What Are ‘Problematic’ Books?

Something I’ve been trying to be a lot more aware about, which the bookish community provides for on social media, is knowing what books are considered to be ‘problematic’, and therefore which books I should avoid. Regardless of whether these books are called out for being racist or ableist or homophobic, or whether they trivialise important matters, it’s the bookish community that I have to thank for spreading the word about these novels and promoting diverse and #ownvoices narratives instead.

But what I want to talk about is the fine line between acknowledging a book had problems and banishing it from shelves altogether because it’s been deemed problematic. At what point does a book become problematic? Does one wrongly-worded line equate to evil? Should we destroy the reputations of books and their authors, not matter how diverse, because of a thoughtless joke or an off-handed remark in the narrative? Yes, I do consider myself an advocate for diversity, but no, I won’t stand for the metaphorical burning of books at the stake.

A little while ago, one of my favourite Aussie novels was accused of being racist — a novel that has been loved and embraced by the Aussie YA community for years now, and only when it was published recently in the U.S. did it start getting attacked for one possibly problematic sentence. I was horrified to see this beautiful, diverse, f/f novel being attacked because of one line. That book was the first novel I ever read with a queer protagonist and to see people refusing to read it because of one line read out of context broke my heart.

But the book that got me thinking about this whole issue was one that I’d been wanting to read ever since I saw people raving about it on Twitter — which, to be honest, is where I get most of my book recommendations. I didn’t know a lot about this book before ordering a copy because I knew that it was contemporary and was about grief, and that’s all I needed to know that I’d enjoy it. But that’s when the controversy arose. A short passage was highlighted — a passage that appeared to be a joke about suicide. Of course, I was saddened to find this as depression and suicide are issues close to my heart and I have no patience for those that try to trivialise those matters.

However, I was still keen on reading this book as I’d already ordered it. Sure, my excitement for reading it was dulled from the backlash on Twitter, but I still wanted to read it nonetheless. It would take a lot for me to decide not to read a book that I’d been excited about for months and had already bought a copy of. I do this thing on Twitter where I always say what I’m currently reading, so I said that I was reading this particular novel, and immediately I got comments from people asking if I’d heard about the joke about suicide in it. I told them that I had, but I was still looking forward to reading it. What frustrated me a little was how quickly people dismissed this book because they’d read that one line out of context. How can you say you hate a book and you’ll never read it because of something like that?

My reading experienced ended up being tainted by that. The whole time, I was wondering when that ‘problematic’ part would arise, and I wondered if the diverse representation and realistic portrayal of experiencing panic attacks was enough to balance out that one silly remark. And then I read the passage. Obviously, people read things in different ways, but to me, it was in no way triggering. It was very clear that it was a silly joke between two classmates trying to have a laugh. I in no way endorse jokes about suicide and this part could very easily be removed from the novel, but to banish this book from shelves because of that one part is a bit excessive. It’s not as though the author himself comes across to dismiss or trivialise suicide — it is the actions of the characters, and something that I’m sure many readers have experienced ‘jokes’ similar to in their own lives. Most of us would be lying if we said we’ve never made a comment like ‘this class is so boring, I want to die’ in our lives.

Am I such a bad person for being willing to overlook one questionable line in a novel if the rest of it is diverse? At what point are we allowed to acknowledge that a book might have a questionable segment, but encourage others not to discredit it because of that one part?

Should people have to hide what they’re reading because they’re too afraid people will come after them for reading something that has been dubbed ‘problematic’ by the self-appointed kings and queens of diversity advocacy?

Let's Talk

How do you find out that certain books have been deemed ‘problematic’? Do you refuse to read books if they’ve been called out for being questionable? Are there any books you’ve stayed away from because of that? Do you think we should disregard certain books, even if only one line is questionable? I’d love to hear your point of view on this topic!

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33 thoughts on “What Are ‘Problematic’ Books?

  1. If I want to read a book I’ll read it. Plenty of books are problematic – And sure it should be discussed but I don’t see it as a reason for avoiding a book. Especially if it’s like one line that presumably makes the whole book problematic.

    • Absolutely! It’s often very hard to avoid problematic elements in books as most do contain at least something that will be considered offensive or insensitive by some. So I definitely think we should be aware of any ‘problematic’ elements, but not limit our reading because of one line. Thanks for checking out my post!

  2. Love this post! 100% agree with everything you mentioned and – as usual – your discussion was amazingly eloquent. Just curious, what was the second book you mentioned? Was it The Inexplicable Logic of My Life? I know the former was The Flywheel. 💕💕

  3. This is such a great discussion, and it’s something I struggle a lot with as well. There’s a lot of self-righteousness and viciousness that comes along with the great things on Twitter, and it saddens me to hear that about The Flywheel (I’m assuming that’s what you were talking about?). I think there’s definitely room to critique while still enjoying books – Harry Potter is incredibly messy but I will love it forever. I still don’t know what the line is. Some books are way beyond the point of problematic, of course, but almost ALL books will have problematic elements and I think as long as we point out its flaws we can still enjoy them.

    As for Goodbye Days (guessing again lol), I completely agree with you. As morbid as it is, suicide jokes were a huge part of high school culture for me and other people, and it rang very true for me.

    • Thank you so much, Emily! I completely agree about Twitter. It can be a great tool for recommending and sharing books, but I hate the way it can be used to create a mob mentality by some. And yes, most books do have something that will be considered problematic or questionable by some, but we shouldn’t have to be ‘banned’ from reading them because of the fear of how we will be portrayed. In addition, those jokes were a big part of high school culture for me too, and I despise the way this book has been painted in a negative light because of something that is very real in many high schools. Thanks for reading my post! ❤️

  4. YES YES YES SARAH I COULDN’T AGREE MORE!!!!
    Like, what if a book has been deemed problematic in one aspect, but the still has a bunch of other positive diverse aspects and good representation? Are we supposed to disregard those other things just because one part is problematic? I don’t think so.
    I feel like as long as you address that the book could be triggering or has been called out for problematic rep, then you should still be able to love and recommend it to others. There’s a difference between a book that has a completely offensive narrative to a book that may have had one offensive sentence.
    I think it’s wrong when that sentence is taken completely out of context, and people then deem the whole book and author problematic.

    But seriously, thank you for this post! You’ve literally put my thoughts into words.

    • Thank you, Dani! I couldn’t agree more. And I definitely think it’s important sometimes to separate characters from the author. It infuriates me that some think the author is racist because of something a character says. Like, would it be the same for a character who kills another? Does that make the author a murderer? It’s quite ridiculous sometimes. I’m so glad you feel the same way though! Thanks for checking out my post 💕

  5. Great discussion! I guess it’s similar with my recent post about intersectionality, but this one is more of perception and translation of said books. Personally, if a book I’m really excited to read deemed problematic, I would still want to read it, but not as excited. There are a lot of books deemed problematic lately, every book seem to have problematic aspect. The thing is, each person experience is different. Things that are considered stereotypical or problematic rep to other representation can be harmless to me, and vice versa. So I will still read the book, but be mindful of the problematic aspect of it. There are things that make me don’t want to read a book though, like rape-jokes, for some reason. But other than that, it’s fine. Tbh I’ve seen a lot of people bashed some book “problematic”, but they themselves are loving other “problematic” books, so again, it depends on perception.

  6. This kind of things scares the HELL out of me. As a writer studying to be a psychologist, I really like to address really dark and taboo topics in my books – the main character in my WIP comes from a very outdated community, with lots of racism, child abuse, and all kinds of awful traumatic topics; naturally, having come from a such an upbringing, my character herself is racist and has some very anti-humanitarian ideals about life.
    I guess what I HOPE, is that people see that this isn’t endorsement of such views, but actually challenges them. Over the course of the book, my character grows immensely as a person as she learns new things about what is and isn’t an okay way to think; her negative ideals get challenged, one by one, over and over, to drive home the point that she is in the wrong and must change.
    Fingers crossed I do this well and don’t get black balled!

  7. My problems with problematic books is that it’s difficult to talk about some of the more in-depth elements of the book without coming across people who think that “Well if you don’t like the book, don’t read it, but don’t ban it”. I dislike mentality behind that because:

    A) the person making that comment appears to have completely missed the point of Literary Critique. The reason I review Books (especially the books I like) is to take them apart and discuss what about them makes them work (or doesn’t work) and what makes them enjoyable (or unpleasant) to read.

    B) It’s often not enough to point out something problematic, it also needs to be explained why it’s problematic (the history behind the problem is important), and how the writer/author could have avoided it or changed it, otherwise writers/authors will continue to keep doing it without realising. Although, a writer/author does have the responsibility to do their own in-depth research on the topic in question.

    C) If an author writes a shitty book, they deserve to held accountable for that, regardless of why that book is shitty. It doesn’t matter if the problem is bad editing/grammer or racism, a book published by a publishing house had to go through several humans in order to be published and someone should have pointed out that problem before it was published. A Publishing House is a business, and if a business makes a faulty product, the consumer has every right to complain about that.

    But I do agree with the points you’re making, although I feel that it’s important to talk about why it’s problematic. I will agree that the problem of “taking one line out of context” is silly and can seriously hurt an author, especially since it’s difficult for Australian authors to migrate book sales overseas. I think Twitter is a little too quick to form The Angry Mob in these cases and it’s difficult to undo once the damage has been done.

  8. Twitter’s definitely made me more aware of problematic books which I’m grateful for but I think it does make it easier to take things out of context. Hearing a book is problematic definitely makes me less excited to read it and it has put me off in the past but it’s hard to judge a book you be never read.

  9. I Love this post!!!!!!

    I have been way more aware of problematic books since joining Twitter, and sometimes it makes me nervous to read something that everyone says is “problematic” but I do feel like it depends on the extent to which there is a problem. If the overall message is racist/homophobic then there is a serious problem, but when it is one line taken out of context, or just a certain (minor) character who acts that way, then it’s sort of just a realistic representation of society.

    Society is racist and by forcing books to cut that out completely, you’re going to be hurting kids by not showing them the “truth”. I’m all for diversity and think we should point out problematic/triggering content, but as long as it is a character, not a message/author, we should still be able to read it.

  10. It’s become quite scary…if you say you want to read a book that has been officially deemed “problematic,” you become part of the problem somehow? Why?
    Since when is my desire to read something mean I’m being callous? I’m afraid to post positive reviews now for books I might read and enjoy bc ppl might be upset about it. There are scores of other ppl who are “allowed” to rate a book negatively and dismiss it without reading it, so when someone DOES read it, why shouldn’t we be able to rate it positively?
    I hope this attitude changes. I shouldn’t have to be afraid to like a book. Great post. 😊

  11. I. Love. This. Post. I couldn’t agree more, and I’m so glad you brought this up! The classic example that always comes to my mind is the Little House on the Prairie books. They are so beloved yet problematic. I think it’s good that we have books like that because it gives us opportunity to talk about the problems. I think not reading or banning books for problematic material has the opposite affect of what we want. We don’t want to ignore those problems. Wonderful post!!!

  12. “Am I such a bad person for being willing to overlook one questionable line in a novel if the rest of it is diverse? At what point are we allowed to acknowledge that a book might have a questionable segment, but encourage others not to discredit it because of that one part?”

    So I can’t really comment on most of this because I’m white and not Australian so I don’t really understand the whole ‘surfer dreadlock’ thing you’re talking about but this bit (that I’ve quoted) I just wanted to comment on because I think a lot of people ask questions like this but the answer is sort of in the question.

    The fact that you can ‘overlook’ the questionable content means that you are not affected by it, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt others. Overlooking can easily, very easily, be misinterpreted as excusing it. I’ve definitely enjoyed books that have had problematic content in but instead of ‘overlooking’ or letting it slide, I have brought it up in reviews to let people know it’s there. I may have loved said book, but I cannot excuse a, for example, racist passage just because it’s not directed at me. I can’t excuse it and I won’t because nothing will change in the publishing industry if we overlook content like that. If it’s a book that I have not read, but others have brought up as being problematic and I was excited to read it, it changes my mind about a book. I don’t wanna read a problematic book anyway, because I just won’t enjoy it. Like you said, there’s the whole book and then one line, but if I read the book anyway, and said line doesn’t affect me, I’m not going to say ‘Huh? It’s fine, what are people talking about?’ You can’t just refuse what people have experienced. While it may not have affected you, it’s important not to overlook it. Even just a “there is a line in this book that others have found triggering for suicide etc” at the end of your review can be enough and help a lot of people who don’t want to read any more books that poke fun at their mental health. You don’t have to trash the book, and you shouldn’t be afraid to say you love the book, but just acknowledging that there is content that some readers may find offensive/triggering is enough. Sometimes, more needs to be said because problematic content should not be excusable, but sometimes it’s just a matter of ‘does this affect you because if so, I’m letting you know it’s in here’. It’s definitely helped me when it comes to problematic content regarding bisexuality. With other reviewers talking about it (many of them bisexuals themselves) in reviews, I’ve been able to avoid biphobia in books that I wanted to read. I already unexpectedly experience biphobia sometimes in real life and also in other content I consume so it’s nice to avoid it in the books I read too 🙂

    There are some books that do need to be discredited for their content. If you can discredit a book because it has e.g. poor dialogue, you can discredit it for being problematic/offensive. But yes, there are some that don’t need to be discredited but at least have the author/publisher made aware that lines and passages such as those should not be overlooked. At that point, even if it’s an author you love, you would hope they would learn from a mistake like that and do better. Balls in their court from that point.

    Hope this wasn’t too long or rambly and made sense haha! I do love a good book community discussion 🙂

  13. Wonderful post! You bring up a lot of things I question on a daily basis with reading. If I want to read a book, I will – problematic or not. There are some I won’t due to not being interested in the content (Lolita for instance). I feel as though we can learn from these – I don’t advocate for racism, sexism, or any form of discrimination. However, I would still read them to present my thoughts in a review on how the book presents problematic themes and how it may give certain readers discomfort. It also really depends on how far we’re talking with “problematic”. For instance, many books I love have racist words due to the time period it was written in. I usually address this in my reviews, showing that this isn’t acceptable but nevertheless it’s still in the book. “The Little Prince” is a great example of this. It’s truly loved and considered an amazing classic, yet it’s problematic for it does have racism in the text. Does this mean I can’t enjoy the book? Of course not. But people need to acknowledge that this does have inappropriate content. It’s a small section, but it’s still there.

    I also really dislike how people comment on what others read…It really bothers me. I remember I had to read Mein Kampf for a class in school. I despise the man who wrote it and what this book stands for, but it was fascinating to see his psychology just by reading a piece of literature. The comments I got when people saw that I read it were so rude and I felt awful. But now I really couldn’t care less. Yes…I read it. Yes…it was disturbing. But I learned something about this awful man and gained insight as to what I don’t want to be.

    I don’t know much about the dreadlock thing, but I’m a firm believer in the Freedom to Read. I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of content presented in books – but I don’t necessarily think they should be banished. I also think it can be taken out of context. For instance, people get at Paterson’s “Bridge to Terabithia” due to the swearing. But the author specifies that this made it more authentic, and it related to where she grew up. It wasn’t because she wanted to have inappropriate language throughout it – she wanted it to feel more real.

    Wow…I wrote a lot…sorry. Anyways, I agree with SO many points in your post and totally go through the same thought processes. Just know you’re a good person and what you read doesn’t necessarily define you – it’s what you take from literature and how you act after that knowledge that does. Great Post!

  14. It’s incredibly easy to be willing to overlook something that doesn’t offend you personally but if it did how would you feel then?
    I personally no longer support Veronica Roth because of her portrayal of different skin tones in Carve the Mark. I didn’t reach that conclusion until after she released a statement about it. She basically said that she realizes her privilege as a white woman and that the tropes she used were harmful but other books did it too. That doesn’t make it right. The fact that she was able to recognize that it was harmful should have been reason enough not to condone it.

  15. This is a great conversation! I’ve seen people condemn whole books because at the start the POV was a male chauvinist and they didn’t like it and refused to keep reading. What they missed out on was a fascinating novel that dealt with some strong concepts. If some of these chauvinistic/racist/offensive views are written in a tone that demonstrates a point of view that is relevant to the setting they can explore ideas that would not be possible if done so in a PC manner. If I have read books along these lines it has been very clear that the author isn’t condoning these POVs and of course taken out of context can be deemed offensive. I guess it all depends on the way it is written book to boo, author to author, and even then everyone’s line will always be different. Loved reading this thread!

  16. Oh gosh, if I decided Iwasn’t going to consume media (whether it’s books, movies ,tv, whatever) that was problematic, I wouldn’t have an awful lot of things to read or watch! The important thing is being aware of potential problems and being critical of the media we enjoy by owning up to its problems even while we still enjoy it

  17. Great post, I think problematic books are such a weird area. On one hand I don’t want to support a book that has problematic issues and issues that have upset anyone. But I also don’t think we should banish and criticise authors so extensively, especially when it’s one line that was problematic. I often feel guilty for reading a problematic book, I’ve seen numerous people get harassed for reading these books and I don’t think that’s fair at all. If people don’t want to read problematic books then that’s their prerogative but I don’t think anyone else has the right to tell people what they can and can’t read. I do think problematic elements of books need to be pointed out but I don’t think harassing people who read this books is fair at all!

  18. I couldn’t agree with this post more! THANK YOU for bringing this up! I’m fed up of people slating books for this reason, and dismissing these things as being “problematic” when they happen in real life all the time! I’ve said it in a few of my book reviews; if these things weren’t written about in books, it wouldn’t bring our attention to it in the real world. I’m fed up of feeling guilty for reading and even enjoying a book when it’s been slated on twitter for being a problematic book. I wish people would stop tainting other people’s reading experiences. I appreciate other people’s opinions, but there comes a point when it spoils the book for other people before they’ve even had a chance to read it and form their own opinions.

  19. This is a very controversy thing. I personally will read a book and decide if how I feel about it to me. What is a problem for one is not a problem for all. Acknowledge it, address how it makes you feel and handle feelings in a healthy way. If certain things are bothersome, use the internet to research books and reviews before opening it so you can either avoid or prepare. We are responsible for ourselves and how we handle things. It’s not for society to do. There are unfortunate things that happen, to everyone, at some point. And not everyone copes the same. I am wishing the best for anyone struggling right now for any reason.

  20. This is a really good post! I remember seeing a really great ownvoices book with a bi protagonist get dragged on twitter for allegedly having biphobic content. The quote was completely out of context and got shared over time because the reviewer who pointed it out was popular, and it really disappointed me. I’ve seen that happen with a lot of books. I’m definitely an advocate for diversity and I’ve called out one or two books myself, so it’s not that I’m anti-callouts in general; I just don’t like that we often focus discussions on “whether a book is problematic” on one review, sometimes by someone who has not read the book. There’s this odd sense of “if you liked this book with one vaguely homophobic line that’s shown to be negative, you hate lgbt people” even though lots of lgbt readers loved the book! I guess I think it’s important to talk about problematic content, but we shouldn’t blacklist every book someone dislikes.

    • Thank you so much for reading it! I saw that too, and it was very disheartening, especially because I related to it so much as a bi person. Calling out problematic books is sometimes necessary, but we need to go about it in the right way. I hate the way we automatically blacklist some books though!

  21. I think people are absolutely free to read (and should be free to read) books that are problematic to others. I also think the fact that a book is problematic to others should not be ignored. Often, it’s easy for those who are not affected by an issue to be somewhat dismissive of a statement simply because it doesn’t affect their lives. The dreadlocks line most likely would have left a fairly poor taste in my mouth, though it’s not something I’d condemn. But being that dreadlocks (even if in Australia, they are a part of male surf culture) really became known to the world as a part of black culture, and I myself am black, it’s going to irritate me a bit and that’s not something I’m going to apologize for. I frequently read books written by people who do not have to consider the world outside of their race and culture. There are often problematic things I know full well that those people do not at all mean to be problematic. It doesn’t change the fact that they are.

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