A bright orange "panic" button on a keyboard.

Panic Button by John used under CC BY-SA 2.0

A week or so ago, I noticed something strange on writing Twitter:* authors were panicking because they thought they’d no longer be able to show a character doing something bad without appearing to endorse it. This is incredibly unlikely. It’s well established that characters can do bad things that aren’t endorsed by the story; those characters are called villains. No one talks this way out of the blue, so I investigated what was worrying them.

What I found was that this rash of concern was only a small part of a larger, more serious problem. Writers are in the midst of a moral panic over the possibility that they might be held responsible for what they write. As with most moral panics, this misplaced fear led someplace very dark. Let me tell you about it.

Content Notice: This post discusses racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and sexual violence.

Why Writers Panicked

Figuring out what sparked a Twitter controversy is always tricky. Most of the discussion is done through subtweets, and a good portion of those subtweets refer to posts that only one human and a handful of woodland animals have ever seen.

But I finally found what most of the outrage was about: best-selling author Elin Hilderbrand chose to remove a small section of text from her latest novel, Golden Girl,* after it sparked an online backlash. There are articles about it in both Slate and the Guardian, but to save you a click, the backlash was over a flashback scene where this happens:

“You’re suggesting I hide here all summer?” Vivi asks. “Like … like Anne Frank?” This makes them both laugh – but is it really funny, and is Vivi so far off base?

Vivi is talking about her plan to hide out in a friend’s attic for the summer without any parents knowing about it. Presumably, any parents who come searching are not Third Reich soldiers looking to ship Vivi off to a concentration camp, so yeah, I’d say it’s a bit off base. It’s not the most offensive thing to be published this year, but you can see why some readers would object to drawing equivalence between a summer hideout and a brutal episode of the Holocaust.

And yet, the Twitter blowout wasn’t over the line itself. Writers were panicking because the author heeded her reader’s objections and removed the line from future editions. That’s the source of all those tweets about a character’s actions not reflecting the author’s views.

I’m used to seeing that kind of take from regressive bigots, but this time came almost entirely from progressive-leaning accounts, with some even comparing Hilderbrand’s choice to the Hays Code, which forbade positive depictions of homosexuality, among other things. Oh dear, I’m gonna have to go let out a long sigh. Be right back.

How Hilderbrand Endorsed the Joke

Alright, I’m done sighing about this ridiculous situation, and I’m ready to explain why it’s ridiculous. Without any additional context, a protagonist’s actions receive authorial endorsement by default. The main character is a readers’ window into the story, so if they’re not sympathetic, readers will quickly put the book down. A story that does the work of investing us in its main character also invests us in that character’s point of view.

For the Golden Girl excerpt, protagonist Vivi isn’t doing anything as heinous as defending the Holocaust. Rather, she’s making a hurtful joke like it’s fun and playful. Since we’re supposed to like Vivi, the book also casts Vivi’s joke in that light. Now, there could be context that would change that interpretation, but since none of the novel’s defenders* mention any, we can safely assume it isn’t there. This leaves us with the simple case of a character we’re supposed to sympathize with being disrespectful to a victim of genocide.

A common refrain in cases like this is that such actions are obviously not endorsed because they are bad, but that’s not how stories work. When you take an otherwise admirable character and have them do or say something immoral, the audience doesn’t automatically see it as a flaw. Instead, it gets mixed in with all the virtuous things the character has done until it seems virtuous as well.

This is why characters like Rick Sanchez and Tyler Durden don’t work as caricatures of toxic behavior. A lot of their behavior certainly is toxic, but they’re also portrayed as cool, badass, and almost always right. Rick saves the world on a regular basis with his cool gadgets, all the while berating the rest of his family for being useless. The message the show sends isn’t that Rick shouldn’t berate his family; it’s that his family is useless and should get out of his way. The few times Rick is ever shown to be wrong, it’s quickly resolved, and he gets back to saving the day without any meaningful change to his behavior.

Meanwhile, in the Fight Club film at least, Tyler Durden is similarly a badass who gets the girl and devises a plan to rid America of credit card debt. Unlike Rick, Tyler isn’t the protagonist, but the only way for the main character to defeat Tyler is by becoming more like him. Afterwards, Tyler’s plan works perfectly. It’s no wonder so many viewers idolize him.

Does this all mean that Elin Hilderbrand thinks insensitive Holocaust jokes are funny? No, but it doesn’t matter. We can’t know what was in an author’s heart when they wrote something; we only know what they wrote and in what context. It’s to Hilderbrand’s credit that she removed the line, but it honestly shouldn’t have gotten to publication in the first place.

Why “Realism” Doesn’t Excuse It

In any argument over a character’s actions, someone will inevitably bring up realism, and this situation was no exception. Both the Slate article and numerous tweets insisted this is just something an American teenager would say, particularly since Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl commonly appears on high school reading lists. I don’t know if that’s true, and more importantly, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter.

Given the realities of bullying among peers, it would also have been realistic for Vivi to talk about the time she harassed a classmate until they died by suicide. But she doesn’t do that, and you don’t need an MFA to see why. We are supposed to like this character, so the author doesn’t have her do any of the other really horrible things that would also be perfectly realistic. The joke only made it in because Hilderbrand miscalculated and didn’t realize how hurtful it would sound.

No matter how gritty the story claims to be, no author makes decisions based entirely on what’s realistic. For one thing, how would you even do that? If we accept that Vivi recently read about Anne Frank in English class, it’s just as realistic that she would be mature enough to realize that this isn’t something to joke about. Authors don’t make choices based on which one has the highest percentage of happening in real life; they make the choices they think will work best for the story.

Naturally, no discussion of realism would be complete without a reminder that authors massage realism all the time to get the story they want. If you remember the times before we all swore never to talk about Game of Thrones again, a big defense of that show’s abundant sexual violence was that it’s just realistic. And yet, the show runners chose not to include even a single codpiece, which would also have been realistic for the historical period GoT is based on. Stories routinely deliver unlikely escapes and long-shot triumphs against the odds, all of which are unrealistic. That’s just how stories work.

The realism argument was wrong during Game of Thrones, and it’s wrong now. Believability is an important concept in fiction, but it’s not at all related to whether the main character makes a Holocaust joke in poor taste.

Why We Don’t Owe Storytellers the Benefit of the Doubt

Another line that inevitably comes up whenever a storyteller writes something crappy is that they can’t have meant it, and there must be some alternative explanation. Fans tie themselves in knots trying to find some interpretation that will absolve their favorite author, no matter how convoluted the reasoning. In this latest kerfuffle, the argument is that Vivi’s line must be deep commentary, possibly on the state of American education.

A famous example is the Star Trek episode A Private Little War, which I used in my original post on authorial endorsement. This episode is about Kirk arming a less advanced group of aliens so they can fight another group of aliens who are being armed by the Klingons. This episode aired during the Vietnam War, so you could say it was perhaps a little topical.

But Star Trek is usually progressive, so a lot of Trekkies don’t want to acknowledge that Gene Roddenberry wrote a story endorsing military interventionism. Instead, they focus on how Kirk is somber when he orders a new batch of weapons beamed down. They insist that Kirk’s resigned attitude is actually a condemnation of US foreign policy, rather than the more obvious interpretation that foreign wars are an unpleasant necessity.

A similar argument often crops up around The Dispossessed, where the anarchist main character unambiguously rapes a woman, then the story continues as if nothing happened. This doesn’t exactly mesh with Ursula K. Le Guin’s status as a giant of leftist literature, so fans make excuses. They claim it’s not really rape (it is) or that it wasn’t the hero’s fault because he was so overcome by the evils of capitalism (he wasn’t). This is all to avoid the obvious conclusion that Le Guin wrote a story where rape isn’t portrayed as a big deal.

For a more modern example, look no further than Harry Potter. Even now, with Rowling happily demonstrating her twisted values for all the internet to see, hardcore Potterheads find ways to justify the books’ weak points. Remember S.P.E.W? That’s not a storyline about how enslaved house elves like being enslaved, these superfans argue. It’s actually a commentary on how privileged allies can be obnoxious sometimes! Never mind all the times the house elves say they like being enslaved.

Audiences do not owe storytellers this kind of mental gymnastics, and suggesting they do is irresponsible at best. A story’s apparent meaning is what’s most important, as that’s what most people will get from it. We need to grapple with stories as they are, not what we wish they were.*

No, of Course Criticism Is Not Censorship

When all else fails, this flavor of moral panic falls back on the idea that criticism, any criticism, is a kind of censorship. If confronted with the reality that no social justice advocate has the authority to prevent a story from being published, panickers will fall back on the idea that criticism might convince publishers to overlook certain stories, or that storytellers might censor themselves. I even found people sharing a 6,000-word substack article about how modern critics are equivalent to Joseph “Gulag Enthusiast” Stalin. Fun times!

This idea is so silly that no one actually believes it, even the people who share it on social media. If they did, the only solution would be to never talk about stories ever again. Even talking positively about stories would have the power of censorship, as publishers might take that as a sign to select for similar stories over dissimilar ones, and writers might censor their own ideas to be more like the praised stories. You’ll notice that no one acts like this in real life, and every single person complaining about online critique can later be found critiquing some aspect of a story they didn’t like.

At this level of discourse, the content of the critique no longer matters, merely the existence of critique. That’s on purpose: it’s much easier to simply label all critique as bad than it is to say what exactly is objectionable about each instance. Defending an insensitive Holocaust joke is a bit awkward, so why not label the whole thing as censorship and call it a day?

My favorite iteration of this idea is that authors have no choice but to cave under spurious social justice pressure, or forever have their careers ruined via invisible whisper networks. Or, as the Slate article put it:

The irresponsibly gossipy nature of social media makes it all too easy for vague and unsupported slagging (“I heard she’s an antisemite,” “I heard they’re a Zionist”) to grow like weeds in the neglected corners of a prominent person’s reputation.

This is, to put it mildly, an extraordinary claim, but it provides no extraordinary evidence. In fact, as far as I can tell, it provides no evidence at all. Even when storytellers blatantly display horrible behavior for all to see, nothing ever seems to happen after the initial outrage has died down. You’ll forgive me if I don’t believe that a highly successful author like Hilderbrand would have her career or reputation ruined over one bad Anne Frank joke.

Where the Twitter Panic Led

The more tweets I encountered about how a character’s actions don’t actually reflect on the story, the more I wondered if the real idea being pushed was that storytelling and morality are separate things and never the twain shall meet. Not two seconds after the thought crossed my neurons, this quote from Ottessa Moshfegh began making the rounds, sent out from many of the same people:

I wish that future novelists would reject the pressure to write for the betterment of society. Art is not media. A novel is not an “afternoon special” or fodder for the Twittersphere or material for journalists to make neat generalizations about culture. A novel is not BuzzFeed or NPR or Instagram or even Hollywood. Let’s get clear about that. A novel is a literary work of art meant to expand consciousness. We need novels that live in an amoral universe, past the political agenda described on social media. We have imaginations for a reason. Novels like American Psycho and Lolita did not poison culture. Murderous corporations and exploitive industries did. We need characters in novels to be free to range into the dark and wrong. How else will we understand ourselves?

I am just… very confused why anyone would share this quote thinking it makes their argument look good. It starts by claiming “art is not media,” which is like saying trees aren’t plants, and it only gets worse from there. Apparently we need novels to be amoral in order to “expand consciousness,” whatever that means.

This quote is so absurdly broad that it can be used to justify anything. The Camp of Saints is a hateful far right screed that portrays Indians as subhuman monsters who literally eat shit, but I guess that’s fine because it’s a novel and therefore exists in an amoral universe, past any political agenda described on social media. I should get started on my idea for a story about how Jeff Bezos is a righteous and moral person who deserves the $194 billion he’s earned by abusing his employees and making them pee in bottles. I’m just ranging into the dark and the wrong, after all.

This quote is absurdly wrong about nearly everything, but it’s most wrong in proposing that stories exist in some alternate reality where morals don’t matter. Every human has a social responsibility not to be a jackass, and that includes omitting hurtful content in our stories. More abstractly, stories affect how people think. It’s not mind control like the anti-video game crowd used to claim, but it obviously happens. If it didn’t, no one would bother arguing about fictional topics in the first place. Even this quote endows stories with the power to expand consciousness, which makes them sound pretty damn important.

What’s more, morality also affects how much people will enjoy a story. A person who suffered antisemitic violence – or just knows antisemitism is wrong – will have a harder time investing in a story where the protagonist casually disrespects Holocaust victims. Of course, that’s assuming you care about plebeian things like enriching other people’s lives or, gasp, selling books. This quote’s natural conclusion is that you shouldn’t care about those things at all. Instead, you should swear off social responsibility because capitalism exists. I think most of us can do better.

In a panic to avoid even the potential for being held to account over what they wrote, a bunch of authors ended up rejecting the entire concept of morality. That’s pretty dark.

This is the same thought process that underlies the panic over “cancel culture.” Writers, particularly privileged writers, fear they might not be able to publish whatever they want anymore. Then, since the actual content in question is hard to defend, instead people attack the very idea of doing the right thing.

What to Do About Social Justice Critiques

A final point to consider is why so many otherwise progressive accounts got swept up in this latest panic. There are probably a lot of reasons, but I strongly suspect a big one is that progressives aren’t used to being critiqued with social justice language. When someone comes after us with 4chan memes, it’s easy to write them off. It’s harder when they use words like patriarchy and colonizer.

And it’s true, some social justice critique is in bad faith, or flat out wrong. That terminology is out in the wild now; there’s no vetting progress for who gets to use it. In fact, that Slate article contains one such example, though it got a lot less Twitter attention than Hilderbrand’s book. It seems that the romance novel Red, White, and Royal Blue contains the following snippet from the fictional US president:

“Well, my UN ambassador fucked up his one job and said something idiotic about Israel, and now I have to call Netanyahu and personally apologize. But the good thing is it’s two in the morning in Tel Aviv, so I can put it off until tomorrow and have dinner with you two instead.”

Some folks online took this to be a normalization or even endorsement of Israeli state violence against Palestinians, but it simply isn’t, at least not on its own. There could be more context here; maybe the UN ambassador said that the Israeli military is responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths in the latest conflict. It would be pretty messed up to cast that as “idiotic.” But if that’s the case, neither the novel’s critics nor its defenders are bringing it up.

In isolation, this line seems to be a mild commentary on the political relationship between the United States and Israel, where American leaders must be supportive and friendly toward their military ally, regardless of how they feel. Unfortunately, the author decided to remove the line anyway, which she absolutely didn’t need to do.

To be clear, this is one incident, and it doesn’t indicate any kind of dystopian future where authors must hide in fear from Twitter critique. But it does indicate that some of us need a lesson in what to do when we receive such critique. All too often, the reaction is to get defensive or to panic* and make some unwise choices in the hopes that the criticism will go away. Instead, try this handy series of steps:

  1. Step back for a moment. No one is coming to your house, and you’ll make better decisions if you’re calm and cooled off.
  2. Look at what’s being said and what you wrote. Sometimes it’s obvious whether you goofed. If not, do some research or ask people you trust for a second opinion.
  3. If what you wrote is genuinely harmful, acknowledge it and make what changes the situation allows. (Not everyone is writing on an easily editable blog.)
  4. If it’s not, ignore the bad faith critique and move on. Acting like a martyr will only make you look bad, even if you’re right.

Mythcreants uses this method, and it serves us well. Sometimes we find that we made a mistake, and we make edits. Other times, it’s a case of someone fan raging with social justice language, and we ignore it, like we do any other fan rage. We don’t make a big deal about it because this is just the reality of writing words that other people will read. It always pays to be calm and not inflate a problem beyond its actual scope.

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