I am a problematic writer, and I am not ashamed.
An article from tor.com called “Problematic Classics” addresses the question: How do we receive classical books with a new understanding of racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice? Can we really recommend Narnia books to our children, considering the concerns regarding race and how female characters are treated? Is there any value to reading H.P Lovecraft, who might as well be remembered as a social monster in the vein of Cthulhu.
In an era where we have ‘sensitivity readers’, YA authors having to apologise for their art, publishers threatening to withdrawl contracts if authors are found to be not perfect angels– it seems the greatest sin an author can commit is being problematic. There’s that word again- ‘problematic.’
Suddenly you are cancelled, your publishing career is over and your worth diminishes. If your book manages to survive this- it will still happen to you and you’ll be forced to apologise for being problematic. Kate Breslin, I never read your novel “For Such a Time“, but I will cut out my tongue before I condemn anyone who had the guts to write what they wanted.
There’s no such thing as a great book that’s unproblematic. Think of the stories that moved you, made you think, stirred deep emotion and inspired you. So, Tor, you may find that there are unproblematic books out there, but you won’t find greatness within them. Because great literature makes you uncomfortable. It doesn’t hold your hand whilst you read it. It doesn’t care about political correctness, it cares about honesty. Great literature changes people, it does not confirm previously held beliefs.
There’s beauty in an author being honest in their writing. If C.S Lewis really saw women like Susan as make-up obsessed and romance-thrilled, and if Lewis’ writing reflected that- then that’s okay. If he changed Susan’s ending to please others, than that would be insincere to Lewis himself. The Narnia series wouldn’t be as great, because the author isn’t writing authentically.
Great art is always honest. It never fails to speak from the heart and mind of the creator. Without that, it’s empty propaganda. Sometimes- being honest can mean having ‘problematic’ worldviews, hurting readers feelings, using rape and torture as narrative devices and / or offending society at large. But it’s justified. Every hurtful insult hurled at the author, every time a book YouTuber calls it problematic, every time there’s an article about poor representation- the ‘problematic’ book is more justified in its existance. The number priority of any author should not be to keep people happy, or to not upset the established order. The most important thing an author can do is be honest, and write with integrity.
The reason why I’m taking a hard stance against the quest for unproblematic literature is because literature without honesty is a paradoxical sickness within itself. I’m an aspiring author, and the thought of writing ‘unproblematic’ literature plagues me. I want my books to disturb, to move people, to confront and force people to think. My writing will not be a tickle on the arm, it will be a stab through the heart.
Let me tell you a story of why you should fight for problematic literature:
In 1988, Salman Rushdie published his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses.
The title refers to verses within the Qur’ran that depict three Pagan Meccan goddesses, and was also paritally inspired by the life of Muhammed. Although greeted with positive reviews in the United Kingdom (and a spot on a Man Booker prize shortlist), The Satanic Verses was the subject of extreme controversy. Banned in India and Pakistan for hate speech, Rushdie is one of the few authors who has a fatwa against him worth millions. He endured assassination attempts, was put in police custody, and tragically, his translator Hitoshi Igarashi was murdered. Protests of thousands railed against him, and book burnings in the UK took place.
Murder, protests, assassination attempts, fatwas, condemnation from the Iranian government and book burnings.
Because Salman Rushdie upset people.
Salman Rushdie was an artist who sought to say something with the literature he composed. He committed the grevious and unforgivable sin of being problematic, and for that, he was punished and Hitoshi Igarashi was murdered. He was honest, spoke what his views were, and paid the price.
I know writing this post will shun me to a problematic hell. Good. I want to go there, I want to hang out with the authors I admire and I want to discuss dangerous ideas. I desire freedom and the ability to be honest. Could you imagine an unproblematic heaven? So orderly and so many rules. No thanks, I am a dissident who takes pleasure in breaking rules set by people who don’t understand basic literature.
To my fellow aspiring novelists, poets, authors and playwriters… be problematic. Upset the established order and you’ll find a bravery in yourself. Be honest. Be human. You’ve got this, you are more equipped at writing than you believe, and have faith in your ability to succeed. If your book ends up on a bonfire outside a university, take that as a point of pride. You’ve created literature that is confronting and brave. It’s the hallmark of great literature.