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Should we criticize books for having triggers?

I recently published a review of a book on this blog, and then went to check out what other people were saying on Goodreads as I often do. I was shocked by the amount of reviewers who gave it a very low score and said they hated it because an animal was abused, or because there were instances of rape. I disagree with those sentiments, but at the same time, there is a time and place for criticizing the use of heavy topics, and it’s when they aren’t done well.

Life is a mixture of the good and the bad. There is war and crime and mistreatment of animals. So criticizing a book just for merely having child abuse or abusive relationships is ridiculous. Bad events do not equate to a bad book.

Now when do you criticize said heavy events? Maybe when it seems like the author is agreeing with, or romanticizing, what is happening. Most readers should, but aren’t always able, to separate author beliefs from what a character says or does and should keep that in mind.

Let’s take a look at my recent reviewed book, I Know Who You Are. (There are spoilers!) After a series of events, in the epilogue, the main character finds herself pregnant with her brother’s child. Disgusting? Yes. But a bad book because of it? No, because these things unfortunately happen and the story is still pretty interesting. What makes this instance critique-worthy is the author’s attitude towards it. The main character isn’t put off by this pregnancy; rather, she seems delighted that she finally has a child. (Um, EW.) That is why the ending made me run for the hills. It wasn’t because the MC was raped. It was because the MC seemed happy about it, because it finally gave her a child, and the author felt like this event resolved her character.

Looking at A Simple Favor, which I didn’t like, there is an instance of incest near the beginning. However, it adds absolutely nothing to the story and it’s just there to add–romance? Tension? A storyline to throw readers off the trail? This, I can see, would be distasteful to readers. This scene in particular does seem romanticized more than anything. I too complained about the use of it.

There’s one other excuse to complain too: when an issue is handled badly. A recent book by Jenny Colgan that I DNF’d killed off the gay characters. Many readers didn’t like this; evidently killing off the happy gay couples is a trope and overdone. This I understand to a point; the gays always being the ones to die does strike me as strange. There are other instances too, such as when a writer writes male characters as being overly touchy towards women and not having that issue addressed, instead acting like this behavior is totally normal. But often, an author writing about something like that does not mean they agree.

So instead of bashing a book because the author dares to include something less than sunshine and rainbows, think about what the author is trying to say about it. If it’s bad, maybe it’s because of the way the author is handling it. We shouldn’t shy away from books and be quick to write them off because there is a topic included that’s hard to swallow. Or perhaps you mostly prefer light and fluffy books. That’s fine too. But it’s not fair to the author to leave a 1-star review saying it’s bad because there’s animal cruelty inside when that isn’t your cup of tea.

The world has gotten a touch more sensitive, but writing off books as bad because something traumatic happens to the characters is just silly–as long as the above isn’t happening. Talking about these issues is important. In some cases, we read to learn more about these instances and look at an issue from a more personal standpoint. They may help readers to see that okay, maybe the rape victim isn’t to blame after all. Or, wow, I didn’t realize how saying that to a person of color is offensive. I’ll have to check myself. And not always does it mean that the author agrees with what is happening. If readers learn something new, why is it a bad book?

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