The Twitterverse has once again erupted in controversy over a problematic book.
Let me sum it up in the vaguest way possible, so I can keep re-using this same summary when the exact same situation inevitably happens again next month.
- Person wrote book. They loved this book. They found it to be diverse and sensitive and amazing. Publishers thought so too, and set about making this book A Big Deal.
- Early copies got sent out, and at first, that original feeling prevailed. This book was a glowing tome.
- But one early copy was sent to a particular reader who pointed out that rather than being diverse and sensitive and amazing, this book was actually being racist and problematic and garbage.
- Because this reader is well-respected and has spoken knowledgeably in the past about similar topics, people listened. They began investigating the book for themselves. Very quickly, many of these newest batch of readers decided they agreed with the bad-book assessment rather than the good-book assessment, and began saying, very loudly, that this book should not have been written at all.
- The author responded to said criticism by saying it was unfounded and unkind, but the critics replied that being racist was unkind. To which the author asserted said book was not racist. The critics dared to argue by pointing out various examples.
(If I mis-identified the original call-out, my apologies–that was the earliest call-out I found.)
I haven’t read the book. I don’t intend to. I wouldn’t have anyway—it’s not my thing. But in all the call-outs of the author for general crap behavior, and the critique for using informal phrasing like calling the book “racist garbage” rather than using couched pretty terms like “this book is not befitting of the high standards of our society,” I think we are missing the point.
That is to say, we are screaming in the wrong direction.
Follow the money.
Always, always follow the money.
Do you remember around this time last year when another YA book got called for being disgustingly sexist? Remember that? And the thing I pointed out was that this was the book with the money behind it, and it didn’t matter what we said about the author, because said author had a whole publishing company behind them? And that even if we got all angry and were 100% correct in our disgust, that book would still hit shelves and be pushed and printed in the thousands and shoved into libraries across the country? Because ultimately, our internet words do very little and publishers have all the control and the system is bullshit?
Well, here I am, saying it again.
The system is bullshit.
Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit.
This new problem book was written by an author who is one person. And yes, the book is a problem, but you know how many problematic manuscripts exist? I’d venture for a number and say upwards of a million. Truly. Upwards of a million racist, sexist, homophobic, religion-bashing, people-bashing, I’m-missing-various-terms-here, etc, crap-hole manuscripts exist.
They matter not, because no one is reading them.
A manuscript in a bedside drawer is nothing. We know this.
The problem is when first an agent picks up that manuscript and thinks it’s good. They then show it to an editor. Said editor must agree it’s not only good, but has the potential to sell in the thousands. Millions even. They show it to a board of various decision-making people, and all of them agree: this book has Something Special, and it fits in their catalogue, and it doesn’t complicate things, and it doesn’t overlap with any other books they’re offering.
That publishing house then buys the rights to publish said problem book, above thousands and thousands of books that are not a problem. And then they set about publishing it.
You can yell at the author all you like, but I’m looking at those ten-twenty people who stood between that book and the world and pointing a finger. Yes, the author wrote it. But until the publisher lurched into action, it went nowhere. That manuscript was a dream, a wish, a fragile nothing. Publishers gave it oomph. They put it out there. They made it happen.
This is not a one-author problem. This is a multi-national corporation problem.
For those of you who aren’t with me, let me put this another way. Story-form, because I’m an author.
Widget Inc is a big company. They make soda pop, and potato chips. They make baby formula. Diapers. Cereal. Crackers. And of course they make everyone’s favorite brand of cookie. Everyone loves Widget Inc!
One day, Widget Inc puts out a new kind of cookie. It’s called Islam is the Bomb Cookie.
Some people do not like this. But few people listen. Islam is the Bomb Cookie continues to sell.
The next year, Widget Inc puts out Women are Nurturing Cookie.
This time, more people are angry. They say, we don’t like this cookie. They are shouted down by others who say that Women are Nurturing Cookie is delicious. Critics decide they won’t buy this cookie, and it is quietly rebranded as Women are Nurturing Sometimes Cookie and life continues.
After all, they’re just cookies. Round, press-mold cookies.
The year after that, Widget Inc puts out Diversity is Great cookie which is decorated with happy caricatures of diverse people. This seems like a great idea. Many people praise Widget Inc.
But someone points out that actually, these diverse people are just based on age-old stereotypes and are not diverse, but grossly racist. And being fed to children, who are encouraged to look at the cookie shapes and “see themselves.”
Do we say, “Now now, Widget Inc, bad company, take it back.”
Or do we say, “Widget Inc is trying to make a quick buck off a real issue and obviously does not give a crap about what they are saying so long as they make money. And because they do not care about my health and humanity, I should should stop buying ANY Widget products and tell my friends to do the same.”
Which is more effective?
The problem of this bad book will not be solved by yelling at the author, however good it feels. It won’t be stopped by educating the writers on Twitter who’ve yet to set their words free, though that’s a very worthy cause. You can do it, but we’ll be having this same discussion again next month because somewhere out there, no matter what, someone is writing a Problem Book, and the same people in the same publishing houses, and the same agents on 5th Avenue, and the same editors, bloggers—who am I missing?—consumers!—are still out there doing the same old thing.
You want to make a change?
Don’t yell to the world that the author is racist; they’re just a cog. Yell that the publisher is, because they are the machine.
The machine runs on a million spinning parts, and one of them is YOU.
You, and your wallet.
You want to not have this exact same problem flare up month after month?
Stop feeding the machine.
Stop giving legitimacy only to books published by multi-million-dollar companies staffed by white, upper-class people. Buy small press, buy indie. Look at the author photo. Look where your book came from.
Yes, you as a consumer.
You as a writer.
Change what you can do. Don’t boycott this book. Boycott the entire publisher.
Or I guarantee you, I can copy-paste my scenario above into a new post once a month from now until eternity.
The system is broken.
Let’s rebuild it.
I’m S. Hunter Nisbet, writer of post-apocalyptic dystopian novels of the dark and gritty type. I write about white generationally-poor Appalachians dealing with the sort of everyday monsters our society is so good at producing. And apparently I’m good at it.
These are affiliate links. They support me writing more books and blog posts. If you like this website or otherwise enjoy my writing, please buy my books.
Thanks for reading.
3 thoughts on “It isn’t about Authors, It’s About Gatekeepers”
I hesitate a little to comment on this out of concern I’ll come across at hideously racist (whereas in real life I’m at worst mildly racist ;)), but what’s life without a few risks.
I should preface this with the fact that I haven’t read the book at the centre of this latest controversy, though I did click across to Goodreads to read the blurb and one or two reviews denouncing the book as racist. I’ve also missed the entirely of the Twitter conversation around it.
I agree, publishers should be accountable for the books they publish. They don’t choose books to publish lightly, so there should be no excuses along the lines of, “oh, we didn’t think of that”. But was it really remiss of them to let this one through?
From my surface read of the situation, I can easily see why some people would see this as a wonderful book and others would find it terribly offensive.
What bewilders me is that the book is about fantasy races. Okay, they happen to have red or brown skin, but what does this have to do with anything? Would it be better if the savage races had blue or green skin and the heroine had black skin?
Fantasy writers have always drawn inspiration from real races and cultures, some more overtly, some more subtly. Does having a fantasy race called the Codderwops (yes, this is a deliberately ridiculous name) who happen to wear feather skirts, use stone age tools, and hunt giant flightless birds make any statement, offensive or otherwise, about a real race? My first inclination is to think it doesn’t. Yours may be different. If you think it does, you’re likely to find the book in question racist and problematic. If not, you probably won’t.
What if all the members of one fantasy race are gross stereotypes of a real race? Well, that’s just bad writing. Characters, at least major ones, should be individuals, not just stand-ins for their races. Some readers will be bothered by stereotypes, others won’t. People read bad writing all the time. If you don’t like a book, feel free to not buy it. Feel free to buy it and give it a terrible review. People who take the other opinion and don’t find the book problematic will buy it, and the balance of the two will tell the publisher whether they made a (financially) good call by publishing it.
Should books that would be successful not be published if they’re going to offend some people? That’s starting to sound a lot like censorship to me.
It’s about fantasy races being described using real-life terms. “Red-skinned,” “almond-eyed,” “savages.” If it’d been about blue-skinned people being saved by a purple-skinned woman, we’d not be having this conversation at all, because those are fake.
But people with single-lidded eyes and various hues of not-Caucasian skin do exist.
Frankly, I’m not going to debate that the book is problematic, because I firmly believe that it is. But I’ll link you to what I personally feel is the most compelling argument:
Having been on the other side of the coin trying to explain to a classroom full of Japanese kids why whatever crap they’ve picked up from TV is racist, I go with “It’s not my experience, and if people are coming out of the woodwork going ‘this is a problem,’ then I need to listen.”
If this was an adult book, I’d likely roll my eyes and move on, but it isn’t. It’s slated for school libraries, public libraries, and front-and-center displays in January, which is a big book-buying month for teens with gift cards after Christmas. This is the book with money. And this is a big conglomerate saying “racism is cool, kids!”
That’s a problem.
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I agree – books should not be teaching kids that racism is cool. I clearly have a missing radar for things that people find offensive, so from now on I’m going to ensure all my races are blue or purple with horns, just in case. (It’s fantasy – I can’t see that skin colour makes any difference.)
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