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 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 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:
- 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?