How To Like Bad Things

When I say bad things, I am not talking about ‘guilty pleasures’ like schlocky airport novels and Jason Statham movies. I mean liking things that other people can point to and say “This hurts me”. Examples might be: citing TS Eliot as my favourite poet despite the antisemitism. Enjoying rape erotica, or books with loving depictions of torture. Liking thrillers that treat women as objects or parodies. Loving Piers Anthony’s Xanth series although they…no, I’m not going there, don’t ask. Problematic things.

Because many of us do like problematic things, and most things are problematic one way or another. Books are created by people within cultures, and both people and culture are often pretty crappy.

I’m going to use my own Bad Liking as an example throughout. I love Edwardian writing, particularly pulp shockers and detective novels. Some of this is outstanding, magnificently plotted, thrilling stuff. However, much of it is tainted with profound racism, antisemitism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia in the deepest sense of ‘fear’. White heterosexual Christian English upper-class able-bodied men are usually shown as the pinnacle of human evolution, the top of the pile. If you want to see the intersections of privilege in action, these books are for you.

I love them, but I know they contain awful things. Equally, I think that Chesterton’s 1911 poem ‘Lepanto’ is a masterpiece in poetic terms; it gives me goosebumps every time. I also know it is deeply problematic in its cultural politics, and the treatment of Islam is hide-behind-the-sofa bad. Does the poetry trump the Islamophobia; does the Islamophobia negate the poetry? Do I have to stop reading this poem, or denounce it, for the things wrong with it that are awful to a modern ear? Am I a bad person because I love it anyway?

1: Liking problematic things doesn’t [necessarily] make you a bad person

It’s very easy to feel personally accused when a thing we like is denounced. Which is why this gets so heated: if other people are slamming my favourites, my self-image as a nice person is threatened. Someone says, “This thing you love is shitty and hurtful”, and I hear, “You are shitty and hurtful for liking it.” And it’s important to remember that’s not [necessarily] true, and quite possibly isn’t what’s being said. (Square brackets exception: If you’re e.g. a massive racist and you read massively racist books to reinforce your worldview, you are a terrible person. I’m assuming basic decency on the part of readers here.)

So, say you read Edwardian pulp for the thrilling adventure sequences, or enjoy ‘dark romance’ without supporting kidnapping and mistreatment of women in reality, or see something lovely and hopeful in a romance trope that other people find objectionable or erasing. That happens. People are complicated; needs and ideas and experience and vulnerability intersect in a lot of complicated ways; many things are not problematic to Person A, no matter how glaringly obvious they are to Person B; and things can be simultaneously problematic and empowering to different people. Rape erotica might seem detestable exploitation to some, yet may also be a powerful way for rape survivors to handle their experience. People may choose to retreat into fiction that erases their problems by ignoring their existence. What’s good for one less-privileged person may also be harmful to another less-privileged person–as when a gay person finds something powerful in the ‘gay for you’ trope in m/m romance that makes many bisexual people feel erased and excluded. This stuff is very complicated.

But no: liking books with problematic things does not in itself make me, or you, a bad person.

And therefore:

2: Own your likings

There are two ways I can handle my unfortunate taste for Edwardian pulp.

  1. “It’s historical racism: people didn’t know any better so it doesn’t count. You can’t judge classics by today’s attitudes. It’s just part of the genre. Don’t read it if you don’t like it. If you say my favourite books are racist you’re implying I’m a racist, so now I don’t care about your opinion.”
  2. “This book has a lot of offensive aspects, I accept that.”

The reason I can like this stuff is because I am privileged (white cis het British). I am able to skid over the offensive or crass bits and enjoy the poetry, or the story. Good for me. But I have to remember that other people will not feel the same, that they may find these things brutally hurtful, and I should respect that. If someone posts a 1* review of Greenmantle or the Father Brown stories because they find them offensive, I don’t get to argue, “Oh, but it’s just the period they were written!” or “‘Foreigners = bad guys’ is a classic trope, get used to it,” or “The author’s really nice so he obviously didn’t mean the casual racism”. I need to accept that these issues are problematic, even if they aren’t hurtfully problematic for me.

A note on the all-too-popular “when you say my favourite books are hurting you, that hurts me, so we’re quits” argument: No. Firstly, this is very often an issue of privilege: men not having to worry about women’s problems, cis people not seeing trans people’s problems, het people missing queer people’s problems. If I have more privilege in this situation, I should be the one listening, because that’s basic fairness. Punch up, not down. And secondly, there is a big difference between “I feel bad because this thing erases or belittles people like me” and “I feel bad because someone was rude about a book I like”.

3: Learn what the problem is

People, being people, tend not to want to hear what’s wrong with our favourites. “Can’t you just let me enjoy this?” we say. “I like it, so don’t spoil my fun!”

But understanding what’s wrong doesn’t spoil books. Refusing to understand and sticking your fingers in your ears may spoil people. If I say, “I don’t care why X is a problem,” I’m not just refusing to take responsibility for my own choices: I am closing myself off from other people, and deliberately keeping my view narrow. That is the opposite of what books are meant to be about.

I have recently been made aware of several erasures and assumptions that I was making without noticing. Being told so was not very comfortable for me at all. But now I know a bit more than I did, and I hope that means I will write with better, wider understanding in the future. Which means I will write better books. Which is my job.

Critically engaging with problems–in books, in my own attitudes–makes me a better reader and writer, even if it stings. I don’t enjoy John Buchan’s WWI thriller Greenmantle less because I now notice its (really weird-ass) homophobia and Orientalism. If anything, my awareness of the context gives me a deeper understanding of what remains one of my favourite books, as well as helping me not be a jerk to other people about it.

Understanding the problem helps me formulate a nuanced response. If I know why people find a book problematic, I can weigh up the issues; maybe mitigate harm; hopefully avoid jumping into discussions of it with both feet and landing on someone’s toes.

4: Live with criticism

It doesn’t make problems go away if I deny that my favourite thing is hurtful to some people, or react angrily to criticism, or claim that everything is fine. I don’t have to agree that things I like are reprehensible. I don’t have to stop reading them even if I do agree. I can mentally dismiss criticism and walk away, or say, “I hadn’t considered that perspective,” and leave it at that. I can carry on liking the thing, knowing that other people have a massive problem with it, because life is complicated. But I can’t expect everyone else to shut up about their own needs for my convenience, and I cannot insist that nobody criticises the things I like, or points out that liking them is a matter of privilege.

Even better, though harder: I can try to listen, and open my perspective out, and then carry on liking the problematic thing with a fuller understanding. Or stop reading it, if I feel it is just really not okay, and find other books to supply whatever I was getting from it. Or even write the damn thing in a way that is less problematic in the first place. (I wrote Think of England specifically as a response to my difficulties with the Edwardian pulp I love, as an attempt to share the great things about it while acknowledging or avoiding the bad ones.)

***

All of which is to say: Liking books with problematic things doesn’t make you a bad person. How you handle that liking is what counts.

26 replies
  1. Skye Warren
    Skye Warren says:

    I appreciate the head-on way this post approached problematic issues in books as well as the assertion that liking these things doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person. But I think lumping them together doesn’t necessarily work – I enjoy reading so-called “rape erotica” because of the lack of consent, not in spite of it. That makes it fundamentally different than turning a blind eye to racism in Edwardian pulp, books you would probably enjoy even more without the racism.

    I believe that women should be allowed to enjoy their sexual fantasy in their erotic fiction, without shame or blame. So for me, writing it is actually a feminist act, though I am very aware of that many feminists would not agree with that.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      To be honest, I’m not really that engaged with individual reasons and justifications–as you say, whether you like ‘despite’ or ‘because’. For me here, the point is how we reconcile our liking for problematic things with other people’s valid dislike of them. What you do in your head is entirely yours. 🙂

      If you find rape fantasy erotic and liberating, great. I’m a feminist and I personally don’t find it either, but I’d be a pretty crappy feminist if I denied your right to express your beliefs. Sometimes opinions are irreconcilable but we can still accept they’re honestly held and respect each other’s space.

      Reply
  2. Amelia
    Amelia says:

    This is so important.
    I also saw a lot of parallels between rape erotica and this current GFY debate (not that GFY has anything to do with rape erotica, but just that both are things which simultaneously offend and soothe different groups of readers) and I was hoping that maybe that comparison could help us in m/m figure out ways to lessen the hurt caused by some of our tropes.
    I think in erotica, the key has been clear labeling. I can easily avoid rape erotica, because it is appropriately tagged. I can also find other things (like dubious consent stories for instance) which I might be more okay with, and still avoid the most violent triggering rape erotica. Maybe we need better, more accurate, labels for things? I don’t know, but I do think the first step is listening and accepting that just because something is problematic it doesn’t mean we make it disappear or hate everyone who makes/enjoys it. Once everyone accepts that, I think the defensive-ness goes down a lot, and actual discussions can happen.
    Thanks for a great post.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Labelling is vital. Listening is crucial. And (I think) accepting that the onus rests more on the side of those perpetuating the hurtful thing than those objecting to it is a big part, because ‘I enjoy it’ is, to me, simply not of equal weight to ‘This hurts me’.

      Rapefic is one of those very difficult examples when two sets of needs clash more obviously (highly upsetting to many, necessary and feminist to some), and there I think any way forward is going to have to come through real and meaningful respect and listening.

      Reply
  3. Lennan Adams
    Lennan Adams says:

    Great blog post. This is an important footnote to the whole conversation we have been having lately – and people really getting this is so key (for me, too – I react defensively to criticism all the time. But my goal is to be a person who, instead, stops, considers and reacts with empathy.)

    Love this! “I can try to listen, and open my perspective out, and then carry on liking the problematic thing with a fuller understanding. Or stop reading it, if I feel it is just really not okay, and find other books to supply whatever I was getting from it. Or even write the damn thing in a way that is less problematic in the first place.”

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I think the defensive response is very natural, particularly when we know deep down that our fave is a bit shonky or that the other person has a point. But I definitely find I feel better for taking these things on board, rather than pushing back, and it is a much faster way to reconciliation or at least a point where people can meet and agree to differ.

      Reply
  4. Thia
    Thia says:

    As we say in the kink world say “Your kink is not my kink, but that’s okay.” Now if people would just obey that rule instead of turning it around to “As long as I do it it’s okay.”.

    I think sometimes our ‘politically correct world’ is a detriment to us as a people. We have dark thoughts, dark needs, some we may want to being out into the open, others that we want to have stay hidden deep within our psyches. Literature helps us see those, in some ways embracing parts of ourselves we try to deny.

    It also opens our eyes to things. There are a few things I don’t like to read, but I will stand behind anyone else’s right to read whatever it is. And strangely enough, I’ve found writing on certain subjects that make me uncomfortable have also helped me to understand why it might just work for the reader.

    I recently came into a problem with an editor of one of my books. She found a certain line offensive and bluntly told me “Get rid of it. It’s offensive.” Against my better judgment I did so, but in doing it, I cut off the beliefs of the people I was writing about. As if they had no right to even think their own thoughts, no matter how offensive they might be to me and a liberal society. It still rubs me raw.

    I can’t remember who it was, but someone basically said if you want to ensure you will never insult anyone, don’t write one word. Because let’s face it, some people live to be insulted and look for it, even places where it does not exist.

    And can you imagine being so painstaking as to make sure and try and insult nobody?

    Run, Spot, Run!

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I actually have a lot of trouble with “Your kink is not my kink, but that’s okay.” I mean, fine if the person saying it means it, for them, but what it actually seems to me in practice is a mantra that basically means “You’re attacking me if you criticise the things I like.” (“But it’s my kink! So you have to say it’s okay!”) I mean, I wrote this extensive post specifically because the things we like are often hurtful to others. Sometimes my kink is not okay.

      And also, I have trouble with the expression ‘politically correct’. I think if you say “considerate’ or ‘polite’ it’s harder to mock. I’m in favour of *not* using language that belittles minorities and vulnerable people and privileges the powerful. (Political correctness tells us not to mock the disabled, it has nothing to say about not mocking the rich and powerful, and I’m fine with that.)

      Being mindful of our language doesn’t have to mean being wishy-washy or bland. It just means thinking about the word choices we make and the stories we tell and how they intersect with reality and the messages we’re giving. And to make sure we do things knowingly. If an offensive line is used with thought by the author, necessary for character or plot or drama, and is in context, it should stay. But as an editor I will always recommend cutting these if they *aren’t* earning their place, because if you’re going to insult people you should be able to justify it on some basis.

      Reply
      • azteclady
        azteclady says:

        Thank you, so much, for articulating this so clearly! It applies to…well, everything in life, really, doesn’t it?

        This line on your response above, “Being mindful of our language doesn’t have to mean being wishy-washy or bland. It just means thinking about the word choices we make and the stories we tell and how they intersect with reality and the messages we’re giving,” expresses my feelings so perfectly.

        I know I often think in terms that I have been told are hurtful to some. Sometimes, I think their point is obvious, and make an effort to think in different terms. Sometimes, I can see what the problem is, no matter how hard I try, and thus continue to think using that term. However, I often will refrain from expressing myself using that term that is hurtful to actual, real, living people. Just because I don’t see how/why it hurts them, doesn’t mean it doesn’t, in reality, do harm to them.

        Reply
        • KJ Charles
          KJ Charles says:

          Exactly. There are many things I don’t get too, but English is a language so absurdly rich in synonyms, it’s not really asking much of us to say something differently. (Particularly true of authors, IMO, what with it’s our *job* to find different ways to say things.)

          Reply
  5. Janice
    Janice says:

    Different people have different hot issues/points of acceptability. One of my favorite writers from childhood/teen years somehow morphed into a Holocaust denier as he got older. I recommended this writer to a lot of people, some of them impressionable teenagers. One of them, aware that I dealt with a boatload of anti-semitism growing up, gave me a hard time about the recommendation as the author had started going around trying to convert everyone else to his beliefs in this area. I was flabbergasted, particularly as several of his early books were very anti-Hitler. I found myself unwilling to pay money for anything he writes and soon stopped reading him altogether. I tried reading my favorite book of his again, at one time one of my favorite books period, and just couldn’t do it. His beliefs ruined my ability to enjoy even his early works which had no hint of the craziness to come.

    Conversely, I took a freshman English class in college containing a large percentage of very aggressive feminists I didn’t get. They spent an entire class complaining because Bertrand Russell used the word “he” 81 times in a single paragraph (it was a powerful parallel construction and a masterful expression of the intelligence of humans). They didn’t care that the actual content of the essay we read was extremely pro women, especially for its time. I always thought it was a shame we weren’t able to have a real discussion of what Russell was saying but for the majority of my class seeing “he” that many times was their hot button and something that made them unable to process or accept what was actually being said. At the time I wasn’t mature enough to get this but now I can accept that some people honestly feel that way even though it seems silly to me. It’s not my hot button.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Oh yuck, yes. When the writer turns out to be a horrific person. A slightly different ethical minefield.

      I have a sneaking sympathy for your feminists, tbh, though I’m sure that was incredibly tiresome for everyone eelse in the class. I wrote an essay at school using ‘she’ as the pronoun throughout, and got marked down for it, with my male teacher explaining that ‘the masculine embraces the feminine’, ho ho. It’s possible to crack after a while.

      Reply
  6. Shannon McEwan
    Shannon McEwan says:

    Thank you for using yourself as an example of an author who likes problematic things, and for stating up front that Think of England (which I really enjoyed reading) was an attempt to come to terms with some of those things – you wrote the book, it was published, and the sky didn’t fall in. As a writer, I struggle with my love of 19th C Orientalism/Exoticism – it’s heartening to think that it is genuinely worthwhile trying to tease out these kinds of problematic loves in genre fiction – and that it’s possible to respond to missteps made along the way with grace and integrity.

    I have an ethics hypothetical for you (feel free to pass on answering it) – if a book of yours caused particular hurt, and you had all rights to it, would you consider withdrawing it from publication?

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Oooh ethics. Um. It kind of depends on what the issue was. eg I know some people had issues with Think of England and the antisemitic/racist abuse Daniel had as a Portuguese Jew. My feeling was that I had to include some of this to make the reader understand the historical climate and his very defensive character. (Also the characters saying this stuff were villains, one a proto Nazi, and died horrifically. 🙂 ) So my judgement was that it was necessary to put in some of this language but the book clearly didn’t approve it. Some people did disagree with that, and that’s their absolute right–there isn’t like a set scale of how many times you can use an offensive term per thousand words, it’s always going to be a judgement call. But when I get the rights back I won’t be changing it because I do believe it’s necessary, a lot of people also felt that it worked, and in the end, I have to make the call as author, and take the consequences.

      But, that experience did hammer home how hard this stuff is, and how easily one can get it wrong. The first draft of Think of England had a lot more unpleasant language, I cut a lot of the horrible stuff in edits, and I think if I’d published that I would probably have screwed up because it was more than was needful to do its job.

      So I would consider re-editing and reissuing if there was something I’d utterly screwed up on, yes. This is why I highly recommend authors using (and paying!) sensitivity readers from the groups they’re writing about, to avoid this particular pit of doom.

      Reply
  7. DameB
    DameB says:

    That’s beautifully put, thank you.I have some friends I may send this to — a dude friend of mine in particular seems befuddled by the idea of admitting that the stuff he likes has problems.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and I feel my thoughts always come back to a caveat — It’s OK to (thoughtfully) enjoy problematic things *as long as you are not, by enjoying it, supporting something that is currently hurting people.* The example that springs to mind is that my relatives are huge fans of the NFL. When I bring up CTE and they say, “Yeah, I get that… but it’s a thing I like.” I feel like the number of boys and men who are being hurt may bring it past a place where it’s OK to buy tickets or paraphernalia and maybe even watching. They are directly supporting a regime that is actively and knowingly hurting people. (This may change of course as knowledge about CTE becomes more widely accepted and people who choose to get into the sport know the risks.)

    Of course, that’s a tricky line to draw. If you enjoy books by an author who actively harms people — either online like someone whose name rhymes with Boy Way, or through supporting hate causes, like O.S. Card — are you crossing that line? And then there’s more complicated issues — like movies and TV shows where one or two people might be publicly hateful but the rest of the folks are lovely.

    This all came crashing in on me in tiny but powerful way recently when I was buying something from an artisan on etsy — a woodcarver whose work I really adore — and noticed that he had stuff with swastikas on it. Can I really buy $20 items from him knowing that $20 supports hate causes? I decided I couldn’t.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      That’s a can of worms I didn’t even open in part because I was already at 1.5K on this, but you’re absolutely right. There is a huge other conversation around the financial aspect, and does deliberately *not* buying those books constitute a boycott and argh.

      I think tbh it’s such a case by case issue for everyone, depending on the views of the individual buyer as they intersect with each different problematic thing (harmful book, inoffensive book by author who says harmful things, great book by author who did dreadful things…). I’m lucky in that most of the problematic things I like are by people who are dead and out of copyright, so I can get them on Gutenberg and totally avoid the ethical dilemma. Imagine if Kipling had a Twitter account. Noooo.

      Reply
  8. KJ Charles
    KJ Charles says:

    Just to note that I’m not approving any comments, from anyone, that start up the current GFY argument in specific terms (who was unkind to who, why GFY is/isn’t okay, who is/isn’t entitled to represent who in what way). I would rather keep this a broad discussion, please, and I don’t think we need another iteration of this or any specific argument here.

    (Yes, I do moderate with an iron fist. My house, my rules.)

    Reply

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