, when it all comes down to it, the common theme I keep returning to is the intent. Did the author intend to be hateful? Or were they just ignorant? But in the end, the damage is still done either way. So in that case, does the intent really matter at all?

How do you feel about the rise of diverse books? Do you think intent matters when an author writes something potentially offensive? Do you think readers might be too harsh on authors at times? Or are authors not responsible enough with their words? 

16 Comments

  1. It honestly took me so long to piece my thoughts regarding this. Like, I read this before lunch (and came out emotionally blown away afterwards by the way) and now, it’s 7pm.

    I’ve been thinking about books and people taking offense from one. I witness this almost every time I hover over the outskirts of Book Twitter. And it’s not to say that I’m invalidating the hurt some people felt from reading a particular book. I don’t at all. I think it is important to point out what’s problematic about a book. But at the same time, I personally don’t think a public outcry is the best way to do so.

    Like you said, intent must be taken into consideration. I like to believe not all people are class A jerks and would deliberately hurt others. Some are simply uneducated regarding certain issues. Your example of a friend who doesn’t know much about asexuality was an accurate one on this.

    And I personally think the best way to educate them is to answer their questions, to share to these people what you know. Rather than immediately placing the verdict that they are the spawns of evil.

    But on the authors’ part, I believe they must also bear the responsibility of how their words might affect others. There was this one time on Twitter when someone pointed out how Rick Riordan used the phrase ‘spirit animal’. He publicly apologized for it and announced that the next batch of prints and the batches subsequently after would have an edited version without the phrase. And I think that was really cool of him. And I’m aware not all authors have this capability, but like I dunno, sincerely apologizing and doing what you can do best to redeem things should be evidence enough they had no intentions of hurting someone and that they’re trying to fix things.

    So in conclusion, I think both ends have their own responsibility regarding this. As readers, I believe that if we wish to create a positive change, we have to communicate it in such way. And the same goes for authors.

    Anyway, this was an essay comment ahhhh! But your discussion posts are incredibly thought-provoking and I honestly think we should all talk more about this! Hope you have an awesome day!

    Kate | https://allthetrinkets.wordpress.com

    1. Author

      Oh no, don’t apologize! I love your comment!! I was honestly TERRIFIED to post this, because I don’t know if I knew how to be wise enough with my words to explain what I’m trying to say and where I’m coming from. I don’t want to excuse authors from bad behavior if they write something hurtful or offensive, but I don’t want to burn them at the stake for making a human mistake, as we all do at one time or another. People need to own up to their words, yes, but why does there seem to be such a fine line in accepting someone as simply ignorant or a racist, scumbag troll. Like you said, I prefer to think most people are NOT trying to be jerks!

      Not only that, and this is something I’ve mentioned in my comments before, but how are authors supposed to know if they’ve done something wrong if they’re not supposed to read their reviews? Readers make it explicitly clear that comments are for OTHER READERS, not authors, and authors have no place regarding them. Yet somehow authors are still supposed to know when they’ve written something that should probably be changed? I’ve thought about this problem so much lately, especially as my own book is being prepped for professional edits, that I might write a post about it soon because I feel like it’s a complete Catch-22 for authors.

      Thank you again for your amazing comment, I always love reading your thoughts <3

  2. Ooh I do think this is important to think about! I definitely worry about a ton of these things myself, as a writer. I have a brown princess in a fantasy book I wrote and I’m still not entirely sure (although my brown friend read it and discussed it with me!) I’m the right person to write it since I’m white??

    But I think it’s also dangerous though to go “I’m not that minority so I won’t write about it” because then we have bland white/washed/abled/straight books that don’t reflect the world, right?! So working at it is important. Educating yourself is very important. Talking to people/getting sensitivity reads = crucial. I think it’s probably good that we’re nervous because it means we’ll work really hard at this (!!). But at the same time I’m very keenly aware of not appropriating!

    (And I think a lot of books problematic mistakes are due to ignorance but theeeen if the author was THAT ignorant, should they have been writing that topic?!)

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts!😊

    1. Author

      I know, it’s such a slippery slope, isn’t it? I guess what you mentioned it true though, if I’m freaking out THIS much about it at least I can take some comfort in knowing where my intentions are. Because it’s exactly like what you said. Especially as I’m creating a series that spans an entire world, how can I NOT include a wide range of characters? An ENTIRE world of straight, white, able-bodied rulers? No thank you. I’ll take realism instead please. Now it’s just a matter of knowing how to handle it all, even if they are fictional cultures and places.

  3. ANNNNND NOW YOU’RE MAKING ME RETHINK MY IDENTITY AS A BOOK BLOGGER. D: Dammit for writing way-too-awesome-and-thought-provoking discussion posts, Rebeccah. T_T I remember totally TRASHING Hello, I Love You a few years ago because of the sh*tty Asian rep. Okay, wait, I have no regrets about that one. I do think there are some authors who intentionally write offensive things towards a particular group of people, but for the most part, yes, I guess a lot are just unaware. BUUUUT I think my opinion will be based on the level of naivety. In Hello, I Love You, the main character judged all the Koreans, thinking it was funny. WELL IT’S NOT. With your example with the food-related descriptions–I’ll probably let those slip, personally. If they’re just really small details, I can get past those. Of course, it depends on every individual reader’s tastes and personal experiences. I haven’t outwardly been judged for being Asian before, so maybe that’s why I’m more relaxed about this than other readers might be.

    1. Author

      Oh man, well making fun of an entire group of people is NEVER okay! I don’t know how someone could write that and not think that’s a problem 🙁 I certainly don’t want to let bad behavior slide, and icky things like that definitely should be called out, but I think the common behavior I’m seeing in the community of calling authors trash and other horrible names isn’t the best way to go about it, I honestly wish I had a solution. Offensive books SHOULD be mentioned when they include hurtful, stupid stuff like that, but at the same time there should maybe be a way to remember the author is human too. Hmmmm. Not to worry, I’ll get back to writing lighter, more fluffy topics soon! I don’t think I can keep up with this, haha, especially when I don’t have any solutions to offer!

  4. This is such a great topic! Honestly, I don’t think that there are any easy answers. I agree with you that intent should make a huge difference. Part of the problem is, multiple people of the same diversity group can read a book and it can affect them differently. I’ve heard of cases where people had sensitivity readers and still ended up with a book that made some people mad. Honestly, it might just be a fact of life with writing that we have to be ready to face. I think the grace with which you respond to criticism as an author makes a huge difference, though. And, certainly, we should make every effort to do our research and be sensitive.

    (Oh, and I just recently read a book by a POC author that used food terms for skin colors—of people of her own race—which I thought was interesting. Just another example on how not everyone in a particular group finds the same things offensive.)

    1. Author

      Thank you! I’m glad to hear your thoughts and you’re absolutely right. Not everyone in the same minority group is going to share the same experiences or views on certain things, so I don’t know why it seems like we act like they do. Sometimes it feels like we have this imaginary bar of what makes something “authentic”, and if someone does not fit in that mold then they might not truly be valid. It’s problematic in its OWN right and I wish there was a better way to combat this issue. Of course it’s always important to try our best as writers, but at times it feel like the guidelines are too stringent, even for actual #OwnVoices authors!

  5. I think that when writing diversity into our stories, we have to take the time to write it well. It’s easy-lemoney to find articles, like you say, about what describing dark skin with ‘ foods ‘ is harmful and what words to use instead or what is asexuality; after all, we have this beautiful tool that is the internet. You can ask it the stupidest questions, and that’s how we learn, right? 😊 Sensitivity reading is also really valuable, we have to use it more often.

    But after it’s out in the world, you can just wish that what you did was enough. It’s okay to make mistakes as long as we / acknowledge / it.

    I hope you don’t give up on your story!💜

    1. Author

      Thank you so much, that’s very sweet 🙂 This novel is very personal to me, so even though I think it might take me longer than usual to edit it and get it right, I’m sure it will be worth it. I just have to be patient and extra careful with the subject and do my research! I’m so happy sensitivity readers have become a thing because they’re SO important! I’m definitely happy I used them for my last book and will continue to use them here on out. Thank you again for your comment!

  6. Just in response to your opening, I definitely think that the WHY has a lot to do with authors just not being aware of certain issues and how their writing is problematic. In the case of writing books, however, I don’t think that ignorance is a great excuse. There is so much help out there if you’re willing to look for it. There are always people who are willing to show you what you’re doing wrong and, even better, why it’s wrong.

    Still, I don’t think that most (not all) of these authors are doing this with bad intentions. I do think that intent can matter and that (while it’s no one’s job to teach), some of these situations could be used as teaching moments. While I definitely don’t think an author who writes something offensive should be given a pass, I think there are ways we could help authors understand why what they did was offensive and how they can prevent it in the future. (Honestly though, this should happen in the early, pre-ARC stages of a book, I think.)

    I’ll admit, there were things I was quite embarrassingly ignorant about coming into the book community. I really think that reading a lot and the people that come along with this community have brought me a long way in understanding these problematic elements and I still have a lot to learn!

    As a non-writer, it seems to me that, even if you DON’T know something, hiring good sensitivity readers would be a great solution. I think you’re going to do great! I can’t wait to read your work!

    1. Author

      Thank you so much for such an insightful comment! As terrified as I was to post about this subject matter, I’m really happy that I did because it’s such an important subject in the book community that I feel like we’re all definitely trying to figure out how to best navigate. How do we encourage diverse voices when we get angry if we don’t like how they’re represented, even when they’re from actual diverse authors! You hit the nail on the head, it’s about EDUCATING, not burning people at the stake. In my humble experience, a large majority of writers WANT to do right by their readers and being respectful with their work, but being screamed at and called awful names for making a mistake makes that growth towards better writing all the more difficult.

  7. Hey I’m asexual and super happy I got a mention here! I can only talk from a reader’s side but I heard of sensitivity readers earlier from a major newspaper and I think it’s a great idea. I think if you have an idea, just write it anyway but if someone is saying, ‘hey, this is problematic’, then be willing to adapt and learn.

    There’s actually groups on facebook if you search “emotional labor” if you have any questions that people might angry react to. 😀

    Vee @ Under The Mountain

    1. Author

      Thank you for the tip! I’ve been struggling to find sensitivity readers within my budget, so any suggestions are greatly appreciated 🙂 I do think they’re such an asset to the book community, and the more we start to understand their role and utilize them when possible I think it’s just going to help improve the literature being published all the more. Thank you again!!

  8. I can relate so much to your post Vee! My family is from Spain but I was raised in South America and now live in the US. So I fit a few “minority” labels like “Spanish”, “Hispanic” , “immigrant” AND a quarter of my family from Spain are gypsies which is by itself a melting pot. So my I’m writing an Ownvoices Historical Fanstasy where the MC is a Spanish gypsy living in a Spanish gypsy community BUT these community are extremely diverse so I feel tat to be true to my story I need to represent the diverse members of this community. So I constantly ask myself do I have the right to write about, let’s say a Jewish gypsy since I was raised catholic? Or a French one since I’m Spanish? a LGBT since I’m straight? And if I decide to do it I’m afraid not to do it right. Do BUT that doesn’t mean I won’t do it. To me it means that like everything in life, if you want something to be well done you do it well. AWESOME POST!

    1. Author

      Thank you for your comment, and you project sounds AWESOME!! But yup, I can definitely relate to your hesitation about where the line is drawn on what we are “allowed” to write. Because a character might share something with ourselves like our heritage and culture, but maybe be different in other ways like their sexuality. It’s super tricky, but I totally agree. So long as we focus, do our research, listen to other people and be respectful, I think we should keep trying 🙂

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