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Reading in Bad Faith January 15, 2022

Of the millions of pieces of fiction written over the past two hundred years, a big chunk of them are harmful in some way. They're racist or sexist; they teach young readers that cruelty is cool; or they portray rape, murder, and other crimes as fun and exciting.

More than once, I've been accused of maliciously inventing problems in beloved stories just to ruin them for everyone else. My most unpopular observations:

  • Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre is a predator who imprisons his disabled wife and then emotionally manipulates his teenage employee, who has no support system and nowhere else to go, into having sex with him.
  • The moral of The Lion King is that there's a divine order to society: special light-colored males are born to rule no matter how irresponsible and unqualified they are, and giving power to impoverished dark-colored outcasts would upset the "natural balance" so catastrophically that the heavens would close in protest and everything would die.

It's frustrating when people tell me I'm making up issues that are so evident in the source material, you'd have to will yourself blind to them. Seriously, look at these "bad guys" vs. "good guys."

Scar from The Lion King
Hyenas from The Lion King

Adult hyenas are beige-colored with brown spots or stripes (see Google Images). They're nowhere close to the dark wolf-gray of the trio in the animated movie and all the Lion King merchandise. Either the Disney animators tragically lost all of their reference photos, or they used their "artistic license" to signal to young audiences that these characters are devious and menacing. (In combination with the exaggerated Black vernacular and Latino accents, of course.)

That said, I've been seeing a trend in Goodreads reviews and social media threads: people are increasingly criticizing books for "problematic content" that isn't actually in the text. These one-star reviews and Twitter take-downs are excoriating authors not because of what they wrote, but because the critics imagine other people with poor reading comprehension will misunderstand what was written.

For example, I recently read a young adult thriller and thought it was very well done. When I went to Goodreads to give it 5 stars, I spotted popular reviews calling it toxic for supposedly (1) promoting slut-shaming and (2) perpetuating harmful stereotypes about people with depression. These assertions fell into two broad categories of Problem Projection.

"This book doesn't state emphatically enough that bad things are bad."

There was slut-shaming in this book, the detestable bullies, towards a sympathetic main character. The poor girl's ex-boyfriend waged a cruel campaign to isolate her from the rest of the school by telling everyone she slept around. A sneering queen bee scrawled "WHORE" on her locker and tripped her in PE to humiliate her to tears.

How could these scenes be perceived as promoting slut-shaming? Well, as one incensed reviewer argued, "The characters call it out sometimes, but not every time."

To these readers, it's not enough to show that slut-shaming is bad through a likeable heroine's suffering. It's not enough to write on-the-nose dialogue proclaiming that slut-shaming is bad three times in the same book. If the author doesn't categorically state that slut-shaming is bad every single time a mean girl is mean, these readers are convinced that people less enlightened than they are might think the moral of the story is that slut-shaming is okay.

"This book doesn't stop bigoted readers from being bigots."

The villain of this book was a maladjusted boy who became an incel after falling down the 4chan rabbit hole. He started an app to spread nasty gossip about the sexual indiscretions of his classmates. He cooked up a scheme to destroy the lives of two pretty girls who dared to ignore him, and two charismatic "chads" his crush had dated instead of him, by committing suicide and framing these four popular kids for his murder.

A Goodreads review with more than 700 likes railed about this plot: "Depression does not equal being a terrorist!" Other reviews echoed this sentiment. The author is so ignorant, this portrayal of teens with suicidal ideology is so damaging, we need to stop publishing books that trivialize and demonize mental illness.

The text of this book did not imply that depression is trivial, nor that all depressed people are terrorists. Other characters in the book also had depression and were not terrorists. Depression was just one element of the villain's character, and from the way it was framed and discussed in scenes, the author's intent was clearly to make the boy more sympathetic to readers, not less. The causes of his descent into antisocial behavior were shown to be his delicate wounded ego and the bad influence of incel culture, not his depression.

The only people who would come out of that book with the belief that all mental illnesses are psychopathy must have carried it in with them. So these reviewers' complaints weren't really that the book asserts all depressed kids are future criminals—because it doesn't—but that the author didn't proactively charge into battle with theoretical bigots who might read the book and project their preexisting worldviews onto the page.

When I was active on Twitter, one of the daily controversies sprouted up over a video of humorist David Sedaris reading one of his pieces. "David Sedaris Demands the Right to Fire Others in 'Citizen's Dismissal'," the captions blared. In the piece, Sedaris complains about a retail worker who didn't have any bags left for his purchases and didn't try to help him figure out how to carry them. "Well, they're yours," she said. "You bought them." Sedaris says if this woman were any good at her job, she would have come up with a taking off her own underwear and using it to wrap his new cups and saucers.

Whether you think the piece is funny or not, you couldn't possibly believe Sedaris's "citizen's dismissal" proposal was serious. His intent isn't even mildly ambiguous. He's making fun of people who couldn't care less about their jobs, but also of himself for his petulant and entitled thoughts about those people.

Netizens were determined to be enraged. "Yeah I know it's satire," they said, "but the fact is people won't watch the video and won't get that it's a joke. They'll just read the title and think it's a good idea. David Sedaris's words could have far-reaching negative impacts on the vulnerable workers in customer service."

In short, the only fault they could find with the content is that they expected other people to be too stupid to understand it. This alone made the piece "incredibly problematic."

The Problems with Projecting Problems onto Media

To a certain extent, we must be careful not to reinforce common prejudices in our work. For example, it wouldn't be a great idea to write about a surly private eye who cleans up the streets of L.A. by taking down gangs of drug-running, gold-chain wearing Mexicans who don't speak English.

However, every BIPOC writer has received unfair criticism that their work "reinforces damaging stereotypes" simply for featuring multifaceted characters from their own cultures. Overzealous critics believe anything less than a complete repudiation of every stereotypical trait is a problematic portrayal.

If a Chinese mother wants her child to get straight As and attend a prestigious college, that's Sinophobia.

If an African or West Asian father is abusive, the author is asserting that all non-white men are violent subhumans.

If a heroine is a talented engineer, but she doesn't enjoy it and is more interested in childcare, that book alone has managed to unravel feminism and set us back two hundred years.

In essence, these people believe writers are obligated to contort themselves around the prejudices of others. Because bigots believe all Chinese mothers are obsessed with grades, no Chinese mother can ever be portrayed as caring about her child's grades. Every BIPOC character must be a perfect saint. Nuance and cultural differences cannot exist. We must be very careful to specify what we believe is right and wrong in heroic speeches, or readers might not be able to tell.

When we first start sharing our work with the world, we quickly learn to accept that not everyone will like it. Everyone has different tastes, and that's fair. If I bring deviled eggs to a potluck, and people who don't like eggs don't eat them, I have no reason to be offended. (Plus, that's more eggs for me.)

What's harder to accept is that people will read our work in bad faith, and it's not fair. They go into books hunting for reasons to hate them. They read a small sample and leap to the worst possible assumptions about the characters and the author's ethics. Basically, this kind of reader approaches books the same way they react to posts on social media—eager to find weaknesses they can latch onto and twist to proclaim you're wrong, you're ignorant, you deserve to be fired from writing in a collective citizen's dismissal.

What Can We Do?


There's no point in trying to appease this kind of reader. If people are determined to complain about a piece of media, they will, even if there is nothing objectively wrong with it and the best they can do is, "Well, bad people who aren't me won't get it."

Even if you can appease one group of readers, you'll incite the wrath of others. Amazon made a show about fairies. Because the first few minutes of episode one showed the fairies being treated poorly by the ruling human class, an angry swarm stopped there and bombarded the page with one-stars.

Another SJW garbage show.

social justice agenda disguised as alleged entertainment can't they just make entertainment without shoving their agenda down our throats

If you believe that immigrants should come here legally, prepare to be vilified and called a racist every five minutes.

Like our other examples, this show never called anyone a racist. It just showed hateful and cowardly humans mistreating individuals from another race. If a person watches this and thinks the show is calling them a racist every five minutes, that's their conscience talking.

It's as futile to write for people like this who willfully misunderstand you as it is to engage in productive debate with conspiracy theorists. We also shouldn't try to write for the people out there with bad morals and no critical thinking skills who can't tell the difference between right and wrong or sincerity and satire. Every story has a moral, but we're not literary evangelists on a mission to reform the sinners.

Our intended audience should be essentially good people who read in good faith. Readers are our partners. A piece of writing on its own is a bunch of squiggles. The audience turns it into an experience. For a fulfilling experience, they must be willing participants with the same goals for reading a book as we have for writing it.


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