When Authors Screw Up

There are lots of articles out there on what you should do if you screw up. Most of them involve instructions on the basics: stop doing the thing, and apologize (authentically) for doing the thing. But what is your role in this business if someone you admire screws up?

I’ve wondered about that because now and then authors I like screw up on social media and it kinda breaks my heart.

Your first instinct is to defend. Someone you like–someone who created something you might have loved–has sinned. Don’t they deserve forgiveness? Don’t they deserve gentle correction instead of the pile-on they’re experiencing? Isn’t it also important what they’ve done well? Can’t we emphasize that?

Well, the answer is no. Now is not the time to emphasize that.

It is the responsibility of the person who screwed up to try to make right, and the way they do so is going to tell you a lot about the kind of person they are. The way you act is your own biz, and I urge you to carefully consider what you’re getting into–and what it says about you–if you defend someone’s terrible behavior just because you like their work.

Here is a list of stuff to keep in mind when this happens.

  1. Liking someone’s work if they have behaved in an unacceptable way does not make you guilty by association.
  2. Liking someone’s work even if it has problematic aspects does not require you to find a way to excuse those aspects before you are “allowed” to like the work as a whole without being a bad person.
  3. You can and should accept that your heroes can believe bad things and can be spreading terrible messages. If they do this, you are not required to abandon them as one of your favorite content creators.
  4. You can and should be able to be critical about your heroes. You can and should be able to agree with those who are calling them out, and if you have something to say on the matter, you may even want to join them in echoing the callout.
  5. If the creator (and perpetrator of the bad message) is worth respecting, they will learn from this experience, not judge critics as bullies and dig their heels in while doubling down on a bad message. You are in the same boat.
  6. It is actually okay to decide you no longer want to support someone who believes/says those things. It may lead you to look at their older work in a larger context and like it less. It may not. Both responses are okay.
  7. You cannot completely separate a creator from their creation. If someone believes racist things, they are likely spreading racist messages even if they don’t mean to, and you may not have noticed it if you weren’t looking for it or aren’t sensitive to those messages because of your background. It IS important.
  8. You should look at the actual statements the person made. And you should look at several criticisms of the statement the person made to try to understand why there’s a problem if you don’t immediately see why. You don’t have to agree with the criticism, but you should definitely listen to it before you try to defend.
  9. If someone you like is getting dragged and your knee-jerk reaction is to assume they don’t deserve it, please do not announce that the real problem is the PC agenda, oversensitivity, or people looking to be offended. You must understand that the outrage is real, even if you can’t feel it. Chances are the person who Said the Thing doesn’t understand why it makes people upset either, and judging the group as hysterical, unreasonable, overreacting, or guilty of mob-mentality witch hunting is not going to stop this from happening next time.
  10. It is possible for someone to have worthwhile messages to contribute while having absolutely no business speaking on certain issues. It is possible for an author to say wonderful things about racism while being tone-deaf to the sexism in their work. It is possible for an author to spread great messages of religious tolerance and support while supporting hateful erasure and discrimination toward disabled people. Intersectionality is a thing and if someone is wrong or ignorant about one thing, it is not appropriate to say we need to ignore their ignorance because they’re doing it right on another axis.

I am not going to name names here, but keeping all this in mind, this is how I’ve reacted to bad behavior committed by some of my favorite authors. When an author I enjoyed said a casually racist thing in a very public context, I observed his sincere apology and decided I could still read and support his work, but I remain baffled by his poor judgment and certainly wouldn’t defend it. When an author whose work I was just getting into said something really tone-deaf about women, I decided it was gross (and explained a lot) but that it wasn’t egregious enough that I wanted to disown him from my library or stop reading his books. And when an author made some terribly ignorant, strongly worded statements about the lack of need for diversity in books because we already have all we need and pushing diversified characters is an unnecessary agenda, I observed her unrepentant reframing of the situation and her protest that she can’t be wrong because she has diverse characters too, and I quietly removed several of her books from my wish list. If she thinks the book world is fine the way it is and refuses to listen to the people who don’t feel represented, I’m sad about it, but I don’t want to invite more of her world view into my brain.

I absolutely agreed that all of these people did bad things. They left a terrible taste in my mouth after I enjoyed their work and had no idea they thought like this. The way they react to being called out has a lot to do with whether I want to continue to see their writing. I’m okay with ignorance, especially when the ignorant party acknowledges their ignorance and says they’re working on it. I’m okay with mistakes, especially when the mistake-maker draws more attention to themselves by saying “I did this, it was terrible that I did this, I apologize in a heartfelt manner and I have learned from this.” I’m not okay with buying more books by an author who repeatedly declares that other authors’ voices and other readers’ needs are irrelevant.

And for the record, analyzing and acknowledging problematic aspects of work you like can actually make it more enjoyable. You do not need to defend the parts that are awful (regardless of how intentional or egregious those parts are) to enjoy the rest of the work or the work as a whole. You also do not need to agree with the public outrage to respect that people have a reason to express said outrage. And if you still want to support someone who’s done something bad, that does not require you to defend what they did wrong, nor should you diminish its importance or point at people who are doing worse things.

Look at what the person did and ask yourself, “Do I want to pay this person to talk to me? Will the fact that they believe this infect the other messages they’re sending me? If I was part of the group they’re insulting with this message, would I find it less acceptable?” And it’s okay to be conflicted about it. Like I said, it can be heartbreaking when one of your idols turns out to believe and say horrible things. Your actions regarding how you react to their work post screw-up are up to you, but don’t make the mistake of considering these controversies irrelevant. We do shape the literary world by reacting passionately (for better or for worse) to messages that inspire strong feelings. You should not dismiss or scoff at the importance of these explosions just because you think they don’t really affect you.

Chances are, if you think they aren’t relevant to you–if you won’t learn from others’ mistakes–then they could be you one day.

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