Commentary

What a Panic on Twitter Revealed About Writers Today

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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Comments

  1. Jeppsson

    Interesting mention of Lolita, since Nabokov himself was concerned that the novel should have a neutral-looking cover, absolutely not feature a pretty girl. Sounds like the poor guy engaged in some nervous self-censorship, probably because he was worried about angry Twitter reactions – oh, wait.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, some authors can realize that the content of their books is not quite moral.

      Besides, the way Lolita is written makes it clear we can’t trust the narrator – it was never an endorsement for older men who have a relationship with or groom teenage girls.

      • SunlessNick

        Which is presumably why he didn’t want a cover that tallied with the narrator’s view.

        • Bryan

          C.S. Lewis admitted to liking horses growing up in his letters. That’s probably why the horse & his boy story is so convoluted. He really bizarre ideas about animal intelligence (most of his research was on warhorses. Bree even talks down to the kids (He’s full of himself because he retired from the army, but doesn’t talk to Calormeans after that. You would think that he would try to find another talking animal, considering that armies don’t just use HORSES as there ONLY WEAPONS, since if talking horses exist any kind of animal could be used for battle (I mean did C.S. Lewis not realize that combat dogs are thing?)
          .

          • Bryan

            Meant to say “Which is Why C.S. Lewis”.

    • Esq

      Nabakov also thought that Humphrey was going to spend eternity roasting in hell.

  2. Cay Reet

    At first, I would have guessed that Vivi had ignored her reading assignment and was only operating on what everyone learns about Anne Frank’s Diary on osmosis – that she and her family hid in an attic for a long time. Of course, the line is still horrid and it shouldn’t have been in the book (there are a couple of completely fictional books instead which you could use as a comparison – no harm done there, since the stories in question aren’t real).

    I wonder if tweeting a panicked tweet is the modern analogy to clutching one’s pearls in a case of the vapours.

  3. Juan

    I may be going on a leap here, but I’m reasonably sure that if those people whining about how books should be free of morals, restrictions, accountability and all that ; ever came across a novel raining hellfire on patriarchy, ultra-capitalism or systemic racism, they would be the first ones to complain and criticise this book and try to “cancel it”…

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Definitely some of them would. Though this particular panic was largely being shared by progressive writers who wouldn’t have a problem with that stuff, they were just terrified that accountability might apply to them as well.

  4. Anthony

    You must not be using Twitter very much for this to surprise you.

    You’re unaware that the majority people who claim to be offended by this sort of thing are really are just reactionaries pretending to be leftists, yes? The term that gets thrown around for people who engage in this sort of behavior is “wokescolds,” and while some of them are “just milking the lolcows,” the majority of them are taking advantage of this kind of mindset for the sake of their political agenda. Because yes indeed: they’ve figured out how to imitate the language of progressives, and they’re absolutely using that to shut down the left.

    Think about it for a moment: someone who is genuinely bigoted isn’t going to worry about whether his work is horribly ill-mannered, or horribly ill-mannered +1. Whereas, someone who wants so badly to not offend people can be easily be taken advantage of, to the point of being pressured into redacting this, that and the other thing to where the finished work is near-soulless, if published at all.

    Sure, you can take the approach of writing a work of literature up firth and then combing it for things that might cause offence, but even then, the “woke” crypto-reactionaries are finding new ways to keep progressives’ works more dull than the competition’s, all by pretending in turn to be progressive. Ultimately, this makes any work which means to have a compassionate or anti-bigoted aproach one that can be shot down with flurries of bad-faith criticisms, or just plain alienating the audience through dullness.

    So my ultimate point is: while I feel you argued this in good faith, my knee-jerk impression was contrarywise that you agreed with this kind of online scolding, just that you felt it went slightly too far. While you’re correct in that this kind of online hatred is bad, do try to understand that this comes across as feeding the beast rather than starving it. The milieu of Twitter is one that rewards spiteful behavior; so if one argument (even a good one) makes a point about a line being insensitive, the crypto-reactionaries are going to get it snowballing into two-minutes-hate about how the author isn’t morally good enough.

    • StyxD

      I think this argument presumes a whole lot.

      I’m yet to see an example of a work becoming “near-soulless” through “woke” criticism, justified or not. It certainly isn’t going to happen with a removal of one shitty joke with no story follow-up.

      On the other hand, I think it’s a pretty terrible thing to say to writers, that they must ignore “woke” criticisms they even consider valid, because to acquiesce is to enable a hypothetical cabal of crypto-conservatives to remove heart and soul from all progressive works in the future!

      Hell, self-censorship slippery slope arguments can be extended infinitely. After all, every line in a book, no matter how bad, can be considered part of a heart of the story, and everyone who criticizes anything can be part of a conspiracy wanting the removal of said heart.

      For what it’s worth, this article advises the author to ignore criticisms they consider invalid, rather than engage with them, so there’s your “starving the beast”.

    • Sedivak

      to Anthony:

      Your comment contains a grain of truth but I believe that you are mistaken if you think that all bad SJ-themed or “woke” critique is done on purpose by (to quote your comment) “ “woke” crypto-reactionaries, who are finding new ways to keep progressives’ works more dull than the competition’s, all by pretending in turn to be progressive.” While there certainly are such people, I would say a lot of the critique you mention comes from people who really believe what they write and are just in error or too zealous. No group of people is perfect and people who see themselves as “compassionate and anti-bigoted” are no exception. It would be all too easy if we could say that all the people who are wrong in “my” group are in fact impostors who belong to the opposition.

      In some cases, the line between the “compassionate and anti-bigoted” and the too zealous for anybody’s good can be hard to find, because everybody sees themselves as the hero – this is especially true in the international (inter-cultural maybe) context.

  5. Blackhoof

    Articles like this are exactly why there are silly Twitter meltdowns about “my characters can’t do anything bad without me being criticized”, because the article literally says that the only characters that can do ‘anything bad’ are the villains.

    Does every protagonist have to be a saint with a 100% perfect record, or else we have to tweet angrily at the author for endorsing something bad?

    The Anne Frank joke is absolutely something a teen would say, but would grow up and not make when older. We need to apply some nuance to protagonists instead of assuming that every author who has a kid make a poop joke endorsed potty humour.

    Now having your protag rape someone or commit warcrimes is a different level ofc and shouldn’t ever happen or I’m putting the book down.

    This article being written about an Anne Frank joke though is clearly a poor example to support its fairly reasonable contention.

    • Chris

      I agree that the general idea of authorial endorsement got flattened a bit in this article into “only villains can do bad things,” (at least that’s my interpretation) but I do think that the Anne Frank line was in poor taste and did not add enough to the story to be worth the controversy. Even if it’s something where, upon consideration, most readers would consider it okay, the fact that it would require that consideration means you’re taking the readers out of the story.

      I disagree with Oren about the Rick and Morty example. Rick is clearly miserable – in an early episode he almost commits suicide – the people who idolize him just don’t examine the show that closely, similar to people’s treatment of Walt from Breaking Bad.

      There are many ways that the tone of a story can make it clear if a character’s actions are endorsed or not. Consider American Psycho, or the TV show Hannibal. Both have serial killers as the protagonist, but neither would be accused of endorsing the actions of the main characters. I think the reason shows like Rick and Morty and Breaking Bad do get those accusations are because managing that tone is a very subtle and difficult thing to do, and it can’t be summed up as “don’t have your good guys do bad things, or if you do have bad things happen to them as a consequence.”

      • Jeppsson

        I LOVE Rick and Morty, I think it’s hilarious, but Mythcreants are right that Rick comes out of almost every story looking like the coolest (there are exceptions, i think more in later seasons, like when Summer became queen of the facehugger aliens while Rick and Morty had their brains taken over… but mostly). Someone who feels miserable can still be super cool, and it’s predictable that lots of people in the audience have wish fulfilment fantasies focusing more on coolness than happiness and inner harmony.

        I’d say it’s the same with Walter White, and once again, I was a big fan of Breaking Bad.
        I think Walt was an asshole at a much earlier point in the show than most people think, because pretty early on, it seemed like he cared more about being a Real Man – and in his own eyes, that includes providing financially for your family – than he cared about Skyler and Flynn/Junior as persons. Still, pretty much everyone agrees he’s a bad person late in the series, where he does terrible things and there’s no room left for different interpretations. And he’s miserable, and he dies… but he’s also presented as COOL and ultimately near-invincible in his role as a drug lord.
        People who feel like losers in real life (and there are A LOT of them) like to fantasize about being cool and invincible and having everyone respect and even fear them, much more than they like to fantasize about being happy and blissful. I think this is just something you should know as a storyteller. There’s no reason to act surprised if much of the audience idolizes your cool-but-miserable character.

  6. Esq

    Everything old is new again at least in part, the sequel. During the late 19th century, there was something of a revolt against the early to mid-19th century notions that novels need to be about big important political and social themes called aestheticism. The aesthetic movement, which included Oscar Wilde, believed that novels shouldn’t be judged on whether they are moral or immoral or whether they are about big important themes or not but simply on the beauty of the writing. That’s it. The only slight difference was the politics since the aesthetic movement kind of sort of came from the Left rather than the Right or Center while today it is reversed.

  7. captain chameleon

    Thank you for this! I found it very helpful.

    Accountability is important, and I’m a firm believer in “the author is dead.” If you genuinely fucked up and people call you out for it, apologize (and mean it) and make the necessary fixes where possible. I agree that doubling down/trying to justify it is basically never going to make you look good.

    It’s easy to overblow in your head what the consequences will actually be if you get something wrong, but the fear of being “cancelled” or having one’s career ruined is totally out of proportion. Most especially for low profile indie authors and the like (which is where a lot of this fear seems to come from.)

  8. Kel

    I haven’t read The Dispossessed, but considering the author, I was interested to find out what others thought about the scene in question. I’m not sure what I was expecting (considering the search terms), but the top result was a paper about how the act is framed within the narrative https://seanguynes.com/2015/11/03/rethinking-the-dispossessed/
    It’s been a while since I’ve read an essay like that, but I think it puts forward a good argument. I’d be interested in Oren’s or anyone else’s thoughts on it.

  9. Joseph Westphal

    “It’s well established that characters can do bad things that aren’t endorsed by the story; those characters are called villains.”

    Did Oren really just say that the heroes should never do awful things? Hard disagree.

    • SunlessNick

      No he didn’t. He said by virture of being the heroes of the story, the story tacitly endorses everything they do, unless the writer makes a deliberate effort otherwise. Therefore, if you want a hero to do something awful without endorsing that thing, you have to do the work of negating the endorsement.

      • captain chameleon

        Exactly right. Heroes can have flaws, make the wrong decisions, etc. but if you don’t want the story to endorse that behavior, those behaviors need to hinder them. Other characters should call them out for it, or they should lose something/someone useful to them. In other words, something bad should happen to them in return, and they should learn the error of their ways through it, sending a clear message that their behavior was wrong.

        (It’s called character karma, and Mythcreants has covered it before.)

        That said, if their behavior is too awful too early on, many readers won’t like that character even if they learn their lesson later (they may stop reading before that lesson comes around.) Many writers are super determined to hold on to their a-hole protagonists because they find it interesting and complex, and they are of course welcome to do so, but they do run the risk of narrowing their audience with that choice.

  10. Seph

    In my opinion, people (especially online) read too much into being a decent person. The joke that started this whole mess was in very poor taste, and even if a character was the one who said it, the author made the conscious decision to remove it. When someone does that isn’t censorship, it isn’t a personal attack on things you yourself have written, its just that author being respectful. Not everything is a precursor to 1984, sometimes people just admit they did something shitty and make a change.

  11. Erynus

    In my opinion, if you can take out anything from a book and it wouldn’t change the story, it would never had to be there in the firt place.
    Also, i think that the book says exactly what the author want it to say, so all that “i wanted to explain/elaborate it but i didn’t had the time/space for it” is BS. Every word in the page exist just because the author put it there, no more, no less.

    On the other hand, i don’t even think it was a bad joke, or a joke at all. I guess there were a lot of people that had to remain hidden in someone’s attic, basement, whatever, but i can’t think of any more famous than Anne Frank, so comparing remain hidden into someone’s attic, to remain hidden into someone’s attic, is not so far fetched to me (i guess that if the protagonist get caught, bad things will happen; akin to say “if my parents see my bad grades, they are gonna kill me”).
    The problem i see is that they both laugh, when it is not even a joke. Maybe the author should explain the joke (even if it really is a dark one) because i don’t get it.
    From that fragment alone i get they laugh at random times. What i don’t get is any anti-semitic comment or disrespect to holocaust victims.

    • stephen

      What about this option? ViVi is the one who says either she was not trying to be funny or it’s a bad joke and she is sorry? Or her friend says it’s not funny?

    • Lindsay Mitchell

      Makes me wonder if there would have been any discussion if Vivi had made a reference to Flowers in the Attic or Bertha in Jane Eyre. The latter is still frequently assigned reading at a lot of schools. And Flowers in the Attic is one of those books more people probably know of than have actually read.

      • Cay Reet

        I was thinking of those two books, as it were. Both are fully fictional, so there wouldn’t have been any problems using those, no connections to the Holocaust or suchlike.

  12. Russ

    “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.”

    That’s a gross oversimplification of humanity. In fact, it’s notions like this that are the cause of such Twitter meltdowns.

    Enforcing any kind of moral absolutism is ultimately unsustainable because people are people and are thus flawed. Assuming fictional characters need to somehow be even more perfect truly misses the point of creative expression. We aren’t all writing parables or moral guidebooks. Some of us are exploring the good and bad of human behavior and, frankly, it isn’t the author’s responsibility for how readers perceive the character when the story is filtered through their personal experience. If a reader finds a character’s reprehensible actions inspiring, it isn’t the writer’s job to change them (or change their work to accommodate) but to keep holding up the mirror until they see their own ugliness.

    • Cay Reet

      Yet, as the author decides about everything in a book, having a character do something reprehensible and not having any ramfications following means the author endorses the action.

      If, for instance, a detective in a mystery novel beats up a suspect to force a confession, this should not lead to good things happening to the detective. The suspect should take the confession back and the detective should at least get an internal investigation, if they’re not thrown out of the force for it. It is a reality that sometimes detectives do that, but at least in a book, such an action should have negative consequences for them.

      If you explore the bad without any negative consequences for the character (even villains have those – they lose), then you are giving the impression that you think this is not a bad, but a good behaviour – that you endorse it. That goes for a detective beating up people, for a racist or sexist never being called out on their racist or sexist actions, and for other bad behaviours. If they don’t have negative consequences for those who show them, it is an endorsement. If they have negative consequences, it’s not.

      • Star of Hope

        Reply to Russ:

        But not every story who touches on bad stuff ultimately endorses these bad things. Stories like the Original Assassin’s Creed up to Black Flag had despite their faults done a lot to make it clear that you should not endorse the bad stuff. Other stores with darker worlds like the Trese comics were well received due to how they handled darker themes alongside their depiction of Filipino mythology! Stories that touch touchy aspects should be clear, that these things are pretty hard and deserve a level of care or you get stories like Fight Club, Merlin, Fire Emblem Fates ,Assassin’s Creed Unity and the Legend of Korra.

        The reason why South Park garnered a reputation as pretty regressive is due to how they endorse bad things like anti-enviromentalism, homophobia and antisemitism amongst other things. It’s because the writers care barely about these themes and use them as a way to tell us their obnoxious jokes like how the Male villagers of South Park made a huge orgy just to prevent the existence of more Future Migrants while laughing at the objectively good methods as gay, which is also done by the main cast. This discourages environmentalism and makes migration look like an hopeless situation, which it isn’t. South Park is one of the many reasons why I consider moral messaging a prime element of good writing, because without it you lose substance and ultimate create something utterly disgusting and something any sensible person should vehemently oppose.

  13. Bob

    I love it when people get shocked at the discovery that the rules apply to them too.

  14. Sandra Saidak

    I decided to read this article several times before commenting, but I’m still not sure I understand it. Maybe someone here can tell me if I’ve got it straight.

    Let’s start with the statement: “It’s well established that characters can do bad things that aren’t endorsed by the story; those characters are called villains.” Is the author of this post seriously suggesting that protagonists never do bad things? That mistakes and personal growth are not (or should not be) part of any work of fiction? If so, I’m in the wrong business–as both an author and a reader.

    I personally find stories in which the main characters do and say things I disagree with to be thought-provoking, and in extreme cases, wonderful sources of inspiration for my own writing. I would never want to censor them, nor do I want anyone else to. The example of a distressed teenager comparing herself to Anne Frank is fascinating to me because: 1) I’m Jewish. 2) I lost family in the Holocaust and 3) I find nothing wrong or offensive with that excerpt from the story. One of the reasons her diary is taught in school is because of the number of teens who can relate to Anne Frank–in countless ways. Including ways that might seem petty or trite to anyone not experiencing them at that moment.

    Finally, is Oren seriously suggesting that online attacks have no effect on an author’s livelihood? Or even life? That boycotts don’t happen and death threats are just things author have to accept?

    Just curious.

    • SunlessNick

      This has come up several times in the thread, so quoting the last time I answered it: No he didn’t. He said by virture of being the heroes of the story, the story tacitly endorses everything they do, unless the writer makes a deliberate effort otherwise. Therefore, if you want a hero to do something awful without endorsing that thing, you have to do the work of negating the endorsement.

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