A few months ago I had a discussion about whether or not it’s possible to still enjoy a book even if you don’t like the author as a person. Some of you mentioned the reverse—whether or not the content in a book indicates who an author is as a person. I actually did want to talk about that as well, but it seemed like too much for one post, so here is the second half of the discussion!
What Exactly Are We Talking About?
We know that authors are not their characters. Authors often write characters who are completely different from them, who do and say things the author themselves would never say or do. Right?
Except I feel like sometimes readers forget this.
Sometimes people slut shame. Or they use ableist language. Or they act in sexist ways. Or they bully other people. Or they get jealous in relationships. Or they do any number of crappy things. Sometimes they don’t actively do anything, per se, but they have problematic beliefs, like that women need to have children to feel fulfilled, or that sexual orientation is a choice. So it makes sense that some characters would do or say or think or feel or believe these things too. Even protagonists and main characters and good guys, because nobody is perfect, and we’re all constantly learning and growing. Can anyone reading this honestly say that you’ve never in your entire life said or done anything that was prejudiced or hurtful in some way? Not even something that you didn’t realize was prejudiced or hurtful at the time? I’m guessing not. I know I can’t. And maybe some characters are meant to be flawed. So it’s realistic when characters act in these ways, is it not?
As readers, we seem to have a total handle on the idea that when characters cheat and murder and steal, it’s ok for that to be included in the book, even if it’s the protagonist doing it, and is not a reflection of the author. Hell, a lot of our favorite characters are murderers and thieves. But as soon as something I mentioned above comes up, we tend to get upset. Even when it’s one of the side characters or an antagonist who’s supposed to be a jerk, I often see readers getting angry that it was included in the book.
Why Do We Have Such a Hard Time Separating the Author from the Content in Certain Situations?
I think it’s because this kind of thing is a gray area in books. Sometimes you find a whole book that’s just a giant, problematic mess, but sometimes the issues are smaller and it can be hard to tell if it’s just the character or if it really is the author’s thoughts. I’ll use one specific book I’ve read as an example. In this book, the protagonist thought to herself at one point that no one would find her attractive because she had some scars and “men want their women smooth under their touch”; that sounds problematic at first, but she did end up with a man, and he clearly had no issue with it, therefore that was just the character’s thoughts, not the author’s message. But there were also other little problematic, sexist things scattered throughout the book about all women wanting children, men being “at their weakest when desire took over,” things like that. So was that also just the character’s flawed thinking, or was it the author’s? See what I mean? Gray area.
I think we also have a hard time separating the author and the content in these situation because including these kinds of things in a book without any consequence or lesson, showing the good guys behaving like this, etc. could potentially send a message to readers that this kind of behavior or thinking is ok. We like to think people reading will know right from wrong, acceptable from not acceptable, but sometimes we don’t know until it’s pointed out to us. A lot of things are already so completely ingrained in us from the day we’re born by our friends, our family, and our society, so much so that we don’t even question them or realize things shouldn’t be that way.
Is There a Solution?
Should authors just not write this stuff? Or should they always make sure it’s called out in the book by other characters? Well, part of me feels like, is it really the author’s job to teach people lessons and right from wrong in their books? Or is it just their job to tell a good, realistic (depending on the genre/book) story? I kind of feel like it’s the latter, that it’s not the author’s responsibility to teach anyone anything. But the reality is that people are influenced by the media they consume, so it’s a really hard question to answer.
But it’s important to remember that authors are not their characters. Just as we don’t accuse authors of being murderers when one of their characters murders someone, we shouldn’t accuse them of being prejudiced just because one of their characters is, or of slut shaming just because some of the side characters slut-shamed the MC, etc. Maybe the author intended those problematic things as part of the characters/story, maybe they didn’t; we may never know.
Maybe the best solution is just for reviewers to point out the problems, as we already often do. As to whether we should rate books lower, I guess that’s up to each individual person to decide.