More Questions than Answers: On Engaging with Problematic Texts

Well, there is terribly exciting news in the internet land of feminism and literature: the highly entertaining, scholarly, and thought-provoking Harry Potter podcast Witch, Please is back for a reboot!

Let me back up.

In the past several months, J. K. Rowling has caused great harm, and dismayed many a fan—including myself—by turning up the volume on her problematic online rhetoric and doubling down on her cissexist and transantagonistic hate speech. Over the years, Rowling’s bigotry has been steadily eroding my love of the Harry Potter books, to the point where I can no longer read them with pleasure. (Which really bums me out, because tbh, I love me some Fred and George Weasley.)

So I’m extra excited that self-tagged “lady scholars” Hannah McGregor and Marcelle Kosman have rebooted their podcast, because I know that they will have Some Things To Say about all of this. And I’m hoping that they can help me to walk this thorny path of loving something that has deep issues.

This is a question that I grapple with pretty regularly. My reading taste varies, but I would say that I tend to have a special love for older books. I love to explore the dustiest sections in used bookstores, and I am a big fan of small press publishers who print forgotten stories and authors (I’m looking at you, Handheld Press, Persephone Books, and Slightly Foxed).

But it is always jarring to be reading and enjoying some beautifully-told, nuanced tale written in an era past, and to be suddenly brought up short by a casual racial slur, or an attitude of misogyny, bigotry, or harm. Even in the best case scenarios, these older books are silent about significant groups of the population, thus contributing to the erasure of identity and experience.

So what to do with these texts? I feel that it is too simple to just say that they are a reflection of their time, and call it a day. Although that is certainly true, to dismiss their problems in this way does not address the harm that they potentially have had and could continue to have.

In episode 1 of the Witch, Please reboot, Hannah and Marcelle talk about the freedom of allowing yourself to acknowledge the problematic aspects of a text that you love. Rather than pushing them aside, they say, you can bring your whole self to your engagement with a book, and not have to cut off the part of you that is hurt by it. This is an idea that very much intrigues me.

As Witch, Please also acknowledges, the relationship between a reader and an author is complex—and perhaps a topic for a different post!

For now, I am working on figuring out how to engage fully with a text—both the good and the bad—without necessarily having to turn my back on it. It is difficult for me to reconcile aspects of a book that may contain both lyrical insights and harmful prejudice.

One of the ways in which I am grappling with this problem is by researching. When I read an older novel, and especially if there is something offensive in it, I research more about the time period, the author’s experience, the cultural context, and the experiences of the marginalized groups of the time and place. I want to know how these particular prejudices came into the author’s life. I want to know more about who is being excluded from this story, and why. This has led down some fascinating avenues of learning, and, even more exciting—to the discovery of more books, with different perspectives and stories of their own to tell.

It’s certainly easier to engage with an entire text, with your entire self, if you are not already emotionally connected to it. A book series like Harry Potter, which many of us were very attached to before Rowling became overtly hateful, is harder to face.

But I’m hopeful that there is a way through, where we can find meaning and joy in a book, and at the same time call it out for falling down where it could have done better.

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