Problematic books. SJWs. The other kind of SJWs. People who pick up problematic books out of spite. If I know one thing about Book Twitter, it’s that it is divided.
It didn’t start with Shauna’s comprehensive review of THE BLACK WITCH, but things seemed to escalate with that. Now, after watching the “backlash” to this one review and seeing a new review go up about THE GIRL WHO WOULDN’T DIE and a fresh wave of heinousness, I want to process my own thoughts.
And how better to do that online, where everyone can see?
Disclaimer: I haven’t read either of these books, nor do I plan to. I am relying on the information of two well-informed, very smart people who HAVE read the books and provided their reviews.
I should mention that Justina Ireland has reviewed and provided a breakdown of the issues within THE CONTINENT (as an ARC, it is not published yet) and CARVE THE MARK. She also hosted an anonymous review of SAD PERFECT. I am using Shauna’s and Katherine’s reviews because they going into extensive detail and have been the focuses of this recent response wave of “anti-SJWs” (although I think SAD PERFECT’s review has started to pick up traction in this corner of Twitter, so check it out).
There is a TL;DR at the bottom. I got a little carried away.
Let me catch you up real fast:
THE BLACK WITCH
It’s a so-called redemption story in which a white person is consistently steeped in bigotry (especially racism) and repeatedly racist throughout the book until, hypothetically, the very end where she subverts her upbringing and becomes the hero of the story.
That’s skipping over it’s blatant rip off of Wicca (seriously, the main character is part of the Gardnerian family and wandfasting is a huge part of the society, etc.).
Long story short, the linked review goes into a ton of details about the bigotry espoused by the main character and her society against women and people of color in the book.
“The Kelts are not a pure race like us. They’re more accepting of intermarriage, and because of this, they’re hopelessly mixed.”
Honestly, that’s not even the worst of it. According to this review, too, the character doesn’t actually overcome her own racism. I saw a lot of people who read the book and enjoyed it (all white people, for some reason) say that it’s a series and the redemption arc will take place over multiple books.
So, basically, the author gets to write super racist stuff for at least one book and then make it all better by having her character do a complete 180 somewhere toward the end?
During the maelstrom on Twitter over this book, I didn’t see more than one or two people directly attack the author. THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AUTHOR AND WORK. People critiqued the work, the story itself. The story perpetuates harmful racist tropes, that doesn’t mean that the author is racist.
It doesn’t mean the author is not racist, either. It’s not a binary.
Secondly, if you see someone attacking a piece of writing for its racism and you take that criticism personally, you might be a racist.
POINT NUMBER ONE: Here’s the thing: when you utilize racist tropes in your story, you are having a real life impact by reinforcing those stereotypes. If your story is about a white person “conquering racism” then consider how you are taking away the agency of the POC in that story, of how the white savior trope is overplayed and outdated, and how you are speaking to white people who want to be absolved of their privilege and contributions to institutionalized racism. If that’s your audience, think long and hard about why that is a story you feel the need to tell. Because, with something like THE BLACK WITCH where bigotry saturates the story (and not in a way that criticizes it), the author is basically telling readers, “X group is awful,” “Y group is awful” over and over and over and over. Even if the MC makes an about face at the end, that’s almost a whole book where she said, “X, Y, Z, etc. where awful.”
A majority-group writer/character punching down at a minority group in stories should think twice about WHY they need to tell that story. Bigotry can be included usefully if framed as harmful, through a critical lens, not reinforced throughout the story.
THE GIRL WHO WOULDN’T DIE
There are two kinds of outraged when you see bigotry–outrage you feel on behalf of others and outrage you feel personally. I’m outraged on behalf of others about THE BLACK WITCH because I’m not personally attacked but I despise the idea of a world where this kind of hatred exists.
THE GIRL WHO WOULDN’T DIE affects me personally. This is a historical fiction about a Jewish girl surviving the Holocaust in Vienna, Austria.
It’s awful. Here’s Katherine Locke’s review again so you can see how awful it is. It’s awful historical research (major events that should have deep and meaningful impacts on the MC go completed unmentioned in some cases). It’s awful research about being Jewish. It’s just outrageous.
The main critique here is that the MC is a Jewish girl written like a Christian. She doesn’t act Jewish, think Jewish, or behave Jewish. She constantly looks down on Jewish people, lacks the essential Jewish culture that should have been a huge part of her identity, and we have YET ANOTHER story that romanticizes Nazis. What the hell???
POINT NUMBER TWO: BAD REPRESENTATION IS HARMFUL REPRESENTATION
Books about the Holocaust are not often centered around a Jewish main character, believe it or not. When they are, that character usually dies. So imagine how meaningful it would be to have a Jewish girl kicking Nazi ass and surviving the Holocaust.
That’s not what we get here. We get an MC named Arab (because God forbid our Jewish MC calls herself a Jewish name) who describes her parents as “filthy-rich Jewish parents.”
Filthy. Rich. Jewish. FILTHY. RICH.
In a book about the Holocaust. Told from the perspective of a JEWISH character. IN AUSTRIA. WHERE ANTI-SEMITISM WAS COMMON AT THE TIME AND REMAINS ENDEMIC THROUGHOUT EUROPE WHAT THE ACTUAL F-
You know what? If you want to read this book, just unfriend or unfollow me now. Get out of my life. We’re not friends.
It is so hard for me not to make assumptions about the author here. This is so awful. So I can understand when people personally outraged by THE BLACK WITCH made assumptions about the author–you assume a published writer is good enough to understand what they’re writing about. You assumed they’re good enough to understand what they’ve put into the world and how it will affect people, because a good writer understands their audience.
I put the review away right here for a while. I think I might have torn up the book and put the pages in my worm composting bin if I’d had a copy. This is just the beginning.
The thing about writers…
Look, I’m of the belief that writers get to write whatever they want. Hands down. No question. We need to recognize, however, that publishing affords certain privileges to certain writers so a gentile author’s terrible rep is more likely to be published than a Jewish author’s good rep, a white author than a Black author, and so on.
And you can write what you want, but if you want to publish then you need to own your work. If you don’t get it right, or you write a story that’s harmful, that is on you. You wrote that. You put that in the world. None of the gatekeepers that hold back marginalized writers thought to stop you, but it is YOUR. WORK.
Maybe you do not consciously practice racism or anti-semitism, but take a good, long look at yourself if you put work out in the world like this. Examine why you felt the need to tell THIS STORY. About a racist witch. A “Jewish” girl. A society where the aggressors are almost universally dark-skinned. A lesbian who is afraid to sleep with a man because it might turn her straight. A girl with an eating disorder that endangers real girls with eating disorders. A Muslim girl’s story where the romance is inauthentic.
I could go on.
Read the reviews. This post barely covers the tip of the iceberg. But I tried to make this short so here’s my actual point.
There is a different between being uncomfortable and bigoted
Plenty of authors have written books that harm a small group of people and are not called out to the degree the two above were. I recently called out THE GIRL FROM EVERYWHERE for it’s emotional abuse (and the author has since added trigger warnings to her website).
I, personally, found THE GIRL FROM EVERYWHERE triggering. It affected me for a couple of days after I finished it and maybe a warning on the description would have been really helpful–maybe I would have bought it anyway but then DNF’d it instead of forcing myself to finish it in the hopes the issue would be resolved. Who knows?
But the book itself is not harmful. It is not intended to throw emotional abuse in my face and it never once justifies the behavior as normal or acceptable. Am I super happy with that representation? No. But I don’t think anything needed to be changed.
The people who pick up problematic books simply BECAUSE someone calls them out say that readers should be allowed to read books that make them uncomfortable. I don’t think many of these people understand the difference between discomfort and trigger. The former usually challenges your views of the world, the latter is a response to trauma. It’s harmful.
THE HATE YOU GIVE makes some people uncomfortable because it forces them to confront racism and clearly frames such behavior as immoral at best and extremely dangerous at worst. THE BLACK WITCH is harmful because it perpetuates racism.
A well-researched, well-written book about a Jewish girl surviving the Holocaust is uncomfortable because it forces readers to confront one of the most devastating tragedies in history–and it probably frames the story with modern anti-semitism and the privilege of non-Jews, forcing them to confront that privilege. THE GIRL WHO WOULDN’T DIE perpetuates anti-semitism.
People who don’t understand the difference between discomfort and actual, unaddressed bigotry need to examine their privilege. And listen to those who are harmed. And don’t engage in those conversations. Take a seat, as it were.
White people don’t need to write stories like THE BLACK WITCH to create spaces that absolve us of our contributions, intentional or otherwise, to the institutionalized racism of Western societies. Christian authors don’t need to invade the Jewish space that is still deeply scarred by the Holocaust to find their place in that history.
You don’t need access to those spaces and, if you demand access, then you need to be able to explain why YOU needed to tell THAT story.
This is getting a little rambly so let me sum up:
- Writers get to write whatever they want, but you MUST own your work. If it’s harmful, if it perpetuates any kind of bigotry, that is on you. Own it. Deal with the consequences of your actions–especially if your privilege had a hand in getting you published.
- Books that perpetuate bigotry aren’t the same as books that challenge it and make readers uncomfortable.
- If you read racist books simply because an “SJW” calls it out, you’re a racist. End of story. Apply same to any other “ist”.
- Mainstream/majority writers do not ever NEED access to marginalized/minority identities. You can write those characters, but as soon as you write about what it means to BE that marginalized/minority identity, you’re on shaky ground because:
- You’re probably taking up space that a person with that identity is trying to occupy in publishing, so you need to be aware of how your privilege might allow you opportunities that an author trying to tell their own story won’t necessarily have because of you.
- You’re probably going to mess it up. Example: Jewishness is an ethnicity as well as a religion. It has its own culture complete with beliefs, laws, and traditions. If you aren’t Jewish and you want to write about what it means to BE Jewish (ESPECIALLY IN THE HOLOCAUST), you better be prepared to do the research. And if you get it wrong, you better be prepared to apologize to the people you tried and failed to represent.
And that is my collection of thoughts that have been scrambling around in my brain for now. Goodness, I didn’t even touch on the claims of censorship from people who obviously have no idea what censorship means (I’ll just refer you back to my passages on checking your privilege). You’ll find similar opinions and wildly different opinions around the various corners of the Internet.
I stand by those authors calling out harmful representation. The work they do is vital and difficult. If you can’t handle it, there’s the door.