What can be Considered Problematic in Terms of Fiction?


Lillian Eschweiler

If you’ve been on Twitter at all, you’ve likely come across the threads of debates on what is problematic in terms of media in the fiction genre. Many have argued that fiction is obviously, not real, therefore it is completely neutral, it can neither be inherently good or inherently bad. But, others have argued that fiction in itself impacts us as consumers, that’s what it’s supposed to do, and that in itself can be harmful, and should be regulated. But should it? How do we as readers determine whether the things we like are harmful or helpful, or if it even matters at all?

To the argument that fiction is completely neutral, and that it can neither be good or bad, and therefore it should be a place of absolute freedom. That is farce, one way or another, the writer’s worldview is bound to seep into the media and is going to sway the audience one way or another, depending on how well the writer is able to convey said material. Popular examples would be the movie Jaws, though to a modern day audience it may seem like a cheesy movie, when the movie was released, it spread mass hysteria, and led to real life shark poaching. Another example is “The Turner Diaries,” which has influenced white nationalists and far-right extremists, inciting massive assaults. Over 40 terrorist attacks and hate crimes can be directly connected to “The Turner Diaries.”   

But, the argument, because fiction impacts us, therefore it should be regulated, is also ridiculous. Does nobody remember the Berlin book burnings? When there was regulation of what people could and couldn’t write. And all things considered how would we regulate fiction? How do we know what’s “good” or what’s “bad?” We don’t! It’s trivial rhetoric, because nothing is ever as simple as, objectively good or objectively bad. Many people have claimed “Huckleberry Finn”, as a problematic book, because it heavily used racial slurs and depicts things like racism and slavery, but depiction doesn’t necessarily equal endorsement, so it isn’t necessarily “bad”. But also there are issues in the writing in Huckleberry Finn, and how things are framed, that won’t appeal to a modern audience, so it’s not completely “good” either.   

Ultimately, it is up to the audience and their worldview, that will determine how they consume media. But, if one would like to know how to parse between and figure out, when they are actually consuming something that is quite precarious, the best place to look is directly at the author’s intent, to use the same example, “The Turner Diaries”, while there was depictions of white supremacy, was that really the author’s intent? Well, it was, the Author William Luther Pierce, was a white supremacist and a Neo-Nazi leader, and his writings were just a reflection of his world view, thus making his objectives quite clear. However, if you as a consumer like to separate art from the artist, and only look at the material and text itself, (e.g. People often do that with J.R.R Tolkien and his Lord of The Rings series),  look at how a subject is framed in a story. In an article by the Communications Network, it states: “All stories are framed, whether we realize it or not. Thinking about how to frame stories can help us find narratives that ‘work,’ that expand the public conversation and change its terms, educate people about complex issues, and help them evaluate proposed solutions.

To sum up the initial question, what is “problematic” in fiction? Really the most important thing for consumers to understand is that media can neither be completely black and white (good or bad), and go completely uncriticized. To quote a political activist, Anita Sarkeesian: “It’s both possible, and even necessary, to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of its more problematic and pernicious aspects.”