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When You Loved a Problematic Book

Foz Meadows is absolutely my favorite SFF & fandom blogger/critic. One of the reasons I love her blog so much is that it raises questions and possibilities about things I love, like Supernatural, and things I haven’t read/seen, like The Traitor Baru Cormorant. I started watching Teen Wolf because of Meadows’ discussion of it. She’s an incredibly thoughtful and intelligent writer, and I’ve never not enjoyed a post of hers.

Last week, she wrote about Uprooted by Naomi Novik, a book I gave five stars and said “I read this book overnight. OVERNIGHT.” Her title was the ominous “Uprooted: Abuse & Ragequitting.”

If you’ve read Uprooted, the post is worth a read. I won’t quote it here because this isn’t really a response to Meadows’ discussion of the book–and she’s not wrong. The short of it is that Uprooted, inventive Beauty & the Beast retelling that it is, uses the classic trope of a female character falling somehow into the power of a male character who is at best rude, and at worst, cruel and abusive. And then they fall in love. I knew this going into Uprooted, and I saw it, but I was easily swept away by the world-building. Meadows points out that the abuse is never satisfactorily addressed, and this is what allows readers to similarly shunt it aside.

Again, though, this isn’t just about Uprooted in specific. It’s about what happens after a book or a show you love is called out, rightfully, for bad behavior.

The first reaction tends to be denial, or justification. And with Uprooted as our example, there’s certainly things to say about the ways in which the second half of the book really does move beyond that tired old trope (it does, but it doesn’t undo the beginning, which we are undoubtedly expected to forget, and which expectation I know I happily fulfilled). The inclination is understandable–you’re defending not only this thing you loved but also your own honor. I’m a feminist, I couldn’t love a book like that, you think. But you can, and you did, because (and Meadows touches on this) you were not always thus, and you likely consumed a lot of harmful media that now makes it harder for you to resist the pull of these narrative constructions. I love Beauty and the Beast. But that romance is built on some fundamentally shaky ground.

So, what to do instead of leaping to the thing’s defense? On paper, it seems simple: listen harder. In this case, for me, it was easy–because I did see what Meadows was pointing out in the book. If I hadn’t? It’s hard to say what I really would have done, though I’ve been practicing at this for years (this being overcoming the denial/defense reaction and listening instead). But theoretically, the first thing is to read the blog, or listen to the podcast, or whatever, again. Several times, if necessary, listening to every word, turning it over in your mind. You have to listen with the goal of understanding, not with the goal of forming a rebuttal. And after you’ve done that, if you’re still confused–do research. Research the trope. Find other posts on the topic. Discuss it if you need to (with the understanding that no one owes you an explanation). If you feel like you must rebut something, do so, but do so prepared to accept the consequences, which may very well be another blog or podcast or post rebutting you. And if that happens, start again with listening.

It’s hard. I’m extraordinarily resistant to admitting I’m wrong, and a situation like this, where I happily skated over some really terrible things, is worse than simply being wrong. Like I said, I saw what Meadows saw. I didn’t let it bother me. I accepted it. And in doing so, I turned my back on a lot of fellow readers.

Why bother listening, though? Why not just ignore the haters, as they say?

Because the people who call out books and shows and movies for bad representation are not haters in that way. They’re doing what they’re doing with a desperate hope of improving our media, because art affects us on really deep, unconscious levels and so we need to understand the consequences of our art. We need to understand what it does to us, to all of us–what we might be doing to other people, through our art. When I was a child, I built my sense of self out of my favorite heroines: Belle, Hermione, Alanna, Eowyn. In college, I constructed a lot of my interactions with the people I was romantically interested in like they were scenes in a book–I even wrote a short story about doing so. When we joke about Disney or Tolkien or Austen giving us unrealistic expectations for romance, it’s because those stories shape how we view and interact with our relationships.

And for this reason, it’s important that we listen and consider critiques of those stories.

6 thoughts on “When You Loved a Problematic Book

  1. “You have to listen with the goal of understanding, not with the goal of forming a rebuttal.” Yes. LOVED this. Very hard to do, when a book you love (or your own book) is being questioned and flaws or weaknesses called out. But the only way to improve our media is to really learn from the others around us and learn to think more sensitively, rather than defensively.

    Sam Taylor, AYAP Team

    1. Absolutely. So hard, but so necessary. And it’s an ongoing process, not just a one-time thing.

  2. Reblogged this on Further Annotations and commented:
    ‘Because the people who call out books and shows and movies for bad representation are not haters in that way. They’re doing what they’re doing with a desperate hope of improving our media, because art affects us on really deep, unconscious levels and so we need to understand the consequences of our art. We need to understand what it does to us, to all of us–what we might be doing to other people, through our art. ‘

  3. Interesting. I’ve heard of Uprooted, and I was interested, but knowing this, I think I’ll give it a pass – I don’t think I could get through a story with an abusive relationship and I damn sure wouldn’t forget about it. >_< But I agree with what you've said here, especially about reading what someone says to understand it, not to rebut it. I know I've gotten caught up in replying to someone who I'm sure is *wrong* and wanting to get them to see it my way. And that's not how a discussion should be.

    1. Yeah. It’s a problem I have all the time, even in daily life–like, spending time in a conversation planning what *I’m* going to say instead of listening to the other person. I’m better about it now than I used to be, but I still have to watch myself for it. And when you add issues like this on top of it? It’s easy to see how “discussions” become cesspits, haha.

      The sad thing is, I still want to recommend UPROOTED because the writing is beautiful…so instead, I’ll say that I’m interested in checking out Novik’s other work, but that this one is safe to pass on.

  4. […] quote from a review of a book I’d never read, or even heard of, got me […]

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