Normally, I try to start my posts off with an unrelated mini-thought, a kind of cold open, but tonight I am without even the ghost of an idea, for mine was a busy day, filled with vet visits and exercise and voiceover work (about which I’m too excited to even pretend to #humblebrag) and, most exhausting of all, playing Mario Kart with a five year old. I GET IT, YOU’RE BOWSER AND NO ONE ELSE IS ALLOWED TO BE BOWSER, AND SOMEHOW YOU WIN WHEN I WIN BUT NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND.
And so, in lieu of an actual opening monologue, I offer these pictures of my terrible feral cat sisters, Bones and Mogwai.
Prompts: Can inspiration for a book be problematic? What inspiration would you consider to be problematic? Should an author be canceled because of a perhaps controversial inspiration for their book? In other words, is any kind of inspiration “bad”?
So, this kind of goes along with the question in a previous LTB regarding re-reading books in hopes of liking them more the second time: my answer then was that if I don’t like a book, I don’t finish it, and for this my answer is that especially as I get older I find myself with less time and patience for authors who reaaaaaally should’ve known better. Like really, really should’ve. That said, someone who never engages with anything that challenges them also never grows, or comes to know themselves better. Obviously it’s a complex topic, so let’s get into it and also dunk on a bunch of jerks who have it coming.
Can inspiration for a book be problematic, and if so what would an example be?
Language gets recontextualized, co-opted, and weaponized, so let me say that I don’t think ‘problematic’ refers to things like presidents being overtly racist or comedians being belligerently transphobic and crying victim when criticized; those things are called ‘being garbage humans who have forgotten the faces of their fathers’, and their behavior should not be excused by the connotation of ignorance implied by ‘problematic’.
To me, the latter term is better used to describe something like The Handmaid’s Tale–wait, stick with me!– which is an excellent book that makes many terrifyingly accurate points and was prophetic to a depressing degree…but also describes a scenario that black women, indigenous women, and other oppressed female and female-presenting people have already endured for centuries. (I want to be inarguably, impossibly clear here: I am not in any way belittling or dismissing the very real danger and perfectly correct outrage that swept our nation following the overturn of Roe, I am simply–and I believe, accurately–pointing out that the new and horrifying reproductive reality it unleashed is the one that most potentially child-bearing Americans were already living in.)
In this way I think that ‘problematic’ writing (or work of any kind) is closely tied with appropriation; that is, with the claiming and use of something that does not belong to one without proper respect, care, and attribution. Golems (inanimate constructs brought to life by magic, technology, or divine power), for example, are a staple of fantasy and sci-fi work in every medium, very few of which acknowledge that they are a specifically and exclusively Jewish religious concept, and saying “Oh well I can just strip that of its millennia of cultural and religious significance and use it for my thing” is problematic even, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, if you’re Sir Terry Pratchett. (Admittedly, Pterry’s usage was closer-to-okay than most, but still.) Just come up with your own shit, call your weird robut whatever you want and make it yours, it’ll be cooler and more fun anyway! Here, let me get you started: Thaumautomata, Hex-Mechs, Mannequinfernals! Too often a desire for ‘authenticity’ and the clout associated with it cause us to steal something someone was already using, instead of doing the work to legitimize and ground our own work.
I’m hella guilty of this, I think most (predominantly white) creatives are, and that’s why I think ‘problematic’ is less a condemnation to the garbage-fires and more saying “Hey, maybe you could’ve thought this through a little better, researched more thoroughly, maybe I dunno, actually asked some of the people you’re taking this inspiration from”. (That’s at the gentlest, most well-meaning end of the spectrum of course, like a younger Bageler who, without realizing that there is a strong historical precedent for vampire tropes being thinly-veiled antisemitic stereotypes, once ran a holiday-themed tabletop game wherein the players helped a congregation of Jewish Draculas defeat their ancient seasonal enemy, the Chanukabra.)
However, I think too many–again, white–creatives are far too sensitive about being corrected (especially by marginalized people) or even having these things pointed out to them; the more sincere may fear that they’ve fucked up too badly to be allowed another chance, and the gadflies thrive off of the negative attention. Either way, it can lead to the question:
Should an author be canceled because of a perhaps controversial inspiration for their book?
WELL FRIENDS, I think we come again to a problem of definition: I don’t think ‘cancellation’ or ‘cancel culture’ are real; I think mature creatives can handle constructive criticism, learn, grow, adapt, and do better, and immature creatives retreat into their boltholes, refuse all criticism of any kind, and buy websites where ALL free speech is sacred and untouchable forever UNLESS it’s about them and hurts their feelings.
What the Trumps and Musks and Wests of the world call ‘cancellation’ is what most of the world recognizes as ‘consequences‘, because most of us don’t labor under the misapprehension that we are owed the time, attention, or money of our audiences regardless of our behavior or the harmfulness of the work we produce. Do you know who you don’t see getting ‘canceled’? People who fuck up but sincerely apologize, learn from their mistakes, and create new work that succeeds on its own merits, not on the strength of stolen ideas or grinning provocation.
I think there’s a misconception that some mythical party in charge of the cancellation demands that all works be sanitized of any ‘offensive content’ (and toe an equally imaginary line regarding the demonization of straight white manly gun-toting male Christian men), and this is purest horse-popcorn. Nobody’s asking anyone to be perfect, only to recognize the difference between the delightfully depraved, which we still adore, and that for which we’ve actually lost our taste: powerful groups and individuals punching down at people who can’t punch back. It’s a recognition that requires the ability to read shades of disapproval (“yeahhh that part wasn’t great” v. “how fucking dare you”), and the kinds of people crying about cancellation (frequently from the websites they own, or launched after being banned from that one) are, in my experience, rarely interested in developing that literacy or in hearing what people are actually saying with their feedback; instead, like a barking dog being yelled at to shut up, all they hear is more barking, and bark back all the louder.
In other words, is any kind of inspiration “bad”?
Oh yeah there’s all kinds of bad, ill-thought-out, wronghearted shit out there that is clearly the result of an idea occurring to someone who said “No need to examine THIS any further” and ran with it. That said, I don’t think any inspiration itself is bad; it’s just a chemical process we have no active control over, any more than we do over recoiling from spiders or drooling at hamburgers. What’s bad is when people don’t stop and take a look at where it’s coming from, and what it says about them that they feel these feelings and want to say these things. The lady who wrote that “what if WHITE people were called PEARLS and were OPPRESSED by the BLACK PEOPLE who are called COALS” nonsense felt something about race, assumed she was the good guy in her own story, and so assumed that her feelings were correct and worth exploring and expressing; in reality, what she felt was not the urge to discuss racism by reversing historical roles (which can and apparently has been done well), but to talk about how much she hated black people. Would a few moments’ reflection on those feelings have led her to ask herself some hard questions and do some work on herself? Probably not, but Aristotle said that we are what we do repeatedly, so attempting to confront your prejudices and set them aside will always yield experience points worth the effort.
SO THEM’S ME THINKS. I hope that they are well-reasoned and kind and accurate. What about you all? What’s the most bonkers thing YOU couldn’t believe nobody asked any questions about before it hit page or screen? How many accidental hate-crimes have YOU done in Dungeons & Dragons? Did YOU want a hamburger as soon as I mentioned one, or was that just me, and either way: where are we ordering from? Let me know in the comments!
Until next time, be good to yourselves, be good to each other, wear your goddamn masks, and I’ll see you when I get canceled for my BRAVE and CONTROVERSIAL novel about a LITTLE GUY who has FRENCH TOAST and is SLEEPY AFTER WRITING A BLOG POST and NOTHING BAD HAPPENS TO HIM.