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!