What exactly makes a work "problematic" ?

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Well-Known Member
Jul 26, 2021
I'm sure we've all came across that particular term a bit over the last few years, that and "cultural appropriation" and people reinterpreting someone else's work to have totally different meaning to what the author intended. It's clearly something of a minefield which I fear might put people off writing. Especially when you hear the old "Intentions aren't important, perceptions are" which just seems to be someone trying to give permission to others to just lie about someone else in some cases, not all, but some. They don't seem to care that someones perceptions could be utterly wrong.

I also don't think it's anything new, just something very old with a face lift and a false moustache.

But what I'm also wondering, has anyone here wound up being accused of doing any of this? Have you came up with a fictional world and had different cultures in it and been accused of being racist because there are certain similarities with real world cultures? And how can we as writers, tying to create our own fictional worlds manage to avoid being wrongly accused of things like this when we try to create fictional groups of different races and ethnicities with their own cultures?

Some things I've seen examples of that I can clearly see are genuinely problematic would be a work that is clearly in favour of slavery, or racism, or sexism, even if the work itself doesn't outright declare it to be so. I've seen examples of people claiming even discussing the subject of racism is somehow racist, even when the discussion makes it very clear that racism is wrong, but no reasons as to why are ever given why such a discussion is racist.

But then you have the works of Lovecraft, which I will admit I have never read, which apparently took influences for his more monstrous creations from his fear of other races. As I've not read Lovecraft I've no frame of reference to know if this is true or not. But I'll bet there are readers of Lovecraft who could advise on how they feel about that and how valid it is or isn't.

On the other hand, something I have read "Merchant of Venice" is renown for having it's villain be a Jewish trader, I think we've all heard complaints about that choice by Shakespeare, and certainly if someone was writing a play/movie/TV show/novel/etc with a Jewish bad guy, I can bet there'd be uproar. And plenty of people have found ways to look at Shylock in both positive and negative lights. It could be Shakespeare felt he had to go with the stereotypes of the time, just to be able to get the play on the stage and then have Shylock make his rather famous speech. But that could clearly be debatable.

But that get's me thinking about accusations of stereotyping or stealing from other cultures and how that might affect any older works that are much loved.

I've not seen anyone make this accusation recently, but some have claimed that "The Chronicles of Narnia" features stereotypes about Middle Eastern people in the form of the Calormans. But when I've read through the books that feature them, I can only see people of a different culture to the Narnians, going about their day to day lives, and while some are villains, not all are. They stand out because of the differences, and it's not like we haven't seen Narnians that are villains either. I'm not sure what makes the Calormans stereotypes, while the Narnians aren't considered stereotypes of certain European cultures. Because they are certainly taking very strong influences from Europe.

G R R Martin has had characters from different lands in "A Song Of Ice And Fire" and you can see where the TV show took certain influences from to make the people and cultures stand out as different from one another. I'm sure someone somewhere will have found these to racist or using stereotypes in some way. And likewise Terry Pratchett had entire continents on the Discworld clearly based on other real world cultures.

Could anyone imagine someone accusing Salmon Rushdie of doing the same when he's written about his experiences in India?

What is everyone else's take on this? Because I'm starting to think the only way to never be accused of something like this would be to only ever write about a group of people not based on any other cultures. In which case you would be branded racist for excluding other groups...
If you want to write something problematic, you have to do it then get feedback. (I write with west African culture but I never write in pov from a west African character as to do so would require a depth of knowledge I don’t have.

As regards the other stuff and the work you’ve mentioned, that’s a conflation of many different reasons for the problematic content. Lovecraft vs Rushdie (e.g.) have nothing in common and their content is for different reasons (not to mention Rushdie was writing from his personal experiences).

What are you worried about in your own writing?
If you can be honest about yourself, your skill level, and your perspective on the world you're creating, it can help steer you right.

I had a fantasy WIP I worked on for a number of years and even submitted it to agents a couple of times, before realising it needed more work than I could probably achieve to make it a good solid read that wouldn't be problematic. I don't believe I am consciously racist (I would hope not), but we all grow up in different places/perspectives and can be ignorant to others, to the blindness that our history gives us, to micro-aggressions and so on. I'd written a whole fantasy book set in a very colonial world - I didn't refer to a specific culture, but I don't think I got the tone right re colonialism/othering/the privilege of my white characters. I wasn't the right writer at that time to handle it properly. Maybe now, years later, starting from scratch, I could do a better job. Another writer could've done it justice I'm sure - writers should be able to handle complex topics. But I wasn't skilled enough to do it right at the time, and I've moved on now.
My take is this: we're living through a time of great social upheaval due to the technologies and political developments that are still new and the ramifications of which aren't fully understood. People who have never had voices in society are increasingly able to shout loud. The mores and frameworks of the past are coming under scrutiny and being deconstructed.

The young of today in the west, having grown up in the most secure times and parts the world has ever known are questioning why certain ideals and social mechanisms are necessary. They're discovering the horrors of the past. They have to interrogate all these phenomena and either rediscover why things like freedom of expression etc. are necessary or replace them with their own mechanisms.

The ecology and the increasing understanding of the structure of systems is eroding the idea of the sovereign individual, a pillar of Western Enlightenment thought and individualism. Anxiety has increased as society has become more efficient and safe at the cost of our self determination.

Technology is introducing its own structural limitations, categorising us into neat boxes, controlling the flow of information via platforms, dividing us into market niches and stating how we can earn or sell our trade. People are curating their own reality through profiles. Our identity technology has changed enormously - in part due to technology facilitating our ability to define by how we present ourselves compared to how we identified in the past - our social role (mother, father, king, serf, freeman etc) or economic status (job, owner etc).

Automation and hyper-information brings questions about the morality of certain types of behaviour (such as leisure time, eating meat, or the economic system or engaging in Real Politik). [Jacques Ellul's "The technological society" is a great primer on this].

All of this adds up to a generation that are more informed, more alert to threats, yet more prone to catastrophising, less sure of who they are and less able to properly synthesize and contextualise the information around them.

Our status and economic livelihood is increasingly based on appearance and social capital (looking virtuous, being socially conscious). Brand loyalty is derived as much from the morality it projects into the world as from its intrinsic qualities (thus pepsi using protest imagery in campaigns).

Each cultural product now is assessed using strict, consequentialist criteria that strips context and views things through the eyes of a sensitivity reader. Information up. Understanding down. Publishers, critics and academics are, possibly unwittingly arriving at a very old notion of the unity of art and politics and the denial of self-expression.

What can be done? You can either accept that your writing may contain things that a future generation may find abhorrent or where morals will change so significantly that the context of your work may at some time be declared verboten, or you don't write at all.

All you can do is to write, then review what you've written after the fact to see if you agree with the ideas within. If you can stand by them then publish, if not then don't. Either way you've engaged in self exploration, which is worthy in itself.

The answer from a cynical, business motivated point of view is to curate various identities that project the values you believe your audience wants from their fiction and then publish certain works under those brands. Seems to work for James Patterson. The caveat being that big publishers very much skew in one direction politically and are very much looking to address perceived historic disparities.
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/ prɒbləˈmatɪk /

adjective : problematic
  1. constituting or presenting a problem

  2. Problem.
    a situation, person, or thing that needs attention and needs to be dealt with or solved:
    financial/health problems
    Our main problem is lack of cash.
    I'm having problems with my computer.
    No one has solved the problem of what to do with radioactive waste.
    The very high rate of inflation poses/presents (= is) a serious problem for the government.
    Who is going to tackle (= deal with) the problem of poverty in the inner cities?
    [ + -ing verb ] Did you have any problems (= difficulties) getting here?
    I'd love to come - the only problem is I've got friends staying that night.
    Thesaurus: synonyms, antonyms, and examples
    a problem
    • problemWhat's the problem here?
    • difficultyThe company is having some financial difficulties at the moment.
    • troubleWe've had a lot of trouble with the new computer system.
    • hitchThe ceremony went without a hitch.
    • glitchWe've had a few technical glitches, but I'm confident we'll be ready on time.
    • hurdleGetting a work permit is only the first hurdle.


There was a problem in determining the person's motivation.
I'm sure we've all came across that particular term a bit over the last few years, that and "cultural appropriation" and people reinterpreting someone else's work to have totally different meaning to what the author intended.
I did a deep dive into this arena of writing in my own personal blog.
If you are writing SFF, why deal with 21st century ideas about race and ethnicity at all? Put your story in a time or place where the main characters aren't Caucasian Westerners or obviously anything else and it will be difficult to be problematic.

A lot of the problem of cultural presentation isn't just getting the ethnography of the minority characters right, it is framing them in the gaze of the white characters that are the default in most of our literature. Remove that kind of character and some of the implied perspective goes with them.
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If you want to write something problematic, you have to do it then get feedback. (I write with west African culture but I never write in pov from a west African character as to do so would require a depth of knowledge I don’t have.
Personally, I didn't find that an issue when I wrote Muezzinland, I just imagined all the characters as human beings (that's not intended to sound flippant). The job of the author is to imagine different viewpoints. I'm not sure depth of knowledge necessarily comes into it.
We can all imagine and we all try to write human beings.

The difficulty comes when we can't recognise our blindspots, or when we write to our unconscious biases. For me, the main thing is to keep reading and learning, to be open to understanding when I have made mistakes, to try my best and question what I do write.

Which all sounds rather naff, but all we can do is try!
The difficulty comes when we can't recognise our blindspots

Absolutely right, which is why the bottom line of these discussions is the importance of research by a writer to expand their boundaries and knowledge.

In the meantime, this thread is already turning into a springboard for opinions on social politics rather than writing, so I'll close it now. :)
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