There’s been a bit of a fracas the last couple of days relating to The Simpsons TV show, the character of Apu and how the showrunners decided to respond to criticism of the character. I’m not really going to weigh in on that specific issue because I think others have done so with more insight than I could and because the perspective of Another White Dude is approximately the last thing anyone needs.
I do want to write just a little about my own (much smaller-scale) experience with receiving criticism on a character I wrote. The King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures include a character named Alex Sloan who is mentally ill. Alex is one of my favourite characters from the books, he’s quite central to the plot, and so I really wanted to write him well.
I did some research and I did the best job I could, and I felt pretty proud of how Alex appeared. Then King in Darkness got picked up by my publisher and in the first round of edits one of the (many, many, many) requests for revision was reworking Alex. The editor told me that a lot of the language that I used was the kind that promoted negative stereotypes of people who struggled with mental illness, and that it needed to be fixed.
My first impulse was to write a long response explaining that it wasn’t my intention to cause any harm and that I was not intending to be in any way disrespectful in writing Alex the way I had, that I had loads of affection for the character, and that I had chosen the wording that I did for particular reasons that I thought made sense. Perhaps fortunately, I never sent that response.
Because the thing is, none of that matters, not really. My editor never said that I had been deliberately setting out to cause harm, and honestly my intent didn’t matter – if the language was bad and would hurt people, that’s what it would do, even if I was perfectly well-intentioned. All the rest of the stuff that I had originally thought to write was equally irrelevant; whatever I meant to do, the effect was a depiction that was likely to cause harm and pain to some of the people who would read the story.
So I rewrote Alex as best I could, according to the feedback I’d been given. I thanked my editor for pointing out where I had gone wrong, because they had truly done me a great service by catching my mistakes before they got to a wider audience. I said I was sorry that my initial effort hadn’t been better. The book went out and I am now like Alex’s character just that little bit more, because I feel like it’s one more people can hopefully enjoy.
It is, I think, natural to want to go on the defensive when we get criticism of our work, and maybe especially if someone points out a way that our work might be hurtful. Because we don’t mean to be hurtful, that’s not what we set out to do, and again I think it’s natural to want people to understand that and to want to believe that somehow whatever we did is ok as long as our intentions were good.
The thing is that the intention isn’t really important, and I think like 99% of the time people making criticisms are at least willing to credit that the intentions behind a problematic piece of work might have been perfectly fine. But that’s not the important part. The important part is that your fellow human beings are telling you that something is hurtful to them, and the only non-sociopathic response is to apologize and try to do better.
It’s ok to make a mistake. What’s not ok is to refuse to admit that you did, and to refuse to correct it.
Thanks for reading.