Vetting Books by Their Authors and the Guilt of Loving a Book but Deeply Disagreeing with the Person Who Wrote It

Posted April 20, 2020 by Amber in Reviews / 16 Comments

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I’ve danced around whether or not I was going to write this post for about a year.  This is a touchy subject in the community.  Well, no.  It’s a very angry subject in the community, and it’s something I think about fairly often, especially because of the way I build my TBR.  That is to say, I look at the book – the title, the cover, the description – and add from there.  I don’t do deep research before going into most books – I don’t read all the reviews, do a Twitter search for drama, and look into the social media behavior of the author.

The more and more I look to Twitter, I wonder about the irresponsibility of that.  But on the other hand, I’m against censorship of books, because I feel like… that’s too close to the world of 1984.

Let me roll back.

How many of your have ever read a book by a problematic author?

Maybe you didn’t know the author was problematic until you had already finished the book and were working on the review.  This happened to me when I read Ender’s Game last year.  I was absolutely flabbergasted that the book wasn’t talked about more because I really enjoyed it.  With a little research, I learned that Orson Scott Card is incredibly homophobic and he’s very outspoken about it.  Better writers than me have discussed the problematic nature of Orson Scott Card vs. Ender’s Game before, so rather than struggle in their shadows, I’m going to point you to this article by Rachel Edidin over at WIRED from the time when the movie came out.  She writes a meaningful, complicated discussion about her personal relationship with Ender and her feelings about the author.

Ender was a struggle for me in particular because even after learning about Card’s views, I kept reflecting back on Ender and trying to justify my reading it.  These views don’t come across in the story at all – they aren’t relevant.  And I didn’t buy a brand new copy of the book or anything – I borrowed it from Libby.

But there’s a trickle down effect to these things.

Because I read the book, I reviewed it.  Because I reviewed it, another set of words talking about Ender is out there in the world.  I gave it my time and I gave it my voice, and because of that, I gave it attention.  Someone noticed.  Someone else may read it.  Someone else may review it.  Someone may buy it, instead of going to a library.  Someone may buy it brand new and therefore Orson Scott Card will get a royalty and therefore in a long, twisted manner, I will have supported Orson Scott Card as a person.  That monetary support can be like ignoring his bigotry, and by ignoring it, I’m supporting it.

I don’t like that feeling.  I don’t like not reading a book because the author is a terrible person.  Even if I may not have walked up and high-fived him for a homophobic comment.  The knowing is like a snake curled up in my chest.

And yet?

And yet.

I still this the book was good.  Independent of the man.  But can we afford to think of books independent of their authors?

Let me offer another example, one that’s particularly poignant in the community because so many of us across the last 20 years have grown up with the story and it is close to so many of our hearts.

Harry Potter.

If you venture into the Twitterverse at all, you’ll have heard about J.K. Rowling’s views at one point or another.  Every time she opens her mouth, another section of the community falls away.  Back in December, she spoke out in support of a transphobic woman who was fired, and the community reeled. As they should have.  But this isn’t the first time she’s done or said something offensive, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.  The Harry Potter franchise has been combed through in the last five years or so, with many ex-fans disappointed in her treatment of character – minorities and the lack thereof.  While Harry Potter showed incredible diversity for a book in 1999, in 2020 it’s sorely lacking.  And it’s unfortunate that it was a good example back when it was published – the industry has grown so much, but it’s still not enough.

Many, many fans and changed their statuses over the last few years, particularly in the controversy over the Fantastic Beasts franchise.  If it was the transphobia alone, that would be enough to boycott Rowling.  And may people have – they’ve gotten rid of their books and sworn off the Harry Potter series because they do not want to support her by supporting the things she wrote.  As I said above – attention to the topics can mean attention to the author and therefore financial or at least screen-time support.

To me this is just… so complicated.

I am fully expecting a lot of hate here.  I’ll probably lose followers.  And I 100% support people who are boycotting any writer, any film, any television show or sports team because of the bad behavior of their participants, their creators.  But for me… stories breathe.  They have a life of their own.  And, particularly, because I borrow most of the books before I buy them, I don’t feel like that is really a call of support to the author.  Buying the book – shouting at everyone to buy the book – is different.  But to read it?

That’s what I tell myself, anyway.  That sometimes, some of the crusades are over-the-top.  Some go to extreme lengths, create an illusion that you must do XYZ or you aren’t properly cancelling those beliefs and if you aren’t cancelling, you’re supporting.  I try to tell myself that certain things aren’t a sign of support to the perpetrator… they’re just a girl.  Reading a book.

Are we ignorant not to disown these things in their entirety?  Things that have helped me (Harry Potter was so important to me growing up – I’m sure many can relate)?  I do not support these author’s views, and when bigotry appears in their books, I do not support that.  In fact, I work really hard to call out aspects that may be problematic, while admitting that I’m not in the demographic and I have probably missed so much.  I’m not even going to go into all the authors out there who are probably bigoted, but smart enough to keep their mouths shut.

Where does “support” start and finish?

This is something that troubles me fairly often.  I’ll get halfway through a book I’m enjoying, only to look into Goodreads and find 50 of my GR friends have boycotted the book because of an unrelated comment from the author.  To log into Twitter and find one of last year’s favorites was written by an author who made a racist comment and now everyone is throwing away that book and deleting the review, and calling out to the publisher to cancel any and all contracts.  It worries me to post sometimes.  I’m quite sure I must offend minorities.  I read the wrong things.  I say the wrong things.  I am part of the problem, not the solution.

I worry that no matter what I say, what I read, I will hurt someone.  Does anyone else ever feel that way?

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Have you read any books by problematic authors?  Did you know beforehand?  What did you do?  Does it depend on the author and what they’ve said, or on the book itself?  Tell me what your best practices are in the comments!

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16 responses to “Vetting Books by Their Authors and the Guilt of Loving a Book but Deeply Disagreeing with the Person Who Wrote It

  1. El

    I agree with you. It’s an incredibly complicated and complex topic. I feel like it’s case by case and a personal thing. I don’t think we should feel guilty if we read and enjoyed a book and only found out after! that the author, not the book, has done something problematic. We can’t (or at least I can’t) check every author before reading.
    And in the case of Harry Potter … the thing that I always tell myself when I talk about it or enjoy the books/the world is that the fans have basically taken the world and changed it. There are so many, basically universally accepted headcanons out there and the fandom is (usually) incredibly open, helpful and tolerant. HP has helped me through some incredibly hard times in my life, like many others and so I simply can’t cut it out of my life. I think in this case, if we talk about what the author has done and distance ourselves it might be enough? I don’t know …
    It’s difficult definitely. And I think everyone has to decide for themselves where they draw the line. But some books are very important for my mental health and not looking up every author and their possible wrong behaviour is as well.
    If I come across a new to me author and see they did something really bad I stay away from their books as it’s much easier when I don’t already have any connections.
    Sorry for the loooong comment and I’m not even sure I could get across what I thought, but …
    Really great posts! I usually try to stay away from controversy but it isn’T always easy.

    • Amber

      Same! I can’t count how many times there’s been an issue bubbling on Twitter (esp. Book Twitter, omg, the worst) and I sit there, type a comment, delete it, scroll through replies, type a different comment, delete THAT one, and so forth. Controversy is … tricky. Because we want to share our opinions, but also, is it… worth it? Is my voice the one wanted here (let alone needed – I’m a white cis female, I am literally *never* needed)? It has to come down to a person-by-person basis on the choices of not only what we read, but how we interact. I like to think we can be kind to one another. But, the choice… the choice is complicated. Especially when it comes to separating the art from the artist and if it should even happen. I don’t know that there’s any right answer, but I think you expressed yourself eloquently. 🙂 Thank you for sharing!!

  2. I struggle with this too! Especially when we are talking about Harry Potter. I don’t agree with the problematic things J.K. Rowling said and did, but I don’t want to break with the Harry Potter world. What you say definitively applies in this case, the story has a life of it’s own. I also think that saying something problematic doesn’t make someone immediately a bad person. This doesn’t mean I want to justify problematic behaviour. I just want to say that no one is perfect. J.K. Rowling did say things that were totally not okay, but she also gave millions to charity and she still created an amazing world. And loving or buying a book doesn’t mean that you totally agree with the writer.

    • Amber

      I think you make an excellent point here – people who do not share our values are not necessarily BAD people, any many of them have done very impactful, positive things. And while we do need to do our best to correct harmful behavior and educate ourselves, does an unfortunate comment undo other, unrelated good works. I think you’ve brought up a really good point here and it’s certainly something to consider. People are multidimensional, and on the internet, it’s easy to forget that.

  3. Leah

    Excellent post. I’ve wrestled with the same feelings. It’s complicated because you can try to separate the art from the artist, like something they’ve done, and then have someone ask how you can like it when the artist said or did X. Does it make you a bad person? No. Everyone is different, everyone is going to like different things. But it can be exhausting trying to keep up with reasons why you’re not supposed to like something.

    • Amber

      It is *very* exhausting. And it’s interesting to see the different trends on different platforms – Twitter tends to be a catch-all for bad behavior, but there are campaigns on Goodreads and BookTube and in blogs that don’t always reach other platforms. I see a lot of love for the Potterverse (running with the example) on Bookstagram, but almost never hear about it on Twitter anymore. … It’s just… it’s hard. And you can’t win. <3

  4. This is a really tough topic. Kudos for you for trying to untangle it here! I still don’t know where I stand on this. I was chatting about it with my sister while all the Lee drama was happening a few days ago. I had Gentlemen’s Guide on my TBR, and I was going to leave it there, but I ultimately decided to remove it. I think there is a line between appreciating a book and supporting a problematic author, but I don’t always know where it is. For some readers, I know the decision is really easy – they have no problem ‘avoiding’ certain books because there are so many other good books out in the world. That’s how I approach this discussion with my ‘librarian’ hat on. I only ‘hand sell’ or promote books I know aren’t going to a hurt a kid (ex. if the kid loves the book and looks up the author, they won’t find the author is a raging homophobe…). But also (HP is a good example of this) books can be so important in a young person’s life. I’m not sure it’s my place to say “You shouldn’t read or enjoy that book because the author is a bad person”. I’m sure I’ll be circling around this debate for awhile still!

    • Amber

      Your last bit is interesting there… knowing when and who should say “you can’t read this”. I think that’s a tough line to toe as well because as a general community, we’re very loud is black-and-whites, which is to say, it’s either YES or NO. “It’s Complicated” tends to be a relationship status we toe around and avoid… and I think these choices to read these books do need to depend on the individual… the people who find role models in authors vs. those who are here just for the story. Separating art from artist, or not. Whether a disclaimer is enough. Much of the online book community is keen to tell people what they should and should not read (not grey area) without throwing in issues of morality and distancing. All super duper complicated. I like the thought that it should be each person’s decision, and while the community can educate about related concerns, we are super fast to judge an individual by their tastes… and maybe we should not be so hasty. Wonderful thoughts!

      • Yes to all of this! I agree it seems everyone wants to bolt away from “it’s complicated” and argue that everything is black and white, when it is not always. Sometimes things ARE complicated, and we’re never going to work through that if we can’t stop immediately jumping to those fast judgments… Thanks for sharing your response 🙂

        • Amber

          Thank you for the civil discourse! This is the type of conversation I would NeVeR bring up on Twitter because I my experience of the answers there’re v. good/evil. Either you burn the books or you’re racist/homophobic/transphobic/sexist/etc etc etc. It’s so lovely to have calm, rational, honest conversations with people in a safe space. 🙂

  5. It’s such a hard topic and I have so many conflicting feelings on it. I think for me knowing an author has said hateful things immediately sours the book for me, and even if it was a favourite it just . . . stops being one on its own. However I absolutely don’t fault people who are able to separate the book from the author more when it comes to their faves (hell I wish I could sometimes).

    I think to me there is a very sharp line between reading/buying a book before you realize an author sucks vs knowing and still choosing to read the book (for the first time). Like if someone were to say “hey I know JK Rowling is transphobic but I think I’ll buy the books and read them anyways” I would find that . . . not great. However someone saying “hey I grew up with these books and yeah JK Rowling sucks but the books still mean a lot to me” is an entirely different matter.

    • Amber

      I think you and I have actually discussed this about the Potterverse before, Iris! <3 There's a lot of conflicting feelings to be had on this one, and talking about it feels very much like walking through a bog barefoot at midnight - nobody is quite 100% sure where they're going, only they have a lot of *feelings* and honestly odds are better than not that we'll all end up face first in the mud. :/ There are certainly smaller benchmarks within the greater picture to consider - timing, monetary support, exact situation - as well as the Big General Rule. Wonderful thoughts!

  6. I think you’ve made some really good points! It’s super complicated, and I have definitely read books by problematic authors without knowing about it, in addition to removing a book from my TBR because of the comments authors have made. Personally, though, I’m a firm believer that people can change and they can learn from those mistakes and aspire to not make those same mistakes again.

    But at the same time, I’m also not supportive of someone who has repeated the same mistakes multiple times, especially when marginalized authors get backlash for calling someone out and they receive a parade of bad ratings… and they’re already scrutinized a lot by their white counterparts who more often than not get away with it, sometimes with a slap on the wrist. (It just doesn’t sit well with me.)

    It’s a complicated issue, and it’s hard to decide where to fall.

    • Amber

      I have a whole bunch of feelings on the “lets destroy their Goodreads rating!” trains … which I started writing a comment on, but it got ranty lol so short and sweet, those are problematic in general imho. Don’t rate books your haven’t read. Comment, fine, let people read and judge for themselves… don’t rate.

      ANYWAY.

      I do agree that a productive conversation and allowing people to change and atone for their mistakes and having a dialogue would be so much healthier for all parties involved when unfortunate things are said or done. The internet tends to be a place of extremes, unfortunately, so we see the worst of people on both sides, and the angry fire sometimes swallows up whole grounds of people. This post is getting some great discussion and I think what everyone agrees on is a.) it’s complicated; and b.) it’s situational. Certain figures definitely need more … aggressive accountability and reactions than smaller, resolved situations. And everyone needs to find their own personal place… and hopefully, we can continue to have great dialogues like this one! <3

  7. I, too, struggle with this. There have been times when I see a different view from others. There have been times I have said the wrong thing and will continue to say the wrong thing. Not on purpose. Sometimes we say things without thinking first. I don’t want someone to think i’m a terrible person or hate me because I said something they disagreed with. I don’t want to dislike a book or be scared to say I liked a book because the author said something I don’t agree with. But I also don’t want people thinking I’m supporting an author that is homophobic. It’s such a sticky situation. UGH. I hate it, lol. What a wonderful topic <3

    Amber @ Escape Life in the Pages

    • Amber

      We as humans are all inherently flawed. I so understand the emotional strain of silencing oneself in certain conversations, and wanting to hide favorite books under the bed when the author has said something… unacceptable. And the fear of backlash for our favorites, old posts, future reads, etc. based on drama that honestly, we may have missed! It’s so very difficult, and we all have to make our own choices. <3 Thank you for sharing your thoughts!!