Let's Talk About Problematic Literature (Youtube Video & Transcript)
Are you a fan of diverse stories?
As a reader, diverse literature matters to me. Not only because I enjoy reading it, but because I believe that all readers deserve to see themselves in the pages of a book.
Unfortunately, this isn't often the case for far too many people in this world. And even worse than the underrepresentation of many minority groups in our media is the rampant poor representation that only contributes to harmful stereotypes, erasure, and hate.
Fortunately, authors and other industry professionals are making strides every single day to add quality diverse literature to the market. And as writers, we can help! But before we can do better, we first need to know where literature has gone wrong in the past.
That's why in today's new Youtube video, I'm sharing all about what problematic literature is, why we should be concerned, and how we can avoid writing it in the first place! Scroll down to check out both the video and the written transcript of our discussion.
"Whew, we are tackling a big one today, guys!
Hey, writers and readers of the internet! I'm Kristen Kieffer, and thank you so much for joining me today. Today, we are doing a writing discussion video all about problematic literature.
In the US, and I am sure in many culture around the world, there is a huge push for good representation in all kinds of media. And by "good representation," I'm talking about minority groups getting better, fairer representation so they get to see themselves in the books they read, in the movies that they watch, etc.
Many readers, authors, and industry professionals are pushing for better representation of marginalized people groups in literature, and with good reason. People deserve to see themselves in the pages of a book.
Books shape and inform us just as much as they entertain and inspire. It is so hugely important and impactful to see characters in books who actively reflect who you are, especially when people like yourself are represented so few and far in between.
But today, we are not just here to talk about why good representation matters. We're here to talk about problematic literature–what it is, why we should be concerned, and how we can avoid writing it in the first place.
Nowadays, it is incredibly easy to publicly call out problematic literature online, and when those public callouts and critiques do happen, there's one major rebuttal:
"Stop policing what people can and cannot say. It's fiction. People can write whatever they want. If you don't like it, don't read it."
And, in my opinion, that's true. People CAN write whatever they want and if you don't like something, you don't have to read it.
BUT, and this is a massive but, just because you have the right to write whatever you want doesn't mean that you don't have to face the consequences of what you've written.
Now, consequences aren't inherently negative. Public praise is a consequence of good writing and storytelling, just as a public critique or call-out is a consequence of writing something bad or harmful.
When it comes to writing certain characters and stories, it's important to keep in mind the consequences for the people that you're representing in your literature. If your work in any way contributes to harmful stereotypes, erasure, or just pure hate, you've written problematic literature. This is harmful representation, and what you've done matters.
Now, let me stop here for a moment to discuss three points.
First, problematic literature and harmful representation isn't just limited to people of color and the LGBT community, which are two of the biggest marginalized people groups here in the US.
You can also write harmful, problematic literature about any people group that's not in a position of power in society. This means children, people with mental illnesses and disabilities, immigrants, the elderly, victims of abuse, the unemployed, lower classes, homeless people, those who practice non-dominant religions, and so on.
My second point is that this is a very nuanced issue. Marginalized people groups are not monoliths.
You may very well come across a person from a marginalized community who has a vastly different opinion on these social issues than other people from their community, especially the further that you dig into the nitty gritty of things.
And there is nothing wrong with this. Communities and their social issues are complex, just as people are, just as humanity is, and that's perfectly fine. We truly don't have to all agree with one another.
And finally, it's not just people in a position of societal power, in a position of privilege, who can write problematic literature.
I battle depression, and Lord knows there is a bevy of harmful representation and problematic literature concerning mental illness. But that doesn't mean that I can't write problematic literature that harms other marginalized people groups (and my own, for that matter).
The same goes for you if you're also a member of an underrepresented community. We can all screw up. So how can we avoid writing problematic literature? Let's discuss that!
First, be aware. Your pen is a powerful weapon and stories can do a lot of damage, just as they can do a lot of good.
Chances are that you aren't planning to write anything harmful, but that doesn't mean that you can't mess up because you're simply unaware of the issues that other people face.
Even if you feel like you've done your due diligence, it's possible that you can still write something harmful. And if that happens, it doesn't necessarily make you a bad person. However, you do need to recognize that you have messed up. We'll talk more about that in a bit.
But secondly, you do need to remember to do your due diligence. Don't write about an underrepresented group if you don't really know anything about them.You don't need to be a member of an underrepresented people group in order to write about them, but you do need to do your research.
Talk with people from these communities. Read their stories, listen to them, and believe them when they're talking about the social issues that they face every single day. Be authentic. Push past stereotypes. Really get to know the nitty gritty of the historical and societal things that affect these people all the time.
My number one tip here, after simply talking to people that are a part of these communities, is to do a google search of how NOT to write people from these communities. You'll almost certainly get a whole lot of information about where literature has gone wrong in the past, so that you can do a much better job in the future.
Thirdly, remember that writing diverse literature and good representation of minority groups is not just something that you're supposed to check off your writerly to-do list, and it's certainly not something you should do to try to draw in these marginalized people groups as part of some sort of marketing scheme.
If you want to include underrepresented characters in your stories, do it because you actually care. Not to fit some sort of bill.
Finally, if you've chosen to write about underrepresented people groups in your stories, but you're afraid or worried that maybe you've accidentally messed up, don't be afraid to hire a sensitivity reader.
Sensitivity readers are people from those communities who will read your story and let you know about anything problematic that you've included so you can fix it before it goes to print. Sensitivity readers are highly, highly helpful and I cannot recommend them enough.
Finally, let's talk about what happens if you accidentally cause unintended harm with your book.
If marginalized people are calling you out for writing harmful representation of their community, LISTEN. Listen and believe them. Believe them and apologize. It costs you absolutely nothing to say "I'm so sorry that I screwed up, and I promise to do better next time."
If you apologize humbly and without making any sort of excuses or complaints, it's highly likely that you'll not only be forgiven and given another shot, but that the people from those communities will also step forward to help you understand where you went wrong.
It's not the job of any marginalized person to educate you on what you've done, but people tend to be kind and understanding when you're sincere and humble.
Remember that any sort of apology is not about saving face, it's about doing right by the people that you accidentally did wrong.
It's about making sure that you do a better job next time and that if you do choose to write about those people groups in the future that you do so in a way that really honors them instead of tearing down their community and contributing to more harmful representation.
Be understanding, be gracious, and be humble. Work to write stories that represent underrepresented people groups in a way that's genuine and simply because you want to do it.
Learn from any mistakes that you might make, and promise to do a better job next time. And finally, don't forget to read diverse literature that contains good representation, especially from authors that are directly from those marginalize communities.
Here's a quick list of some recent favorite books that I think you might enjoy as well:
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
- The Fifth Season and the whole of the Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
- Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
- An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
- Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
- The Shades of Magic series by V.E. Schwab
- I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
- And pretty much anything written by Ursula Le Guin
I'm Kristen Kieffer, and I believe in the radical notion that all people are people, regardless of their age, their gender, their sexual identity, their religion, their ability, their health, their financial standing, you name it.
If you feel the same, I hope you'll join me and so many other authors and readers in reading, writing, and supporting diverse literature and good representation in stories.
Thank you so much for watching my video today. I hope you found it helpful and inspiring and useful.
Before I say goodbye, I'd like to give a special shout out to my Patreon supporters who are making videos like this possible. If you're interested in supporting my work here on Youtube and over at my website at well-storied.com, I will leave a link to my Patreon in the description below.
Again, thank you so much for watching! If you enjoyed this video, please give it a like. Subscribe to my channel, and also, in the comments below, please let me know what some of you're favorite diverse books are with super awesome representation.
I would love, love, love to read them. Sound good? Fantastic! I will see you guys next time. Bye!"
Friends, I hope you enjoyed this discussion of problematic literature!
I'd love to hear some of your thoughts on good representation, as well as your diverse book recommendations. Let me know in the comments below or over on Youtube. And, of course, don't forget to subscribe!