Trigger Warning: The following discusses self-injury.
A couple days ago, a book blogger posted a photo on Instagram that several members of her audience and the book community felt triggered by. In the photo, she’d painted her hand and arm blue and added bleeding cut marks in gold. When several people politely pointed out that her photo was making them think of self-harming, she became defensive, saying she hadn’t read the book yet and didn’t know that it was harmful. She continued by stating that because she’s an artist, her photo can’t possibly be harmful because it’s art. (See screenshots of the photo and one of her comments here; the rest of her and others’ comments have been mysteriously deleted.)
It got worse from there. While more people politely spoke up and said that they too felt triggered by the photo, she became more defensive and began accusing these people of bullying her. She began deleting anyone’s comments who disagreed with her, and invited her friends to jump in and defend her from this horde of mean people recovering from self-harm. Other people started jumping in, saying “Well, it doesn’t bother me, so it shouldn’t bother you.”
When someone tells you “This hurts me, please stop,” your job is not to get defensive or angry. Your job is to listen to the human being in front of you. An appropriate response would be “I’m so sorry. I had no idea but I’m listening and I’d like to talk about this so I can do better.”
Whenever this happens, though, it’s almost always a marginalized person being bullied by a person of privilege. This blogger had no idea the effect of her photo because she’s never suffered from self-harm. She even admitted it herself, saying something to the effect of “I have depression and anxiety, but never self-harmed, so no one should be bothered by this.”
If you don’t know what the motherloving hell you’re talking about, maybe you should just not.
The book in question is Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth—a book that has been discussed to great extent for its many problematic themes. There are so many issues with this book, it’d take me a whole other blog post and then some to cover them, so I’m not going to go into detail. What I am going to talk about, though, is how privileged authors and their hordes of privileged fans are doing the marginalized communities that they pretend to serve more harm than good.
This should be obvious, right? Gather ’round. I’ll Liz-splain it to you, in case it isn’t.
Here’s how this goes down. Authors like Roth—who don’t suffer from chronic pain or self-harm, and are white—decide they want to tell a story. Maybe their intentions are good. Maybe they genuinely want to shine light on what it’s like to struggle with self-injury and chronic pain while showing the world that dark-skinned people are not dangerous by default. But in their lack of experience, their inherent prejudices show through. You don’t have to be purposely hateful to be prejudiced, by the way. This is another thing that privileged people can’t seem to wrap their heads around, but I digress.
Roth’s portrayal of these themes is problematic because of her lack of experience and neglect to consult anyone with those experiences. Often privileged authors go dancing into writing a diverse book like they’re doing marginalized communities some great big favor. They’re not.
Look, I’m a huge advocate for diverse books. I believe that the more of us who are writing them responsibly, the more normal they become. Readers won’t have to search very hard to find characters like them. But if you can’t be bothered to admit that something is outside your area of expertise and find an editor plus beta and sensitivity readers who do have that knowledge, then you shouldn’t bother to write that book. Leave that space for someone who does know what they’re talking about.
It’s pretty simple.
And if your fans are behaving problematically, posting triggering photos without regard for the people who are very nicely speaking up about it, then your book is acting as a catalyst for abuse, completely condoned by your flippant interview responses.
As authors, we have a responsibility for the weight of our words. There’s nothing wrong with including a particular topic or theme in our books—so long as it isn’t inappropriately glorified or vilified. We can’t control how our words are interpreted, nor can we control our readers’ actions, but we can do our very best to articulate ourselves well. That’s our damned job, after all.
I’ve been seeing a lot of marginalized people asking non-#OwnVoices people to stop writing diverse books, and I’m inclined to completely agree with them. Even when privileged authors do so responsibly, those who think they’re above serving their readers with care ruin it for everyone else. There are so many POC, chronic pain patients, and survivors of self-harm who should’ve had this publishing opportunity over someone who has never experienced these things and can’t possibly understand the perspective she’s written from.
I’m all for bringing diversity into your fiction whenever you can, but this attitude that some authors have—this sense of entitlement that they can do whatever they want and too bad for anyone who’s hurt by it—needs to stop. It’s a message loud and clear to your horde of privileged readers that it’s okay to treat other people with the same prejudice and disrespect.
We see you.