The world feels like it is going through a cultural revolution. It has been going on for a while now (even if we didn’t realize it). Black Lives Matter, the Me Too movement – all part of a huge cultural shift. And while we’re definitely not finished, it makes me hopeful and proud of my fellow human beings that this so many people are finally taking a stand.
If our culture as a whole is changing, it stands to reason that something that has always been an integral part to any culture has to change as well: literature.
Now I understand most people read just for fun and maybe don’t pay a lot of attention to the messages they’re sending with what they read. Because, for most people, no one else is really paying attention. However, since I do have a platform where I discuss said literature, what I read and what I choose to talk about do have some influence. And, over the past year or two, I have definitely become more aware of who and what I am publicly supporting.
A lot of authors have been outed as being problematic, for various reasons. And, for a long time, I was a fan of keeping the art separate from the artist. I thought I could still appreciate Ender’s Game and ignore the fact that Orson Scott Card is (in addition to maybe being a little crazy) very racist and homophobic. Turns out, I can’t. Because by purchasing his books and talking about them on this blog, I would be supporting someone whose views are extremely offensive and hurtful and against what I stand for.
I, sadly, own a lot of books by authors who are pretty problematic. Some of which I have read and loved in the past, before I really knew about the author. As children, we are not taught to pay attention to what we’re reading so long as the content isn’t problematic. Is it my fault if I loved Alice in Wonderland and Yertle the Turtle if I didn’t know Lewis Carroll was maybe a pedophile and Dr. Seuss was racist? How am I supposed to feel about the fact that I still love those books? I don’t feel very good about liking them. But I can’t help that they were a big part of my childhood.
Side note: I might do a whole different post on everyone’s favorite wizard and she-who-shall-not-be-named because that feels like it’s own monster – let me know if that’s something you’d like to see. I just feel like this post will be obnoxiously long if I attempt that here.
But there are books on my shelves by authors who have fairly recently been outed as being problematic. Whether it is for sexual harassment, racism, homophobia, sexism, harmful depictions of mental health, romanticizing toxic relationships, transphobia, ableism, and a host of other things that are harmful, it is not okay. Unfortunately, I have already read a lot of them and did not notice anything wrong. And that’s on me. I am working to do better. But the rest of them? I won’t be reading them. Even though I’ve heard great things about a lot of them (more than a few are on several big “must-read” lists). I will be clearing out my shelves soon and getting rid of these books. And I won’t be talking about them on this blog.
Note: getting rid of books you already own by problematic authors isn’t always the solution. By purchasing them in the first place, you have already supported said author, even if you were not aware of the fact that they’re maybe not great people. So it’s up to you to decide what you do next. Personally, I’m getting rid of them simply because I know I will never read them or reread them and I really need my book collection to fit into a normal, human-sized apartment.
What About Classics?
Which brings to me to another issue: a lot of authors who penned what we now consider “classics” were pretty problematic people, but they might not have been for their time. Not all classic authors were Anne Brontë or Jane Austen (I can get into a whole discussion about how they were feminist – I wrote an entire thesis paper on it in grad school). But not a lot of people seem to care that H. P. Lovecraft was a white supremacist. Personally, I’m not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on that one. But what about Tolkien? Yeah, he wasn’t exactly anti-racist. But he also responded in a pretty badass way when he was questioned about his heritage during WWII. Does he get a pass? (I think I might go with yes in this case.)
Personally, I have studied a lot of history. And it is extremely unfortunate that so much of our history was controlled by racist ideals. But we also have to accept what it was like to live during those times. I’m currently reading a biography of Ulysses S. Grant, and he was the awesome president who gave black people the right to vote and tried to abolish the KKK. But he got dragged for then pardoning a lot fo the KKK leaders. Which, yes, is absolutely not cool. But you also have to understand, he probably would have been removed from office for prosecuting some of the most powerful men in the country. And who do you think would have replaced him? (Probably someone not that much different than who we have now.) Not everything is totally black and white. Racism is absolutely, 100% wrong. Navigating racism has, for a lot of history, not exactly been clear cut. So I do think we have to take that into account a little bit when looking at classic literature.
That is not to say that it’s okay that some of these authors were racist or sexist. They might have been a product of their environments, but that’s not really a good excuse. Just look at what Mary Wollstonecraft did in the 18th century. However, it is something we have to understand. In America, we kind of idolize George Washington as the father of our nation. No one wants to talk about that he was a slave owner who did not like it at all when one of his slaves escaped. Is it because most other rich, white men were slave owners in the 18th and early 19th centuries? How can we universally say they were all bad?
This is kind of turning into a history lesson, so I’ll just move on. Just something to think about.
What We Can Do About It
Trust me, it is very tempting to keep reading our problematic faves. If some of my all-time favorite authors were problematic, I think I might have a mental breakdown. (Neil Gaiman, please keep being an awesome human.) It is not easy at all, and I completely get it. But as a reader, reviewer, and/or buyer of books, here’s where you can make a difference.
Be a little more selective about what you choose to read, especially if you are doing so publicly (like I am). I see so many popular authors with problematic content in their books or hurtful comments they’ve made being ignored simply because people love their books. I’m not here to judge you for what you read. But, maybe, be aware of what you’re getting into. Trust me, if you don’t read books that romanticize abusive relationships, your own mindset is going to be a lot healthier than if you read a lot of those.
Want to avoid reading a book that’s racist? Maybe try reading more books by authors of color! Click here for a few of my favorites. If you don’t want to read books that are harmful to the LGBT+ community or disabled people or people struggling with mental illness, check out some reviews first. When I was growing up, Goodreads wasn’t a thing. Now, we can log on and see fifty people shouting about how a book is bi-phobic. And then CHOOSE to not read it. Simple, easy, done. (This literally just happened to me for a book I almost read for an upcoming secret TBR project – and I won’t be reading it. I might actually be including it in a post discussing how problematic it is.)
There are literally millions of books out there, and you can choose to read whatever you want. So why not choose some that make you a better, more empathetic person?
And if you can support authors of color or disabled authors or LGBT+ authors or authors that are really amazing and try to make their books inclusive and not problematic and who maybe haven’t committed sexual harassment and aren’t racist? Even better.
Look at you! You’re making the world a better place by reading good books! Bet you didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?
Seriously, though, if we stop supporting problematic authors, eventually publishers will take notice. And maybe they’ll start giving their money to authors who deserve it a little bit more. It’s not that hard, and you’ll probably feel a lot better about yourself. And maybe even learn a thing or two.
So, it’s up to you. If you want to keep reading authors you love that maybe aren’t the nicest people, that is your choice. You can also choose how public you want to be about it. If you’re a blogger reading a book you know is problematic or by a problematic author, you can decide whether or not to share it. (In doing research for this post – because you know I came with receipts – I actually came across a blog post about a book with the title “Problematic? Yes, but I Still Love it!”). It’s your decision. Just make sure you are comfortable with the one you make.
One Last Note
This reading community we have is amazing. If you’re reading this, you might already be part of the book blogosphere. Or, at the very least, on Goodreads. And the great thing about this is there are SO MANY different people with different experiences who can share their thoughts.
No one of us understands the experiences of others all the time. As a cis, straight, white woman, I have been fairly privileged. And I’m still learning. So I don’t know if I would have recognized the bi-phobia in the book I mentioned earlier (by an author who is apparently very anti-bi). I hope that I would, but that’s not guaranteed. So I’m glad that there was a community of bi readers out there to teach me. And I feel great that I was able to get information from them and trust them.
So, trust this community. It has been nothing but amazing. If you have a whole bunch of LGBT+ people rallying against an author or a book, don’t support it. If you are not sure about something, do your research. Look at the reviews on Goodreads. Google the author. It will take just a few more minutes, and you can feel better about what you’re reading.
What Do You Think?
I would love to hear your thoughts on this! Do you think we can support the art without supporting the author? Are you aware of problematic authors? Do you think there are different rules based on the time period in which the book was published? I’ve heard a few people say it’s okay to support a book if the author is deceased (since they won’t be getting royalties). Does that make a difference to you?
Let me know in the comments!
And, again, let me know if you want a separate post on the whole HP thing. I have one that has been sitting in my drafts folder for almost a year now (and obviously requires a lot of updates due to recent events).