If you’ve spent any amount of time reading about reading books on the Internet (as you do!), you’ll know exactly the feeling I’m talking about. That moment when blissful fangirl happiness curdles when someone, somewhere, points out that the book isn’t nearly as perfect as you believe. Even worse, it has problematic elements – whether it be social or cultural. How do you deal with this? Take a deep breath my friend, it’s OK – you’ll get through this, and you’ll still be able to love your book at the end of it.
You might have noticed that I spent an entire two weeks without blogging recently. This was partly because I was on holiday in NZ – and partly because I was too busy binge re-reading Harry Potter to care about blogging. It was my revisit of Harry Potter that prompted this line of thinking. Encased as the series was in the rose-tinted lens of nostalgia, I had previously missed a lot of the more problematic elements in the books. Such as:
- The foreigners e.g. French being treated as caricatures, this extends even to the Magic in North America kerfuffle that has exploded on the Internet recently.
- The distinct lack of diversity in the actual text – despite JKR’s post-series additions. They truly felt like an after thought.
- Snape was a bully and the world’s ABSOLUTE WORST teacher – how was Dumbledore OK with this? And how did I manage to erase his bullying of Neville from my mind?
- House elves are slaves – but even Dumbledore and the Weasleys appeared OK with this system, only Hermione was horrified by the wizard’s treatment of non-human creatures. Otherwise, it’s all treated as a bit of a joke.
Of course, I still love Harry & co. Besides, in my personal opinion, the series’s pros far outweighs it weaknesses to me. So although I can acknowledge these issues, they don’t weigh too much on my mind. Besides, I was always told by real-life friends that I was not a ‘true’ fan of movies or books – they felt I was too nitpicky to be a real fan.
How can we have progress in diversity, in cultural and social accuracy if we hand-waved away anything that impacts on our enjoyment? What better way to champion the things we truly love by accepting it for its flaws and for its greatness?
Thus, I think it’s important that we do not label any voices expression dissenting opinions as ‘haters’ – especially when they are making valid arguments for misrepresentations of their culture or gender. Recently, I had to learn this lesson again numerous times:
- When I saw posts and tweets expressing disappointment at JKR’s portrayal of North American magic – particularly in relations to Native American magic. Despite her track record, I still had difficulties believing that Queen Rowling could be wrong – I thought the internet was being hypersensitive again. However, on reading the posts in more details and comparing to what I could find on Pottermore – I have to agree they have a perfectly valid point. Now, I applaud their courage on speaking out.
- Not long after that, I saw more tweets concerned about the portrayal of Native American in a debut young adult novel. Even more passionate was the response from the book and author’s fans – who seemed to disagree with the argument – or at least the way it was presented. I have not read the book in question, so I can’t pass judgement. But it showed me that simply presenting your argument is not enough – you have to do it in a respectful manner to the audience of the book as well.
- Then I have to come back to my guilty pleasure in reading Memoirs of a Geisha – a piece of fiction that has time and again been proven to be filled with cultural inaccuracies, not to mention tinged with a sexist lens. I read this when I was 15 – I thought my youth was the reason for my folly. I reread it again recently at 25 – I have to admit now that I do like it, despite my knowledge of its problematic elements.
So do I feel slightly ashamed for liking Harry Potter or Memoirs of a Geisha? Actually, I have to say ‘no’ – as I am still entitled to my opinion.
However, would I recommend these books and praise them without reservations? I have to say ‘no’ as well. The only way that awareness about problematic issues can grow is by people speaking out against it. This way, one day, we can love more books with less problematic issues. Where we can be sure that the representation is accurate, instead of feeling like a bucket of ice has been splashed in our face when we find out what we love is not all it seems.
Sorry this was so rambly… but I want to hear your thoughts! Have you loved a problematic book? What did you do when you find out? Do you love it still? Let me know!