When your book gets called out for being problematic, Part II

When someone angrily calls my book out (and let me just admit here that I’m terrified of that day), I will of course indicate my desire to listen and learn. I will vent, and then calm down. I will address my accuser respectfully, remembering that her anger is quite likely rooted in pain and a desire to protect others.

Next, I will assure my accuser that I meant no harm. I will offer a reasoned, calm defense of my perspective, my motivations, and my characters and plot so that she can understand the underlying message of the book. I will remind her that I’ve tried to do everything right—research, interviews, sensitivity readers. When I reach for my laptop or phone to do this, dangle a Twix bar in front of me, then toss it a few feet away. While I scamper off to retrieve and eat it, grab my laptop and phone and hide them. Hide them well. Don’t give them back until I understand these very important steps:

Step 3: Resist the temptation to explain your book. It’s natural to want to defend your poor little book and its characters, into which you’ve poured so much love and effort. As a sensitivity reader, I’ve even had POC writers do this after I send them my comments: I did that because I wanted to show…; That’s just his personality; My Asian friend said it was okay. In fact, I had these very same thoughts when my sensitivity reader gave me her very gentle suggestions on the Latina characters in my book. I may even have expressed them. I can see how urgent it must feel to explain things to a critic who obviously missed my point or they wouldn't be so furious. If only they understood what I really meant, I'd think, they'd see that we're on the same side.

But here’s the thing. When you explain that your book isn’t really racist, what you are really doing is dismissing the validity of your critic's reaction. You’re saying, in effect, “You shouldn’t feel offended; if you'll let me explain, you'll see how wrong your feelings are.” It doesn’t matter how pure your intentions may have been, or how hard you worked to avoid stereotypes, or how complex and layered the plot is. The reader takes away only what is on the page, not what was in your head when you put it there. And if what is on the page is offensive to the reader, you can’t argue with that. You can’t tell people how to feel, especially when you have no understanding of why they feel the way they do (see Step 2). No blame there--how could you be expected to know? But you must respect their experience of your book.

If that’s not enough to convince you, then maybe this will: If you defend your book, you will go—in the eyes of already-upset people of color—from Probably Nice But Clueless Person Who Wrote a Problematic Book to . . . Racist Person Who Dismissed Valid POC Criticism And Defended Her Racist Book.

Yep. Just sayin’. It's ugly, but it's true.

Oh. An addendum to Step 3: Leave your sensitivity readers out of it. You’d think it would help to let people know that there are people of color who read and liked your book and didn’t find it problematic, right? Sorry, but no. Your sensitivity readers are not responsible for giving you POC street cred. Here’s why:

One reader cannot stand in for an entire population of people. I mean, yes, that’s kind of their job. But their experiences are individual. And so are their critique styles. Some Asian readers don’t mind the Asian Tiger Mom stereotype; others are tired of it. Some readers may straight-up tell you, “Do not let this go to press until you change X, Y, and Z;” others may say, “This stopped me, and here’s why. Can you think of ways to change it?”

Once the suggestions have been made, it’s out of the sensitivity readers’ hands. You as a writer might take the advice, or you might not. That’s your right—it’s your book, after all. But since the reader won’t know which revisions you’ve made or how you’ve made them, you MAY NOT imply that they gave you their stamp of approval when all they gave you was advice, and probably polite advice, too, because they don’t want to antagonize you. 

Step 4: Apologize…the right way. There are plenty of websites that explain how to write a proper apology, so I won’t go into a whole lot of detail about all the parts, but here’s a short list tailored to our particular situation:

  • Take full responsibility. Don’t shift the blame to your editor, don’t hide behind your sensitivity readers. At the end of the day, you are the one who wrote the book. Own it.
  • Acknowledge the pain you’ve caused. Maybe you still don’t find your book offensive (don’t say that, by the way!), but surely you can step out of your own perspective and see it from another person’s point of view. Do that.
  • NEVER say, “I apologize if you were offended.” This may feel to you like you’re gently reminding people that you meant no harm. What it sounds like to others is that you’re downplaying the harm.
  • Go ahead and say that you never meant to hurt anyone. But only say it once, maybe twice at the most. The more you say it, the more it sounds like an excuse. Also, don’t talk about how awful you feel that people have been hurt. Don’t go on about how truly nice and not-racist you are, and how your friends all think so, too, and how heartbroken you feel that people might now mistakenly think that you are racist. Don’t, for the love of Pete, bring up your POC best friend/significant other/sorority sister. I get it. I’ve wanted to do all of these things, because I want to be liked and understood. That way, people will see that I’m a human being, too, I think. They won’t be as angry at me for screwing up. All that good stuff about you (and me) may be true. But if you've written something offensive, the real, hard truth is that no one cares how you feel, how nice you are, or if you are loved by a person of color. People only want to hear that you know you screwed up and that you’re sorry. Because that’s the point of an apology.
  • Offer to make amends. If you are a well-intentioned as you say you are, do the writerly thing: show, don't tell. See if you can delay publication and do a revision. Or if your book is already out there, maybe revise for the paperback, à la Julie Murphy. Donate money or volunteer for a cause chosen by the people your book has offended.

There’s probably lots of stuff I’ve left out. I’m just kind of flying by the seat of my pants, here, trying to remember everything I’ve heard and learned over the past year. Feel free to let me know what I’ve missed.

Tomorrow, Part 3: How to support someone whose book has been called out for being problematic. (Also how to prevent things from getting that far out of control.)