Discussion: When Your Favourite Book Is Problematic

Discussion-Problematic-Faves

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!

46 thoughts on “Discussion: When Your Favourite Book Is Problematic

  1. This is a great, great question, and very interesting insights as well! I LOVED Harry Potter when I was younger and like you, definitely ignored many of its problems. I haven’t reread it again, but I wonder constantly if when I get to it, it’ll be a different, lesser experience altogether. 😛

    I’ve loved many (MANY) problematic books — I’ve read numerous romance books since that was my other main genre for years, apart from YA, and god knows maybe 80%-90% of those books present an unhealthy, problematic view on sex, gender, relationships, love, and all things related.

    My recommendations in these cases usually go along the lines of “I love this book! There are certainly problematic elements in it but my reading experience was largely enjoyable, so i recommend it” type of thing. I feel that with certain books you kind of owe it to yourself (or to your readers?) to point out the problems (i.e. this or that is sexist, racist, etc.), especially when those problems lie below the surface and aren’t apparent. It’s good to bring attention to these things because that’s how we get better, I feel.

    Sorry this became rambly! Apparently I have a lot of thoughts about this. Great post, Aentee. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I used to read a lot of romance and NA, so I definitely understand you when you say that you find a lot of them problematic – I find the same with a lot of K-drama I watch, but I tend to handwave it away due to the nature of the genre, haha. I do hope one day these things will take a more progressive approach to their views on romance and relationships though.

      I love your attitude towards it, as I firmly believe we shouldn’t be ashamed or try to hide the things we love – as long as we are frank about their shortcomings as well.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Aentee.
    You have every right to bring out these concerns.
    Get ready to hate me, because this is how I am with the ‘Lord of the Ring’ movies.

    Aentee – “No! Icky! How can you say that? The movies are perfect and loving recreations of the books! I just came from vacation in the ‘Shire’! No, Ichabod, you are wrong, wrong, wrong!”

    Sorry Aentee, but in the second movie, a squadron of elves does not come marching up out of nowhere to help in the defence of Helms Deep. This. Does. Not. Happen.

    In ‘The Return of the King’, an army of elves DOES come riding to the rescue, but in the movie there is no elf army; just Legolas.

    As far as I know, I am the only person that notices this. It kind of ruins the franchise for me. I hope I have not ruined these movies for you.

    Your nit-picky pal,
    ~Icky. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha I 100% understand that the LOTR movies are not a perfect adaptation of the book. However, the LOTR books themselves are also takes a very shallow view on good VS evil – product of the time it was written, I guess. Nonetheless, I still love the film series with all my heart, if anything, I love it more than the books XD

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for posting about this, it’s a great topic! This is why I’m sometimes hesitant to reread things I really, really loved at one point or another.
    I think maybe sexism is the worst thing to me – because I feel really strongly about it, so I notice it more easily? But then… It’s all so subjective.

    I love the Kingkiller Chronicle (with an alarming passion) and I’ve heard a few people say they take issue with the scarcity of female characters in it. But I think that the female characters that *do* exist in it are all really cool. Like, the most badass character in the entire thing is Devi who’s a young woman, pretty much a genius, and obviously smarter and better at magic than the protagonist. So I appreciate their point but I don’t agree with… I guess?

    I don’t know, it’s so difficult especially when we all have such different backgrounds. But I definitely agree with you! We should talk about it, that’s really the only thing that’s going to help us move forward 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sexism definitely quickly leaves a bad taste on my mind – but thankfully a lot of the more recent books esp in the YA genre deal with this issue effectively. It’s movies where I am constantly cringing, though.
      I am a fan of the Kingkiller Chronicles as well – though I am one of the fans who think that the female characters are short changed (sorry!) – I reread it recently and still hold the same opinion. I guess it’s because Kvothe is given so much time to be awesome – compared to him ALL characters, male or female, seem underdeveloped.
      Thanks for giving the discussion so much thought and your in depth comment 🙂

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  4. I think maybe these books were never my absolute favourites because I was already in my twenties when I read the first one, (I was 17 when the first one came out) so I read them noticing these faults and as much as I enjoyed the books (and I really did) I never had the rose tinted glasses view of a young reader, which I’m kind of disappointed about as I think it might have been nice to experience HP with pure innocence and wonder!

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    1. I think people are wont to view HP more critically if they read them later on -simply because there’s already so many pre-existing discussions about its shortcomings. This is the price you pay for loving a well known series, I guess XD

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  5. Wow I love your insights! I never really considered these points, but I was really young when I read it. I feel like these would be glaringly obvious if I reread the books. And I kind of want to.. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hmm, very interesting post! Even though I cannot remember exact examples, I remember something similar happening to me. Sometimes I get so head over heels in love with some books that I easily forget or pay no attention to some minor problematic issues. Than of course I am caught off guard when someone mentions it. Usually I can see the reasoning but it never changed my initial opinion about the book. But I do agree that people should speak out for or against books, it creates awesome discussions if people can be respectful about their opinions!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am so grateful for the people who speak out when they think some things are problematic. Even if I don’t always agree with their POV, it’s important to keep the conversation going and to keep us reflecting 🙂

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  7. I agree. I really hate it when you get called a hater for expressing negative thoughts or call out a problem – especially if it’s related to culture and race.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing the post Natalia. I think that the wonders of the internet is that you can usually find someone that agrees with you though. The bookish community in particular is quite receptive to marginalised voices, so I don’t think you should ever be scared to state your opinion.

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  8. You bring up some good points about Harry Potter, which is my favorite book series. This whole discussion reminds me of when Harry is upset when people criticize Dumbledore. Like Harry, for most of the series, we readers see Dumbledore as a champion for good, a man who always does what’s right. Our first reaction when someone criticizes our favorite book is the same. “You’re wrong,” we say. Or, “Why are you trying to ruin this?” It is only after some time and distance that we gain some clarity and are able to acknowledge the problems. We still love the book, but we’re willing to admit that it and its characters are sometimes flawed.

    I think all books can be problematic in some way. There is no such thing as a “perfect” book. There will be cultural, social, and historical inaccuracies and misrepresentations. Like you said, it’s important to have discussions about these topics. Sometimes when we read a childhood favorite, we put the book up on a pedestal. We think the author has created a masterpiece and can do no wrong. As an adult and a writer, I now know that writers are far from perfect. We make mistakes. As long as we are willing to accept criticism, learn from our mistakes, and continue the conversation, I think we’re headed in the right direction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the way you parallel Harry’s views of Dumbledore and our view of HP – I have never thought of it that way – but it’s such an apt comparison!
      I agree that because books are by humans, even our favourite can’t be free of flaws. Thanks for voicing your opinion on this topic!

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  9. Great post! My thoughts on this basically boil down to: it’s fine to like (or love) a book/series that is problematic in some ways, but you should acknowledge that it isn’t perfect and that it has problems, both to yourself and to other readers (or potential readers).

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Yes, I do. Despite having the fact that Hopeless by Colleen Hoover is filled with a lot of running to nowhere, I still love it. I’ve also had it pointed out to me that my favorite book boyfriend (Garrett Graham) is kind of a loser, but I don’t care! Great post!

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  11. This post is great! I can’t think of any books atm but I’m sure there are some. The first thing that came to my mind was the rebooted Star Trek movies. I love them but they have so any issues like their lack of females/sexism and whitewashing people. It’s the same for me. I recognize that it has flaws but I still enjoy it. On the other hand, I’ve heard of some books having issues (or the author having issues) and it’s put me off reading that particular series or the author’s books.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I feel like the biggest example of this in my reading life is Twilight. That series introduced me to young adult, it broadened my reading horizons and it connected me with so many fandom friends all over the world thanks to Fanfiction of that series. But it has SO MANY problems. And for a long time within my circle of fan friends, I felt like I was the only one addressing the issues. I actually got into a discussion with my cousin when Eclipse the movie came out over Bella’s treatment of Jacob and kicked her butt because she realized I had a valid point haha but I feel that sometimes when you love something, you want to defend it with your whole heart. Yet I feel like books are like people, you can love them despite their faults as well as love them because of them

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I really loved this post. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to read/watch Harry Potter the same (which is a good thing) I’m also quite ashamed of myself for not picking up the issue surrounding the house elves. I never liked Snape even after he is claimed to be “good” 10 year old me didn’t think that he was good but everyone kept telling me he was. It was very confusing .

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  14. I really loved reading this post, because this is something I’ve noticed the more I read about sexism, diversity and accurate representation. A lot of books and TV shows that I love hold innacurate representation and I think that we, as fans of the series, need to point that out. It is sad, indeed, when you realize your favorite book isn’t as perfect as you thought, but I think that is even more eye opening when we can accept that not everything we like is “perfect”.
    I have to say that I can’t do this all the time: sometimes, I just want to protect my favorite book and author and keep telling myself people are being oversensitive, but I don’t think you learn a lot by doing that. 😦
    Again, that was a really great post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! 💟

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  15. Aentee, you have hit so many good points here. We can love a book or a movie, or a person (!) and recognize that they are flawed.

    There are a lot of books that I enjoy and there are plot holes or sexism or prejudice of other kinds. There are things the author has overlooked or not researched clearly. But the story is what matters to me. And usually, the intent is not to offend or harm. I just read two books that had very negative portrayals of Native Americans. Both these books take place during the 1800s when white settlers started taking over Native lands and disrupting their lives, destroying the buffalo herds. It makes sense that they are portrayed in a negative view from the white settlers who were attacked. But I’m holding out hope that the next books in these two series will have a more favourable portrayal of these peoples. All people groups have positive and negative aspects and “good” and “bad” people.

    I think what you said about respectfully discussing these things is the most important and is something that has been lost in our internet culture. It is possible to dislike something but still have a reasonable discussion about it with someone who likes it. I heard a politician speak earlier this week about this very topic. He’s a liberal in a land of conservatives and he loves being the different voice and that he has a ton of conservative friends. But he emphasized that all his discussions with these conservative folk are respectful and that he looks at both sides and everyone comes to the table with examples to back up their thoughts.

    And I’ve ranted a bit too… 🙂

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  16. If you’re looking for a book that won’t contain a racist line or a sexist message or a problematic tone, you’re not going to find it. We’re all a product of our environment and have a lot of internalised messages that are problematic inside of us. As much as I believe it’s important to not put those messages into our own work and creations, I think it’s equally as important to be able to read it and see it in the text, and also react to it.

    I love Harry Potter, and, to address one of your points, I liked the twist on Snape, but I still believe he’s a bully and a man who isn’t as mature nor as amazing as many people believe. But I can still enjoy the book for what it means to me. I have issues with its representation of matters, but I think there’s something to be said in being able to see them in the text and being able to react to it and acknowledge it for what it is and not make excuses.

    You should still recommend books you enjoyed, despite their problematic themes. Sometimes that’s intentional on the author’s part, sometimes it’s not. I know Harry Potter has a lot of issues in it, but the story of death is what I read the books for and it’s what I take comfort in as a reader. You can still like books that have these issues. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I think being able to acknowledge them and have a good discussion about them is the way to go.

    Start your recommendation with “This was a great book because …” And acknowledge it has its problems. People will come to their own conclusions because they approach stories with their own personal context. But don’t stop enjoying a story because you can see its issues and you feel horrible for liking a story that contains them. You don’t support them, and liking a story that has some problematic messages doesn’t reflect ill on you.

    This was a great post. It got me thinking about why I enjoy the stories I do despite some of the issues I find in them.

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  17. I don’t mind flawed characters or problematic books, as long as the characters grow and learn or there is a point to the story. I just finished Wink Poppy Midnight and all those characters were a mess and I don’t even understand what was the freaking point…

    Even my favorite books have issues or things that annoy me 🙂

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  18. This is an interesting discussion. I’ve enjoyed reading the comments as well as the post itself.

    Thinking hard on it now, and I don’t know if *any* of my favorites are non-problematic. Gone With the Wind is probably the quintessential example — I grew up with the image of Scarlett O’Hara as the perfect, tough-as-nails Southern Belle, but it wasn’t until I got out of the predominately white echo chamber of my childhood that I even started to think critically about the terrible treatment of Black characters, both in the novel and — perhaps even more strikingly — in the movie.

    Another good example is the Chronicles of Narnia. Even as a kid, the fate of Susan, the eldest child-turned-Queen, bothered me. Then I stumbled across Neil Gaiman’s “The Problem of Susan” short story — which in itself is not perfect, but it suddenly highlighted the subconscious problems I’d been having with Lewis’ cold treatment of the girl who’d discovered “nylons and lipsticks”, whose fate was to bury her entire family by herself.

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  19. Confession time: I haven’t read any of the HP books. YES. I KNOW, I KNOW. But in my defense, I’ve watched the whole movie franchise. I have to admit I liked it a lot, but I didn’t get addicted as much as a dedicated Potterhead would. I didn’t even notice those problematic points until you’ve mentioned it above!

    I think, if we’re really in love with a book or a series and yet it’s a bit problematic for some people (that we sometimes call “haters”), us lovers of that book should hear them out and weigh their points. If they have a valid argument and you still love the book, then that’s okay! Even though you still support the book, at least you’re more aware of its weak points now, right?

    Great discussion post, Aentee!

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  20. This is a fantastic post Aentee! I totally agree, sometimes when we love a book it’s easy to brush aside some of the deeper issues when it comes to diversity, true representation and sexism. I don’t think being a true fan means that you don’t agree that the text has problems, but it’s interesting that your re-read has brought these issues to light.

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  21. I have to say I’m way more lenient with fantasy books, even if they are urban fantasy or set in this world. Historical fiction though, hmm, that’s a more tricky area because I’d at least expect the author to get the historical details right, whether it be dates, people, events, or culture. Still, I see nothing wrong with enjoying a book when it comes to pure entertainment value, the flaws be damned. And in the case of Memoirs of the Geisha, I totally understand! That you know its shortcomings but still like it is perfectly natural, I don’t think any reader should ever feel guilty for liking what they like.

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  22. The problem I am having with the entire Pottermore “thing” is that it is not a published book and can very easily be retracted, or at last amended. Other than them changing the masthead for that section of Pottermore from the skinwalker image to and eagle, nothing has been changed. Pottermore has made one comment about the situation and it was to say they would be making no comment. JKR has made no comment at all. She posted on Twitter, not too long ago, before the Native American faux pas came up, that she is a person who is not afraid to say when she is wrong, so why is she being so closed lipped and stubborn about this? Many many authors have been saying that it is their responsibility to go forward in respect to change the way minorities and other groups are unfairly depicted in future writing. Where has JKR been in this discussion? I might still love the feeling of her wizarding world, but will not be okay with anything she writes from this point forward if she remains unmoved about her portrayals of Native Americans/First Nations.

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  23. This is a fantastic post, Aentee! I feel the same about Harry Potter – I’ve become a bit disillusioned with Queen Rowling as of late, with her depiction of Native American magic. I think it’s so, so important to listen to the voices who are actually affected by these portrayals, because ignoring them means we never advance at all. And it’s certainly something I’ll keep in mind if I ever publish a book 🙂

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  24. This was a lovely post! I’ve read Harry Potter when I was younger (probably 11 or 12?) so I overlooked most of its flaws. Now that you mention it, I agree with what you have to say. I’m still pretty clueless about the North American wizards though. I’ll have to catch up with them!
    No book is perfect unless we think it is. There will be some inaccuracies and also, every person might see it differently, right? I don’t think it’s wrong to enjoy a book even if it is flawed, because after all, they are a means to escape reality (in a good way) right?

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  25. Very thought-provoking post, Aentee. Your list of problematic elements Harry Potter is very interesting. I love that series, but I’ve read it long time ago and haven’t thought about these things you’ve mentioned. I wonder if we get more critical upon rereading a book.

    Also this sentence resonated with 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.” So often instead of respectful discussion we see a lot of drama and We against Them fights.

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  26. I’m currently rereading Harry Potter and yeah I’ve found the same problem with the house elfs. It really bothered me that Ron and Harry found Hermonie’s concern funny rather than serious.

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  27. YES! *nods head vigorously* I feel like this happens all the time. Sometimes I will read a book and absolutely adore it, and then someone might point out a few flaws and depending on whether I agree with them or not it might change my entire view of the book. I feel like Harry Potter is such a good example of this because it is such an amazing and classic book, but it still has flaws. I think this just shows that no one is perfect so no book written by someone can be either.

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  28. Not including the first Harry Potter book, I haven’t read them. And TBH I don’t even know if I’m keen to (despite owning the complete set). I just feel like there has been SO many things that have really made me wonder why the whole world is in love with it. I also can’t stand people being praised for diversity that they LITERALLY did not include in their books. You can’t take cred for something you did not do. So yeah, I’m not particularly keen on that kind of thing.

    As for loving a problematic book … it does happen. Of course it happens. I don’t think there’s a book out there that doesn’t have something problematic in its pages. Because nothing is perfect.

    I adored Memoirs of a Geisha when I watched the movie and then read the book when I was about 18. Like you, I’ve since found out that the author used a lot of artistic licence when it came to the actual history of geisha in Japan. But I still love it. I really like the story. I wouldn’t rec it if someone was looking to learn more about geisha in a more historically accurate way, though.

    There have been other books that I’ve loved and then found out they perhaps aren’t as wonderful as I had once thought, but that’s okay. We are always learning and growing as people and readers. I will always keep those problematic aspects of the book in mind when talking about it. And I think that’s the best we can do – realise that what we love isn’t perfect, and make that known. Bring it to people’s attention, and ask for future books to pay mind to the problems of past books.

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  29. GAH YES. I went through the same thing with Harry Potter (briefly) and Memoirs of a Geisha like you did. And also for A Song of Ice and Fire? I mean, it’s really, really, really cool. It does challenge a lot of fantasy tropes and I guess some of the problematic aspects of it could be stylistic choices? But the TV show has been even more problematic, and now I’m re-evaluating why I ever liked it … *shrugs* Lovely discussion, Aentee!

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  30. This is sooo true! I totally get your point. And especially when this happens with a book I loved and then I hear about those different it feels so conflicting! Nonetheless, great post!

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