How Do You Continue Enjoying a Book That Offends You?

TW: Mentions of homophobia, transphobia, rape, and victim blaming

Say that you’re reading a book and generally enjoying it – right until it hits you with some pretty offensive opinions. They aren’t the main message of the book and they don’t come up often, and there are definitely other messages in it that you love, but you still can’t get those offensive lines out of your mind.

So what do you do? Stop reading? Keep reading? Does it depend on how far into the book you are? Does it depend on how strongly offended you are?

Let me tell you about my situation and maybe you can tell me what you’d do – because I honestly haven’t figured out a good solution. Before I start, I want to say that I don’t expect to agree with every author that I read. I don’t expect them to be perfect and without their biases and bigotries. Everyone has them. However, that’s not going to stop the offense from bothering me and leading me to question what I should do.

stranger in a strange landThe book that inspired this post is Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. It’s classic scifi but just in case that’s not your deal and/or you don’t know what it’s about, here’s a quick Amazon summary:

…the story of Valentine Michael Smith, born during, and the only survivor of, the first manned mission to Mars. Michael is raised by Martians, and he arrives on Earth as a true innocent: he has never seen a woman and has no knowledge of Earth’s cultures or religions. But he brings turmoil with him, as he is the legal heir to an enormous financial empire, not to mention de facto owner of the planet Mars. With the irascible popular author Jubal Harshaw to protect him, Michael explores human morality and the meanings of love.

My parents have been trying to get me to read it for years, and my boyfriend included it in a stack of scifi books that he thought I should read. Finally, I gave in. For the most part, I enjoyed it. It has some amazing messages about sex positivity and body positivity. I wasn’t super crazy about the obsession with female youth and traditional gender roles, and towards the end the characters all sort of meld into this same personality, but I was mostly digging it.

And then, with only about a hundred pages to go, Heinlein hits me with this:

…[Jill] had explained homosexuality…and had given him rules for avoiding passes; she knew that Mike, pretty as he was, would attract such…fortunately Mike’s male water brothers were decidedly masculine, just as his others were very female women. Jill suspected that Mike would grok a “wrongness” in the poor in-betweeners anyhow – they would never be offered water.

Ouch. I was really growing to love Jill, and then she says that? First, we have an idolization of masculinity and feminism when assigned to the “proper” or traditional genders, which would imply that feminine men or masculine women would be wrong. We don’t need to figure that out for ourselves though, because Jill goes ahead and tells us they’re wrong and calls them “poor in-betweeners”. What?

(For reference to those who haven’t read the book: “water brothers” are people that Mike has shared water with and essentially formed an intense, unbreakable bond with; “grok” is a Martian word that means many things, but in this context we can basically say that he’d sense it.)

I was just shaking that off when, less than a page later, Jill tells Mike this about saving her – or other women – from men making unwanted sexual passes.

“Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault. So don’t be hasty.”

Oh, god. Homophobia (and I would say transphobia) and victim blaming right after the other. Not only that but, “It’s partly her fault, so don’t save her.” Mike takes most things very literally and trusts Jill implicitly, and she knows it – so she knows very well that if he senses a girl being raped, he might not stop it because of what she’s told him.

It was difficult to keep reading the book. On the one side, I had really enjoyed it up to that point and was very near the end. These weren’t messages that had come up before and didn’t come up again (though admittedly I could have missed it; I was a little out of it when I finished the last 100~ pages). I also keep thinking – well, this was written in a time when these ideas were pervasive, and even then, they only come up this once.

But wow, they hurt. You probably already know that rape culture is a pretty big deal to me, and LGBT issues are right up there with it. I also find it much harder to handle women who spread rape culture. If we don’t support other women, who will?

I ended up having some other problems with the ending and I’m not sure how I feel about it yet – but this whole thing is what I can’t stop thinking about. That little bit of internal narration, that little bit of dialogue, completely overtaking my ability to really think about the book.

What would you do? Have you faced a problem like this before? Hit up the comments.

6 thoughts on “How Do You Continue Enjoying a Book That Offends You?

  1. Kiley Neal says:

    For some reason, I seem to come upon a lot of transphobia while reading shonen manga. Transpeople are always villains (minor ones) and transphobic slurs are always used against them by the heroes. It makes me seriously uncomfortable, but usually, once the battle’s over, the issue vanishes. I’ve always kept reading, but it casts a shadow over my enjoyment of the series. I think it’s important that, if you happen to recommend the book to other people, you warn them of the offensive content, and when you see people reading the book, maybe talk to them about the issues.

  2. Emil says:

    Good post, Sarah… Stranger in a Strange Land has been on my to-be-read list for a while… It does sound like some of Heinlein’s prejudice has made it’s way into the book, in the examples you picked out. That said, both of these bits are either straight dialogue or a summation of dialogue, right? So strictly speaking, they’re Jill’s opinion. Characters are allowed to have opinions we disagree with, even vehemently so, right? And we shouldn’t automatically assume that a character’s questionable opinion is also held by the author… (also, interestingly, Jill describes Mike as pretty, which is a rather effeminizing description, no?)

    There are lots of classics, I think,that, if written today, would probably be taken as offensive. Dickens’s portrayal of Jewish characters. Conrad’s portrayal of Africa. Some of Checkov’s male characters come across as misogynistic, and it’s not all that easy to say whether this is the author’s prejudice seeping through, or whether he’s simply portraying misogynistic characters. It’s unfortunate, but even great authors are often a product of their time.

  3. Sarah White says:

    Yes, I have faced this problem. There’s a book called “The Storyteller” which is a wonderful story, with dynamic characters and a really interesting setup and plot. But then one of the two main characters rapes the other, but he apologizes and they get back together, and then he eventually kills himself. As soon as the rape happened, I wanted to put the book down. It was poignantly written, but horrible. They explained it away by his having been sexually abused and selling himself to men to support his little sister, which, although probably a factor towards this character’s behavior, should not have been accepted and excused by his counterpart. The ending was so beautifully written, but I left that reading experience confused about my feelings for the book, which I still am, over half a year later.

  4. Diatryma says:

    If I am enjoying the rest of the book, anything problematic becomes part of my analysis– I like to pick books apart in that way. How does the book handle X? How does this reflect other books? How will I describe it in the booklog? Stranger in a Strange Land was terrible, though. Disliked it so much.

  5. Mo Smith says:

    I would have finished reading it to see if the author contrasted those character’s opinions through some action or some other character. Based on what you said about having trouble with the ending and the fact that you wrote this blog, I can only assume that you did finish it and the contrast didn’t happen. I definitely wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, even if I’d liked the majority of it. After reading the first passage you included, I started to wonder how old the book is, how old the author was when it was written, and if his generation had some influence on such ideas. I don’t mean that to be an excuse for the author; I’m simply curious. After reading the second passage, I was ready to find a copy of this book and tear it to shreds. (But I won’t.) I can read things that clearly contradict my beliefs and opinions both religiously, politically, and ethically, and I can even understand it morally when the work is discussing a culture different from my own, but no matter what lens you are reading this text with, that second passage is too much and it is plain wrong. I’m so glad that I never read this book and I definitely won’t read it now.

  6. lindaktaylor says:

    I agree with Emil. Just having finished The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the “N” word throughout, The Awakening with a narcissistic woman who tends to forget about her children–well, all of that tweaked me, as many of the classics do. I guess you need to see why that offensive statement is there–in the case of the classics we are talking about a different time and even culture. Maybe the statement is by an ignorant character. Maybe, as Mo said, it gets refuted later. So I guess I would keep reading. I think there are other reasons to put down a book . . .

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