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  • Writer's pictureKL Forslund

Authors, Books, & Bigotry?

How do you know if a book is fostering bigoted values? How do you know if the author is a bigot? This week, a friend of mine brought the topic up in relation to misogyny, but I’ve thought about this in the broader scope of bigotry for a few years now. I don’t have an absolute answer, but I think there’s clues.

First, let’s dissuade a few notions. Just because something bad is in a book, doesn’t mean the author likes the bad thing. Horror writers face this a lot for the themes and such in their books. Just because the monster eats little kids doesn’t mean the author wants to eat little kids.

However, a bigoted author will put things in precisely because that’s their bigotry. Frank Herbert was a homophobe, and gaybashing was built into Dune. Here’s a link:

Lots of people love Dune, including folks who I am quite certain are against bigotry such as racism, misogyny, or homophobia. Which muddies things quite a bit, actually. Are they aware of this information? Does it trouble them? Are they still allowed to like Dune anyway, despite being against homophobia.

Beats me.

The fact is, each person’s ingrained bigotry and blinders varies and includes contradictions.  It’s easy to call out a full-on bigot who knows they are spouting hate and sticks to it. Quite a bit different to detect a wolf in sheep’s clothing like Joss Wedon, well-known avowed feminist who allegedly abused women. Then there’s the rest of us who are against bigotry but having grown up in a society where slights and presumptions toward one group are baked into most of our lives so much we don’t even notice that Dune was homophobic. I guarantee you someone I know will be shocked when they read that link

So how do you know if a book is promoting bigotry? Note, that’s not the same as the book aiming to do so or the author holding that view.

Start with looking at who’s likable or dislikable and doing the bigotry. If it’s the likable character, and nobody calls it out and the character doesn’t learn to stop it, you’ve got a book that promotes bigotry by virtue of not refuting it. You could go back to old books and find the accepted bigotries of the time baked in. The author may not have set out to make a time capsule of bigotry, but this normalizes acceptability, and thus by my definition promotes bigotry.

So what if it’s the bad guy who’s being a bigot? That’s usually a good thing. But, as with the Dune example, coding the bad guy with negative stereotypes about a demographic is exactly how bigoted tropes are propagated. It’s especially telling if there’s no good guys from the same demographic. This is why as a writer, you need to think carefully when you make the bad guy be from a commonly discriminated group.

That last point is why you shouldn’t immediately assume the author is a bigot because their book has something you think is problematic. Yes, the book could be better, but it might be a blindspot for the writer. Or not. I suspect that one small point of concern shouldn’t be the tipping point. But a book chock full like Dune is probably enough proof. Again, lots of people like those books who I wouldn’t take as homophobes.

So how do you know if an author is a bigot?

Back in the old days, most writers' personal lives and beliefs might be kept private, but HP Lovecraft’s journals signaled his racism. Herbart’s relationship with his children, political parties he worked for are the evidence there. Orson Scott Card can’t keep his mouth shut about his homophobia.

Rowling is a clinching example. Her books were havens of acceptance for bullied youth. Despite having all sorts of racist tropes and a lack of meaningful diversity. Instead, posts that promoted trans-exclusionist views did the trick.

So if you think a book has bigotry problems, say so. Point out the issues. In fact, don’t declare the author a bigot. Not yet. See how they respond (remember, defensiveness can happen even from a good person), and look up what they say outside of their books. That’s how you’ll know for sure.

Now what you do with that knowledge, is up to you. I’ve never read Dune. I’m not going to now that I know what’s in it and the kind of hateful person it came from. You may choose differently.

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