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What Is Your Take on "Problematic" Fiction?

Discussion in 'Fiction Discussion' started by Nikkolas, Jan 1, 2017.

  1. Nikkolas

    Nikkolas

    Location:
    Texas, US
    So I am of two minds on this...

    Let's start with a bit of info about me to give context as to what I'm talking about. I became a Gundam fan about three years ago now. Now if you are at all active in the Gundam community you know "Gundam has issues with women" is a very common topic. I actively fought this idea because Four is an awesome character so how can Zeta be misogynistic and also Tomino has his characters say weird comments about men too so why aren't people calling him a sexist pig for that? Also why do people have to psychoanalyze a writer based on their work? It's just there to be entertaining, it doesn't have to be there to "say" anything.

    Now, to completely reverse my position, I recently read the excellent novel Gone with the Wind. I think a lot people should read it because it has a fantastic leading lady set against the backdrop of a crumbling civilization and how she climbs over the rubble to try and survive. Anyway. while I highly recommend it and loved it, it's also super racist. Like, it's not even possible to argue it wasn't. There's one scene where those mean Northerners pick on a black man and call him the N-Word while his kindly Southern mistress defends him. Not that Northerners weren't racist assholes too but the scene clearly exists for a reason and that reason is terrible.

    Now I don't do GOTW a service by denying this significant aspect to it. I merely think the good outweighs the bad.

    And I think that's kinda where I'm at nowadays... I still get frustrated with people criticizing some works as misogynistic or whatever. A lot of shojo gets accused of this because it tends to have rape or attempted rape in it or the heroine is perceived as "weak." I mean, maybe that's sorta true but it doesn't stop the story from being good or interesting in my view. You can take whatever you want away from fiction in my view. But if others can't do that? If they think the abusive relationships in some shojo send a bad impression to young girls? That's their right to think that.

    So that's my piece. Do you dismiss a work if it has undertones or even overtones that make you uncomfortable? What are some "problematic" works you have read or watched?
     
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  2. Hykal94

    Hykal94 The Kitteh Knight of Islam

    A problematic piece of fiction is when they are spouting awful propaganda and more or less the author using their platform to preach hate and intolerance.

    So basically Tom Kratman and his ilk.
     
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  3. If the "problematic" elements aren't ties to the central themes of the story I can still give it some respect. To use your example of Gone With the Wind, while it's horrifically racist, in the end the central theme is that the war was wrong no matter who you blame for it.

    In Kratman's work, the central theme is justifying racism, and if you take that away there's nothing left.
     
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  4. GoldenFalls

    GoldenFalls

    Location:
    US of A
    I don't dismiss a work because it contains stuff I consider problematic, I read it until I can't any more because I'm too bothered. Like, I don't make the conscious decision "I'm going to boycott this work because I don't like this portrayal", I just get so bothered in the process of reading that a lot of times I can't get past the first chapter because the good parts of the story can't outweigh the problems.

    Although this only really applies to fanfiction, where the author sees no profit whether I read their story or not. I do purposely boycott things like movies that I don't want to support the ideas behind them. I think it's important because people can ignore me saying racist casting is problematic, but they pay attention to sales.
     
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  5. Spoit

    Spoit

    Location:
    US
    I'm not entirely sure about how to square the circle, but my inclination is to say that there's a huge difference between acknowledging historical behavior which was problematic, like how America was (and really, still is) racist as hell, and encouraging present problems, like how Japan in general (and current anime trends specifically) have a lot of problems with their treatment of gender roles.

    Ultimately, it's a matter if how you use the problematic behaviors. If they're there to show a theme, or at least to have some (quasi) historical versimilitude, or just left a a matter of course, without the author thinking about it. @The Laurent had a good post explaining some of this in his newest quest.
     
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  6. VolantRedX

    VolantRedX Official Conscience of Worm Fanfiction! Suspended

    I think there's a difference between acknowledging that a story has problematic elements and dismissing a story for having problematic elements. Criticizing a story for having a poor view of women or minorities or whatever is no different than criticizing a story for poor plots or character development. It's a flaw in the work that should be addressed. At the same time saying "this story is sexist and no one should like it" should be reserved when that element overcomes any positives in the story at all, just like saying "this movie is so poorly acted it's unwatchable" shouldn't just be thrown around.
     
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  7. vicky_molokh

    vicky_molokh The *other* transhuman[ist]

    Location:
    Kyïv, Ukraine
    A good critic should fully understand the huge gap between "this is a work with a high/low quality as a work of fiction" versus "I agree or disagree with the message of the work / love or hate the political stances displayed within it / love or hate the political stance of the author". When a critic (whether a professional one or an amateur) mixes the two, bad things happen, most notably a reduction of clarity in the discussion of a work.

    Only Old Men Go Into Battle is a Soviet war film.
    Clearly it's meant to glorify USSR and the Soviet pilots.
    Commies! Stalin! Propaganda! Authoritarianism! Bad!
    And yet nonetheless, it's also a good film, as a film.
    The two are different axes, and should not be confused.

    It seems to be that some people (and I don't mean those in this thread, but rather in general) are using the Problematic descriptor seriously in almost the same way as Badwrongfun is used satirically: "My personal [political] preferences run counter to the ones associated with this work, therefore everyone else should stop enjoying this work!". Older similar usages include (or included) the terms 'Obscene', 'Blasphemous', 'unfriendly to Family Values', 'Anti-Proletarian', 'Bourgeois' etc.

    ----

    A related issue is whether an author should be criticized for a political stance. I've seen the principle stated something along the lines "I will stop criticizing authors for their politics when they stop putting politics into their art". While I'm sympathetic to this argument, I think it asks for something that isn't possible to achieve in the requested way, because a critic can always claim that a lack of something is a case of placing politics into a work just as much as a presence of something is.

    I do think that when an author actively uses a work as a political tract or in a conscious pursuit of a political agenda, then the author becomes 'fair game' for being criticized for it. But as long as there are no clear signs of the author deliberately putting a political agenda into a work of art, it's still bad form to mix criticism of political stances in the art with criticism of the art as art itself.

    I personally have a dislike for authors with 'preachy' works of art, even when I agree with the message that is being preached, but that's just my personal opinions - authors are of course free to be preachy if they so desire.
     
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  8. Ford Prefect

    Ford Prefect What is Project Zohar? Director

    The political content of any given piece of art is itself part of that art. It's hardly mixing criticism.
     
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  9. vicky_molokh

    vicky_molokh The *other* transhuman[ist]

    Location:
    Kyïv, Ukraine
    One can appreciate/criticise an anthem while disregarding the political message in the lyrics, focusing on the purely artistic side of the music. The æsthetics of the work.

    It's possible to make a political message without any appreciable artistic component. It's also possible to add an artistic farming to the political message. At which point one can analyze the combined work for its political message . . . or for everything else except said message.

    After all, it's possible to appreciate music in a foreign language you don't know!
     
  10. Q99

    Q99

    I can dismiss something if the problems are too significant. Other times I just note it, enjoy the rest (or especially enjoy the parts with the least of the problem), and maybe write something on what the problematic areas are where it can do better. Plenty of old stuff is going to be problematic because authors just didn't think of it in modern terms.

    It's ok to like problematic stuff, even if we need more less-problematic stuff.


    Heck, I'm a fan of multiple trans characters in fiction who's origins are "Wow, really?" problematic. But trans characters are so rare anyway that I still go for it and am a big fan of the characters.
     
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  11. Ford Prefect

    Ford Prefect What is Project Zohar? Director

    Sure, but that's actually excluding content from your consideration of the work. It's not artificial the consider it in its totality. You can personally focus on any given element of the work, but the rest still remain.
     
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  12. vicky_molokh

    vicky_molokh The *other* transhuman[ist]

    Location:
    Kyïv, Ukraine
    It's not artificial to consider a work in its totality when appraising it for purely personal purposes. But good criticism includes such appraisals as "I like the work, but it's bad (in terms of quality)", "I hate the work, but it's good (in terms of quality)", and very importantly for this thread "I disagree with the [political stances/message/etc.] of the work, but it's good (in terms of quality)".
     
  13. Bakustra

    Bakustra

    Location:
    The Pleroma
    What does "quality" mean in this case?
     
  14. vicky_molokh

    vicky_molokh The *other* transhuman[ist]

    Location:
    Kyïv, Ukraine
    Apparently being able to differentiate between "I like it", "it is popular" and "it is good" is a requirement for being a good critic. However, a good critic is something that I am not, so I do not believe myself qualified to figure out the answer to your question.
     
  15. Bakustra

    Bakustra

    Location:
    The Pleroma
    Well, I mean, if we're going to say that it's possible for a work to be ethically disgusting but also good, we need some kind of sense of what good quality is that exists independently of our judgment of the content of the work. Like, is The Triumph of the Will a "quality" movie?
     
  16. Ford Prefect

    Ford Prefect What is Project Zohar? Director

    I don't think that 'quality' is some ambiguous thing here. He means, if we're talking film, things like the standards of the direction, photography, acting, composition, etc.
     
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  17. ussnimitz1968

    ussnimitz1968 Not an Actual Servicemember

    It isn't there to be entertaining; it's just there. It's up to the reader to decide if it's there strictly for entertaining, or to be mined for something else of value (dubious or not) or to be examined from a cultural perspective for any purpose. If we weren't allowed to analyze a work for any given purpose and deeper examination, then the whole sci-fi vs. debate community upon which ultimately the entire Sufficient Velocity community is founded upon is on shaky ground. And yes, pscyhoanalyzing a writer based on his or her work is entirely fair game - in fact like it or not or agree with it or not it's a requirement to graduate from many college and even high school courses, especially ones that use literature as a conduit or focus for related or tangential aspects of culture (such as feminist studies courses or gaming studies/development courses) but also for many "straight up" literature courses as well.

    That said, it's extremely easy and tempting to go overboard on it, especially when the person doing so is either highly biased by or actively trying to shoehorn into a specific agenda, and at best completely miss the actual message the author is going for or at worse simply engage in effectively a smear campaign against the author (or the other way, canonize an author who doesn't deserve it - which is actually where we get L. Ron Hubbard). The greatest demonstration and send-up of it that I've ever seen actually is in the Rodney Dangerfield movie "Back to School" so maybe you might want to watch that :)

    To address another thing, you can have "issues with women" even if a work is focused on a very strong female protagonist and even if those/that issue(s) only crop up from time to time or even only once. You can have weird attitudes about both men and women and I will agree focusing on just one aspect ends up being disingenuous to not only the other but to both. All of this tends to be something I like to focus on and study not only as a writer myself but in the works I experience, particularly as part of my actual job examining all of this in young adult fiction (where it is a major issue thanks in no small part to Twilight and The Hunger Games but even prior) and in works in general that tend to have either a sizable peripheral or primary tween or teen audience - which inevitably includes virtually all anime and science fiction (in fact it was partially the anime and sci-fi that drew me to this line of work in the first place, not the other way around).

    And speaking of which, FYI there's an entire genre labeled "Problematic Fiction" mostly describing young adult fiction/media examining tween/teen interaction with social issues (a lot of it tends to be LGBTQ+, feminist or race-related but virtually any social issue can be included down to something more commonly socially accepted such as divorce or even strictly cis/heterosexual issues that would be included under the LGBTQ+ or sexuality banner but do not necessarily include or pertain to characters that identify as other than cis/heterosexual) - I mention this because I thought this thread was going to be about something at least slightly different :p

    It sounds like whether or not it's even "bad" depends on the context. The way you make it sound like, it sounds like a criticism of Northern racism juxtaposed with how both racism and abolitionism know no geographic or cultural borders. If there are terrible reasons why that scene exists, you need to more carefully and specifically explain those reasons other than "a Southern woman defends a black man against racist Northerners" which gives the exact opposite impression.

    This brings to mind the ever-present debate of Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn and if the mere inclusion of racial slurs makes the text inherently racist, as opposed to how those racial slurs are used in context. Roots makes extensive use of racial slurs but I don't think there's any argument that that work is anything but abolitionist/pro-integration (to rather clunkily shoehorn it into the best descriptors I can think of at the moment given how it was written something like 100 years after the American Civil War).

    You certainly have a right to enjoy a work as it is - but again, it doesn't make the complaints about the work on social issues grounds any less valid. As I've said and is my entire point, it's extremely important to examine works on these grounds as literature is and will always be used as a gateway towards those same issues in actual society - whether a work is intended for that or not. As I said it's possible to go overboard but it is not possible for an author to completely insulate a work from social and cultural influence; any piece of media effectively serves as a time capsule to the culture that wrote it to some degree, even in historical fiction works as those will be viewed and written from the lens and attitudes contemporary to the author who wrote it.

    Now granted, I'm extremely biased in this as that's pretty much what keeps me employed, not only in my other line of work but as I feel as a writer/prospective writer as well. But to try to insist that works need to be enjoyed as entertainment only and not examined risks running blind to how attitudes prevalent in society, good or bad, influence individuals and media of all types is a conduit through how those individuals are influenced (again, this is a huge topic in circles that deal with media that have large tween and teen audiences). And having a very strong female protagonist/of color doesn't give a free pass to the one (or more) incident of white/patriarchal privileged that shows up unironically in the work from perfectly valid criticism (again, The Hunger Games which is extremely problematic on a number of fronts, good narrative/Katniss or not). And again this is just personal subjectivism, but I've found that more often than not such discussion makes me enjoy the work even more, or at least be more intellectually aware of what's going on which is something I deeply appreciate.

    In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the "Is Overwatch sexist?" debate. There's a lot of valid, convincing evidence either way and it ultimately boils down to personal interpretation and/or biases (not all of those biases having to do with where you sit on feminism, but in gaming in general as well).

    It depends as offense and discomfort are ultimately subjective as well. And context does matter. A work featuring a woman who is the victim of brutal rape will be less objectionable to me if the whole point is to raise some of the social issues concerning rape survivors (and just to be clear, yes I've read works like that) than if a work were to feature rape victims strictly to satisfy some incredibly perverse sexual fetish on the part of the author (and yes, I've read works like that as well).

    Yes, very much so. There is a difference between something that is "good" and something that is "popular" (I think Bayverse Transformers has pretty much settled that argument once and for all). And yes, even high quality works can be problematic. As I've mentioned, the actual narrative of The Hunger Games is very good, at least in comparison to a lot of works in its genre (one of the reasons why it was so explosively popular to begin with) but that hardly makes it being free of socially problematic issues either, right down to its very core premise.
     
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  18. Nikkolas

    Nikkolas

    Location:
    Texas, US
    @ussnimitz1968

    1. What's wrong with The Hunger Games? I only read the first book and enjoyed it.


    2. If you've not read GOTW, here is the scene in question between Scarlett, her slave Big Sam and the random Yankie ladies.
    Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell : Chapter 38

    This scene serves no purpose other than to say, and I quote, "You Southerners don’t know how to treat niggers. You spoil them to death.”

    That is not how most people would say Southerners in the 19th Century treated black people, I dare say.

    The novel is full of stuff like this, it's just that this scene is so blatant and pointless beyond being racist. I am far more sympathetic to the Confederacy than most people I meet online and I love American Southern culture but this novel is still offensive if you look at it through the lens of race relations.


    3. Anyway, you're absolutely right fiction represents our time and place and it can also influence our society. As such, it's perfectly legitimate to criticize it on social or moral grounds. The problem is, that runs the risk of condemning thought crime. What about pornography? The really violent, fucked up kind that is all about fantasizing rape and even murder? People who enjoy that and write stories or draw art for it should not be condemned. They've hurt no one and treating them like there is something wrong with them is not healthy.
     
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  19. ussnimitz1968

    ussnimitz1968 Not an Actual Servicemember

    Quality/narrative-wise, there's not much if anything wrong with it. It really is one of the better-written books of its genre, which I do think is a major part of its popularity. But in the context of this thread and being "problematic," yeah, it has a lot of problems - and those problems are actually the other reason why it's so explosively popular.

    The big "problematic" is about expressing teen/girl power through exceptionally brutal violence, especially given that it's violence against other teenagers (including other teenage girls). It's promoting a very good message - aforementioned teen/girl power and empowering girls - but it's doing it through a means a colleague of mine says is very irresponsible. Basically, the message is that girls can be empowered only through the expression of brute strength and violence, which is traditionally associated as being a very patriarchal, not feminist message and sentiment. This gets compounded and becomes more worrisome when bullying (and how to properly respond to bullying) becomes a major issue, and that a major issue with girl empowerment (please note when I say "girl empowerment" I am specifically referring to girls in tween-teen age, topping out at 17) is how to appropriately deal with the archetypal "mean girl." One of the big theories as to why Hunger Games became so explosively popular is because it appealed to frustrated tween and teen girls in that it was fantasy/wish fulfillment towards being able to "fuck up a bitch" (i.e. the mean girl bothering them in real life). It's something that's at least touched upon in this New Yorker article. This isn't exactly a healthy attitude to promote regardless in what name, and my colleague was worried that Hunger Games might normalize a lot of taboos that even up to that time were still somewhat held by authors in general, namely regarding violence against children especially perpetrated by other children. It's not exactly an incorrect sentiment either given the rise of violent crime among teenagers.

    *shrug* it's a perfectly valid sentiment as well, and there is a fine line through examining and bringing up issues and condemning thought crime (especially since the latter is antithetical to the former). But to limit discussion on a work's problematics is to engage in a different type of thought crime condemnation as well, and one that's even more disingenuous to intellectual thought.
     
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  20. Isn't quality basically controlling here? There's a massive difference between well written fiction with problematic themes and shit that would be bad even without problematic themes.
     
  21. ussnimitz1968

    ussnimitz1968 Not an Actual Servicemember

    It really depends, and that's with subjective criteria on top of that. Many people who have read Lolita consider it a beautiful novel, while others who have read it find it highly objectionable to the point where they don't feel they can enjoy it. Apparently there's some people who feel this way of Taxi Driver too, though overwhelmingly it seems most people find it a good film as opposed to people who find it too objectionable to be enjoyed.

    For that matter a lot of movies that are particularly violent are held with high praise (let's just use for example the Karl Urban Judge Dredd movie) but I simply find it too violent to really be enjoyed. Meanwhile I think Mad Max: Fury Road is honestly one of the most amazing, brilliant movies I've ever seen period but on the raw violence aspect it actually seems very toned down (one of my chief and few complaints about the film, actually, is a key fight scene involving Max and a major antagonist that takes place entirely off-screen).
     
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2017
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  22. Okay, but, that's a different question. The OP asked when something should be dismissed for being too problematic, not when it becomes "hard to enjoy." A lot of problematic things are written to intentionally be hard to enjoy (for example, Lolita). But I don't believe many people believe Lolita should just be dismissed as offensive.
     
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  23. ussnimitz1968

    ussnimitz1968 Not an Actual Servicemember

    Is there a difference? If you're offended, it's going to be hard to enjoy. You're going to run into problems if you're going to insist something should be dismissed based on arbitrary criteria that should be adopted by a group standard. That's my whole point when I keep saying this is subjective.
     
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  24. Ford Prefect

    Ford Prefect What is Project Zohar? Director

    Re: The Hunger Games, it also started this trend in YA dystopian fiction where the protagonist's mother is presented in a really negative light. Not necessarily a problem in individual cases, but a strange trend for a genre often pointed to for its empowerment of young women.
     
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  25. ussnimitz1968

    ussnimitz1968 Not an Actual Servicemember

    Hardly the only strange trend from that genre either, as I pointed out in my previous posts.
     
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