I like to think I’m a well-read person. I read broadly, across most if not all genres, and I don’t avoid controversial books. So what is the most harmful book I’ve ever read?
Yep. I can say confidently that the middle grade novel The Exiles at Home by Hilary McKay is the most harmful book I’ve ever read, because it’s the only one that directly caused me to harm another person.
In The Exiles at Home, young Phoebe Conroy wants to be a zookeeper. She practises by making her own zoo and putting a picture of her sister Rachel in it, with a sign saying “Beware of the Roaring Pig”. Eight-year-old me thought this was both creative and hilarious, so I did the same thing to my own sister. Obviously she was upset and angry, and I got a proper telling-off.
My point here is that there is no such thing as a “safe” book. Books can be harmful by presenting shitty behaviour as funny (or just normal), perpetuating damaging stereotypes or narratives, glorifying violence, romanticising abuse, or pretending truly dangerous things are safe. There are a million different ways a book could potentially cause harm.
Ban all the books!
So what to do about it? Should we keep a gimlet eye on every book that’s published, getting ready to ban it at a moment’s notice? For me, it’s a clear No. If you are old enough to read, you are old enough to think for yourself and decide what to do with a book’s messages.
Banning books – whether it’s the government, organisations or individuals removing books from libraries, schools or bookshops – is blatant censorship. Depriving people of the right to access books of their own choosing is straight out of 1984 – a book that has, of course, been banned repeatedly for “obscenity” and supposedly pro-communist passages.
Also, have you seen which books get banned these days? It’s basically any book where teenage characters have horny feelings, and that picture book about two male penguins adopting an egg.
Cancel all the books!
Maybe we should stick to “cancelling” books that we consider harmful instead. This is a more complex issue, because when people talk about cancelling books they are usually talking about de-platforming – basically, boycotting a book or author, and encouraging others to do the same.
The discourse around cancelling books can get ugly, but boycotts are a completely legitimate tool of social change. So, do I agree with the cancellation of books that readers consider harmful? Mostly, no.
Reason number one – I believe cancel culture in the book world is harmful to marginalised authors and likely to result in less diversity in publishing. Feel free to disagree with me on this point, but be aware you are disagreeing with a marginalised author.
One or two high profile cases have given the impression that cancelling books is all about holding rich, white men (and rich, white Harry Potter creators*) accountable to their audience. In reality, you can’t cancel these mainstream authors because they have readers all across the political spectrum.
The same can’t be said of marginalised authors who write about marginalised characters. We get our foothold amongst readers who actively seek diversity in their reading and regularly engage with social issues. Sorry to use the w-word, but our readers are way more likely to be “woke”.
That’s all fine and dandy, but God forbid we don’t live up to their standards of progressive literature. One slip-up – anything from cultural appropriation to writing too casually about suicide – can end a career before it even begins.
We’re not allowed to make mistakes, learn and grow like mainstream authors, and we’re certainly not allowed unpopular opinions. Cancel culture tells marginalised authors “You’re not allowed to be an artist or an entertainer – that’s for straight, white dudes. You must be a safe space.”
Reason number two – I believe cancel culture in the book world makes traditional publishing an even more risk-averse place. It’s already conservative as hell, avoiding anything that is less likely to turn a profit due to being the wrong style, the wrong length, not fitting neatly into an established genre, etc. Now, books also need to be as inoffensive as possible.
A book can get cancelled for many reasons, but it generally begins with “This book makes me uncomfortable”. Since books that are provocative or challenging frequently make people uncomfortable, publishers are more likely to avoid them in favour of books that are “wholesome”, “comforting”, or “like a big, warm hug”.
This brings me back to The Exiles at Home, which I still think is a brilliant book. One of the best things about it is that the characters act like real sisters, and real people. The constant labelling of books as “problematic” for featuring flawed characters who do bad things makes me think that this type of character depth is actively discouraged.
It also links in with my first point about marginalised authors being under more scrutiny. As a queer author, I often hear other queer authors lamenting that their characters have to be perfect (and have perfect relationships) to be considered unproblematic. It’s unfair, and it’s boring as f*ck.
OK, rant over
Thanks for reading. If you still feel that cancelling books is a good and necessary thing to do, that’s OK. I know this comes from a genuine, caring place of wanting to prevent harm. My thinking is that books will never be harmless. They are not inert little scraps of paper, but living things that interact with our minds in brilliant, terrifying, and sometimes unforeseeable ways.
I would ask you to be brave, and to boost twice as many books as you boycott. Particularly those written by marginalised authors, or about risky topics that make mainstream publishers squirm.
* People are actually trying to cancel J.K. Rowling for her transphobia rather than anything to do with her books, but the whole “Can you separate art and artist?” thing is beyond the scope of this post.