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The Problem With ‘Problematic’

Private Collection/Portal Painters/Bridgeman Images
Jonathan Wolstenholme: A Literary Joust, 2006

Laura Moriarty must have been pleased when, this summer, her young adult novel, American Heart, got a starred review in Kirkus, the digital and print magazine that—like Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist—reviews books in advance of publication. These notices are important to publishers and, to some extent, can influence a book’s reception. The star alerts other reviewers, booksellers, and librarians: this book might be worth your attention.

Moriarty’s dystopian novel imagines a future in which Muslims are being herded into internment camps, a fact of minor importance to the novel’s white heroine, Sarah Mary, until she befriends an endangered Iranian Muslim, a professor named Sadaf. Increasingly fiery conflicts have erupted over books—especially children’s books and young adult fiction—in which writers create characters whose race, ethnicity, gender, or disability differ from the writer’s own. Moriarty is white and, at various points in the editing process, American Heart was sent out for “sensitivity reads.”

Sensitivity readers comb a manuscript for problems and mistakes ranging from thoughtlessness to ignorance to blatant racism. The blanket word is problematic: such and such a character or situation is problematic. Meanwhile, sensitivity reading has become a cottage industry. A quick online check reveals that you can have your novel sensitivity-read for a fee to be determined, starting at $250.

Kirkus, as is its custom, assigned the book to a reviewer (described by Kirkus’s editor-in-chief, Claiborne Smith, as “an observant Muslim person of color”) who not only had expertise in the field of young adult fiction but was also from the same community and of the same gender as the potentially problematic character. Simply put, a Muslim woman familiar with young adult fiction was assigned the book, which had already been vetted by a sensitivity reader; she liked it, and gave it a star.

A shooting star, it turned out. Posted September 7, the first reader review of American Heart on Goodreads, a “social-cataloguing website” owned by Amazon, was something of a rant:

fuck your white savior narratives
fuck using marginalized characters as a plot device to teach the white mc how to be a decent person
fuck you for perpetuating the idea that marginalized people need to suffer in order to be worthy of “humanity”
fuck this book and everyone who thought it would be a good fucking idea…
to my Muslim friends, i’m sorry this book and this mindset exists

After receiving more online criticism from readers, not all of whom seemed to have actually read the book, Kirkus removed the star from its American Heart review—a major demotion given that we have been trained from kindergarten to want stars, a reflex reinforced each time we’re invited to rate (with stars) everything from a Lyft ride to a haircut. The Kirkus review was reposted, in a revised and less enthusiastic form: “Sarah Mary’s ignorance is an effective world-building device, but it is problematic that Sadaf is seen only through the white protagonist’s filter.”

Claiborne Smith explained the magazine’s decision: “We’ve removed the starred review from kirkus.com after determining that, while we believe our reviewer’s opinion is worthy and valid, some of the wording fell short of meeting our standards for clarity and sensitivity, and we failed to make the thoughtful edits our readers deserve.” The unnamed reviewer was apparently consulted about the changes, but it’s unclear what her response to the edits was or how seriously it was taken, or how she might have reacted to having her review second-guessed.

American Heart is not the only book to have been affected by reader protest. After a firestorm of Amazon posts, Ramin Ganeshram’s picture book A Birthday Cake for George Washington was recalled by its publisher, Scholastic; its representation of the slaves who worked in Washington’s kitchen was deemed to be too lighthearted. The book was removed from bookstores, and refunds were offered to dissatisfied customers.

Candlewick postponed the publication of e.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s young adult novel When We Was Fierce in response to online complaints about its “stereotypical characters” and “made-up dialect.” In an email to School Library Journal, Candlewick cited the “dramatic contrast between the pre-publication reviews as compared to many of the social media and blog responses.” In an influential guest review of the novel on the site CrazyQuiltEdi, the writer and activist Jenn Baker cited the stereotypes in which the novel traffics: “We have the wise veteran; the impregnated teenage girl who aspires to more; the hardened yet fragile single mom working multiple jobs in the ‘hood; the abusive (albeit seemingly alcoholic father figure); multiple casualties; kids who are interested in basketball.”

Other manuscripts have been rejected, accepted books canceled, and authors advised to remove characters and events from their novels. Much of the backlash against these books is fueled by social media. Founded by sci-fi writer Corinne Duyvis, the popular Twitter hashtag #ownvoices recommends books in which “the protagonist and the author share a marginalized identity” and steers readers away from books that feature marginalized characters that have been written by “authors who aren’t part of that marginalized group and who are clueless despite having good intentions. As a result, many portrayals are lacking at best and damaging at worst. Society tends to favor privileged voices even regarding a situation they have zero experience with—just consider the all-white race panels on talk shows.”

The accusation that “society tends to favor privileged voices” is, according to some, not only a political analysis but an economic one. “The fear,” one literary agent told me, “is that if a publisher takes on a book written by a successful white male writer about a disabled Native American lesbian, a real disabled Native American lesbian might have trouble placing a book about the same subject at the same house; the publisher already has one.” What this suggests is that books are being categorized—and judged—less on their literary merits than on the identity of their authors. This is particularly true with young adult fiction, whose readers are presumed to be more readily influenced by what they read.

It’s undeniable that the literary voices of marginalized communities have been underrepresented in the publishing world, but the lessons of history warn us about the dangers of censorship. Unless they are written about by members of a marginalized group, the harsh realities experienced by members of that group are dismissed as stereotypical, discouraging writers from every group from describing the world as it is, rather than the world we would like.

The culture of young adult fiction is partly dedicated to helping young people avoid and resist bullying, yet it is being shaped by online posts whose aggressive, even ferocious, tone could itself be described as online bullying. One is reminded of how, under authoritarian regimes, writers have been censored (and persecuted) for referring, in their work, to the sufferings that their rulers would rather not acknowledge.

Almost every kids’ classic worth reading has been censored by some school district. Recently, a Mississippi school board voted to remove Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird from an eighth-grade reading list because, according to the board vice president, “There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable.” One could argue that a vital function of literature is to make people uncomfortable—a position unlikely to change the board’s mind. Yet cutting a book from a reading list seems less drastic that removing it from stores.

What’s distressing is the frequency—and the unexamined authority—with which the words “experience” and “lived experience” define who is qualified to write or even to weigh in on a book. If it’s not your “lived experience,” you’re not writing in “your own voice.” It doesn’t suggest much faith in the power of the imagination—our ability to envision what it might be like to belong to another group, another gender, to live in another historical era. To take the argument to its illogical extreme, how can one write a historical novel if one has no “lived experience” of that period? Meanwhile, the fact that the Kirkus reviewer of American Heart was chosen partly because she came from the same community as the novel’s “problematic” character seems not to have mattered when Kirkus caved to the pressure from online community critics.

Isn’t reading an experience that the writer allows us to “live”? Doesn’t fiction let the reader imagine what it might be like to be someone else? Or to enable us to consider what it means to be a human being—of another race, ethnicity, or gender? Should we dismiss Madame Bovary because Flaubert lacked “lived experience” of what it meant to be a restless provincial housewife? Can we no longer read Othello because Shakespeare wasn’t black?

We know that many classic novels and children’s books have included hideously racist images and passages that make us cringe. One hesitates to put such books into the hands of young readers without cautionary guidance. Not long ago, my granddaughter found, in the attic, a deck of tiny picture cards illustrating the adventures of the Spanish-language version of Little Black Sambo. It seemed helpful, rather than destructive, to be able to explain to her that once it was considered okay to picture black people that way. At six, she was old enough to be appalled, which seemed helpful, educational, surely: the germ of an idea about history and the world.

The young, we know, are impressionable, though one might ask if we aren’t giving kids and their families too little credit for being able to sift truth from falsehood, right from wrong. Do we seriously think that books have that much power in shaping character—that Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon, and Richard Spencer are the way they are because their childhood readings lists weren’t properly vetted?

I can still remember how pained I was, the first time I read The House of Mirth, to stumble on Edith Wharton’s portrayal of the sleazy Jewish banker, Simon Rosedale, who “had his race’s accuracy in the appraisal of values,” whose “idea of showing himself to be at home in society was to display an inconvenient familiarity with the habits of those with whom he wished to be thought intimate”—and whose ambitions are dashed by a society matron who recognizes him “as the same little Jew who had been served up and rejected at the social board a dozen times within her memory.” Though I would have preferred that a thoughtful editor had advised Wharton that her flat, biased, and stereotypical portrait of Rosedale was a serious flaw in her novel, I have never wished that her book had gone unpublished because of a furious online outpouring of rage. Moby-Dick might not exist if a sensitivity reader had objected to Melville’s depiction of the indigenous Queequeg, silent, telling fortunes. It’s painful to imagine someone reading Huckleberry Finn and having only one thought: fuck your white savior narrative.

Literature will survive online social media bullying just as it has survived book burning and state censorship. One of the ugliest aspects of bullying is the way the aggressor finds easy targets and avoids the bigger, tougher challenges. But these attacks—and capitulations—may make it harder for us to champion the importance of the imagination at a time when we so urgently need to imagine a way to solve the larger crises that face us.