Let’s Talk Bookish – 30th April – Toxic Relationships in Literature

Let’s Talk Bookish is a weekly meme hosted by Rukky @ Eternity Books and Dani @ Literary Lion

Prompts: When it comes to fiction how should toxic relationships be handled? Is it okay to portray toxic relationships? How can we avoid glorifying Teacher x Student or other toxic dynamics, and is it important to try to avoid that? How do you feel about abusive relationships in fiction? What about in adult dark romance?

I’ve been really excited by this edition of Let’s Talk Bookish as it is a prompt that I suggested. I had the idea of writing a blog post about this for quite a while, and this seems like the perfect opportunity!

First of all, I think I should explain where the idea for this topic came from. Earlier this year, I read the wonderful My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell which gave a really harrowing portrayal of a relationship between a student and a teacher. This got me thinking about two other books I’ve read with student-teacher relationships: Notes On A Scandal by Zoe Heller and Love Lessons by Jacqueline Wilson. I remember being absolutely enamoured with Love Lessons as a teenager as the forbidden love in the book was quite exciting, daring and dark. And I wondered, now that I’m an adult and a teacher, how would I perceive this book?

I think that books which tackle toxic relationships need to be handled with a lot of care. I feel like they can end up glorifying power imbalances. I feel this way with books such as 50 Shades of Grey. The idea of signing a contract for a relationship really does not sit well with me. Yet, it was a bestseller and turned into a film! Then again, some people like submissive and dominating roles in their sex life, so who am I to judge?!

In my opinion, in Love Lessons there was a lot of victim blaming and the man getting away with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. I don’t think we should necessarily shy away from representing this toxicity in fiction at all, but I think that there should at least be the acknowledgement that this relationship was incredibly damaging. In particular, when a book like this is aimed at adolescents. I certainly did not see it from the angle I do now when I first read it.

Notes On A Scandal and My Dark Vanessa were, for me, really good examples of books where a toxic teacher-student relationship was at the core. There was such nuance in both books that the topic was in no way gratuitous. Both of them looked at the relationship with sensitivity and an appreciation for the complexity of the situation. It is in this way that I feel toxic relationships can and should be expressed in literature.

I believe that art should represent everything there is in the human experience, good or evil, as it is a mode of self expression and exploration. But I think that we, as readers, need to also be responsible for looking at relationships with a critical eye. In a book, for me it would be very problematic if this toxicity isn’t addressed. But it doesn’t have to be blatant. It can be subtle. It can be in passing comments, feelings or the tone of the book. Being able to express these intricacies is the hallmark of excellent literature.

I would love to know your thoughts! Do drop a link to your post below or comment with your thoughts!

6 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Bookish – 30th April – Toxic Relationships in Literature

  1. You made a great point when you said art should represent everything there is in the human experience. I agree with you there and when you said we need to be critical about how we read darker subjects!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hahaha, I can one hundred percent relate to your feelings about the contract from 50 shades of grey. I read up to the contract and thought: okay this is ridiculous. And then I put it down and never read another page.

    And I totally agree, the toxicity should be at least somehow addressed. Not just somehow present and readily accepted as something “normal”. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I completely agree with your last point that it doesn’t even have to be blatant, as long as there’s something in there that shows the relationship is not a good thing. I haven’t read any of the books you mentioned but I’m really intrigued now since it sparked this discussion. Great post, Mikaela! 💕

    Liked by 1 person

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