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.
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.
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?
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!