This is not a new topic.
This is not something that has started happening suddenly. You just didn’t hear it, either because there wasn’t a platform that could let people be heard so quickly or so easily, or because those voices are the voices of people who are ignored and oppressed.
That’s right, a book you love, a book that may even be your absolute fave, has been called out as problematic.
So no book is perfect. I know, I know. But the sooner that is said, the better. The whole reason this discourse exists is because of that sentence; it is physically impossible to find a book that no matter who reads it, everyone will love it. Because it doesn’t exist.
With that in mind, let’s give this blog post a bit of context:
The online book community is a big one, especially on Twitter, where we are constantly in discussion about everything and anything, which is fantastic. But one thing that continually has the community divided is the calling out of problematic content, either already published or about to be published. Like I said, this is not something new; problematic books have been called out for years, but it’s a little more recent that it’s been done using Twitter threads by bloggers and other authors.
An example of universally accepted calling outs are Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey (and I’m lumping them together because a) one is a product of the other, and b) they both fall victim to the same criticism). These two series are well criticized for being misogynistic, perpetuating rape culture, glorifying abusive relationships, and romanticizing abusers. People got defensive, and instead of actually listening, they shouted.
This reaction is natural, but also does nothing to help the matter.
More recently, and on a smaller scale (to a certain extent), minority voices in the online book community have started calling out problematic books on Twitter. Examples include Sarah J Maas’ books, soon-to-be-released The Continent, and in the last few weeks, Nevernight. I wanted to write this blog post because before, I felt I could not speak about this subject from a personal point of view; but now that one of my favourite books of 2016, Nevernight, has been called out, I feel like I can talk about this in a way that will hopefully speak to others who have been in a similar situation and even perhaps dealt with it in the wrong way.
Because ooh boy, does it get dealt with in the wrong way.
So I read Nevernight around mid-July as an ARC. I loved it, and bought a shiny new hardback version when it came out. I raved about it in almost every bookish chat I joined on Twitter, and gave it a glowing review on Goodreads. Cut to a few months later, after seeing multiple call outs about other books that I neither care about or haven’t read, I see Nevernight be add to the pile people like to call ‘do not touch with a barge pole’.
Shit, I thought, and began reading every single thread and consistently monitoring Jay Kristoff’s Tweets like a hawk. Why? Why is this happening to a book I love?
In all seriousness, this is probably going to happen to a book you love.
So, while I’m bisexual and female, I still have a lot of privilege; I’m white, cis, able-bodied, and middle class. But let’s focus on white. As a white person, I have not been subject to racism. I have seen racism, most definitely, but I have never experienced it personally. And so it’s harder for me to notice implicit racism in the books I read because white people can very easily ignore racism, and they do, because that’s what society has taught us to do; everybody is a little bit racist, to quote Avenue Q.
So when I read Nevernight, I did not see racist depictions of any kind. But just because I did not see them, does not mean they’re not there, and this is why the online book community is causing so much drama.
Anjulie, a fellow book blogger, has a very insightful and educational blog post on her experiences with Nevernight and how, as a WOC, she read the book and saw these depictions, and better explains it all than me.
Now, this has happened, and people are calling my favourite book ‘trash’ and tweeting ‘yeah, this is coming right off my TBR pile’, what the Hell is going on? And what can I do?
The reality? Nothing.
Me reading Nevernight is in the past. Me falling in love with Nevernight has already happened. On the one hand, I could stand up and say ‘Yeah this book sucks’, but there are tweets and reviews and instagrams of me saying I love it, and so me saying I think this book sucks would be a fat lie. To me, it does not suck, but at the same time, I cannot ignore what people are saying about it. I can’t disregard how hurtful these depictions are to people just because I like the book. What, if you’re in this position, you should be asking yourself is not what should you do, but what shouldn’t you do.
First off, please, do not defend the book. This is not the same as disagreeing with a review where someone has said the book is shit, this is you, a person not affected by the problematic content, denying a person who is affected by the problematic content a voice. At this point, in a world where minorities are still oppressed through even craftier ways such as casual racism, we need these voices to call us out! And if you are a person who cares more about the book than the fight for equality within literature, then we’ve got a real problem on our hands. You also do not need to defend the author; a lot of people rushed to Jay Kristoff’s aid to harass the teenagers who were hurt by the depictions in his book. Jay Kristoff is a grown ass man and handled the situation fairly well, and you tweeting ‘They’re just cry-babies’ just makes you look like a cry baby.
You also need to not ignore these criticisms, just like you wouldn’t if you were considering reading the book. Nevernight has been slated for having the ‘savage’ depiction which, when based off of actual indigenous or native cultures, can be really damaging and racist. I am not about to ignore these criticisms; I want to know why I didn’t pick up on it before, and also I want to listen to the people who are speaking about it, because it is them who understand better than I do, and it is them who have to deal with this shit day in day out.
This doesn’t mean I have to toss my copy of Nevernight in the trash. But this also doesn’t mean I have to persuade people to ‘read the book then form an opinion’.
The best thing, at this point, is for me to understand that Nevernight is problematic, and to support the voices that are saying so by hoping that Jay Kristoff can do better. Because that’s all you can hope for; I don’t want Jay Kristoff to stop writing books, nobody wants to say to an author ‘You need to stop writing’, and so when problematic content crops up, all you can say is do better, please, because this should not be happening in 2016, in a community that prides itself on being diverse and inclusive.
Maybe an example with a much wider scope is Sarah J Maas…yeah, all of her books. SJM has a massive following, but almost all of her characters are white (with the POC characters appearing in one book at a time and dying at the end), as well as having skewed portrayals of healthy relationships and weird carbon copies of male characters that have ‘animalistic’ traits that force them to be dickheads. Despite mass uproar about this, people still try and defend their fave by calling POC jealous of SJM’s success, as well as voting for a SJM in every goddamn category in the Goodreads Awards. But you know what? You can still enjoy SJM while still calling for better, you can still hope that SJM sees the criticisms of her book and how they affect her readers (‘I want a boyfriend like so-so’), while reading every single one of her books, and the only way to do that is to make sure that the criticisms are heard loud and clear, instead of seeing the people who are genuinely affected by SJM’s lack of racial diversity as the enemy.
So what happens now?
The book you love is problematic, but that does not mean you are not allowed to like it anymore. Sure, the way you feel about it might automatically change, but this is pretty healthy. There are many people who still read/watch content that know how problematic it can be and have an awareness of the things it needs to improve on, but can still say they enjoyed the content as a whole. Coming up soon, I have a post where Nevernight is listed as one of my favourite books of 2016, because it is, but instead of pretending the criticisms never happened, I will explain them and hope people will take them into account before reading. Will this mean less people will pick it up? Probably. Are some people going to see the criticisms and call Nevernight a ‘dumpster fire’, hell yeah they are! This is the internet. But you can still listen to the people who are deeply affected by this on going racial stereotype that just does not seem to stop. It is far worse to flat out ignore what has been said than to acknowledge that sometimes even your faves don’t get it right.
But hey, there will always be better books. As long as you find them and read them and love them. There will always be books that get it right, that deserve to have the exposure.
Only you can decide if you like a book or not, the rest is just influence. I wrote posts on why liking things isn’t a bad thing and why disliking things isn’t a bad thing either. But completely disregarding problematic content is blind faith, and is part of the problem of why there is a lack of diversity within books.