The author is the sole source of the books they create. Crit partners suggest ideas. Beta readers offer feedback. Editors request changes. But when you get right down to it, it's the author who has final say. Much like the director of a company must accept responsibility for the company's mishaps as well as its triumphs, the author bears the ultimate responsibility of what transpires in the pages of something they write.
Take, for example, this (spoiler-filled) article about the relative lack of women in The Name of the Wind. Why do we regard the inclusion of women as a choice, but the inclusion of men as a default? Whether the author realises it or not, having a predominantly (or entirely) male cast is a choice, one that can just as easily be made in favour of better roles for women.
With that in mind, I'd like to address an issue which has been on my mind for years, and is particularly relevant now that the movie adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey is being released.
There are two common responses when you point out something problematic in a book, movie, or tv show. The first is denial: "No, it's not, and here's why." The second is justification: "It's just being realistic."
Note that both of these tend to shut down discussion, rather than get to the heart of the matter. Instead of saying "I didn't think it was, can you tell me what you see that I missed?" or "I can see how that interpretation is possible, but it wasn't my intention. Perhaps we can discuss this and I can do better next time?" We get "No." Those who point out the issue are told they understood the story wrong, or that they don't have a right to find it problematic.
Sometimes we see: "Yes, that is a problem, and I was hoping someone would object to that character's behaviour." But it seems to be quite rare these days. We authors are a defensive lot, really.
Why did I mention 50 Shades of Grey before? Simply, because the book is not about what the author claims it's about, and it's an incredible worldwide phenomenon. People are buying their teenage daughters copies of the book because they believe it to be a fantastic love story. However, there is plenty of evidence that Christian Grey, far from a romantic hero, is actually an abuser, grooming his latest victim, Anastacia Steele (trigger warnings for emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, and rape):
@50shadesabuse on Twitter
A chapter-by-chapter analysis of the abuse in 50 Shades of Grey
50 abusive moments in the 50 Shades trilogy.
Yes, you read right. Rape. The course of the first book, there are four occasions where Ana does not consent to having sex with Christian, and yet he has sex with her anyway. And that's on top of the stalking, emotional manipulation, and other things that show Christian Grey as a dangerous, abusive, man.
But, in interviews, EL James has defended her choices, going so far as to say that calling Christian abusive is a disservice to people who actually live in abusive relationships. However, a great number of critics pointing out the problems with the series are, themselves, survivors of abuse.
So what's the problem? Should people read this book? Or see the movie?
People should read and watch whatever they want. But I feel that authors have a responsibility to be honest, and aware of what it is they're actually writing. To say that 50 Shades of Grey is a romantic story is to show either extreme ignorance or extreme denial. There is nothing romantic about a man who illegally traces your cell phone or denies you the right to speak to your friends.
Of course, there's nothing at all wrong with writing about an abusive relationship. This only becomes a problem when the abuse is portrayed as a positive thing. And that comes down to not only the author's response to comments (see above) but also how characters in the book regard the behaviour.
This article presents excellent guidelines for writing about sexism, without writing a sexist book. The advice can be easily applied to just about any difficult subject. If you've got a character with negative character traits, it takes little effort to have another character call them on it, or discuss the problem with someone else, or even give it a passing thought. That little bit of effort makes the difference. Can you imagine if 50 Shades had been written that way? With one or two characters telling Ana they were worried about her, or didn't like the way Christian treated her? I'm not going to pass comment on EL James' writing talent here, because much as I might criticise her, she's the one with the multi million dollar movie deal, and I'm not. People love her books, and unfortunately, because of the way she treats Christian and Ana's relationship, and the way she defends her choices, a lot of people are reading (and will soon watch) abuse, sexual assault, and rape, and think it's something to be desired in a relationship.
I don't believe in censorship. And I don't believe in authors being afraid to tackle taboo subjects. What I do believe in, is authors accepting responsibility for their work. There is nothing within a book that the author did not choose to include. They may not have been aware of it. Their unconscious prejudices and desires may have led them there without them even realising. An author should take this into account when they hear feedback, and sees whether they can avoid an unintentional interpretation in the future. Even better, is to do your research beforehand, and made sure that you know what it is you're writing from the start.
Update: An abuse survivor called out EL James for the rape and abuse content in her work, being passed off as romance. This is how she responded.