In defense of popular ‘red flag’ books

Andrea Ebdane
In defense of popular ‘red flag’ books
Loving these books doesn’t equate to agreeing with everything they preach

Has anyone ever told you the title of their favorite book, only for you to balk at their answer? Well, this is for you. After all, it’s possible to love a book even with all its so-called “red flags” – at least, as long as fans still recognize the criticisms as valid. 

Here are five popular “red flag” books and why you should think twice about them.

The Great Gatsby

As widely loved as it is despised, The Great Gatsby has made a name for itself as one of the most polarizing books in classic literature. 

They say that being a Gatsby fan is an immediate red flag, especially considering how its male characters idealize and objectify women. And while this is a valid point of criticism, the novel still stands out as a story of a man desperately clinging to what can never be restored, chasing after unattainable ambitions, and fabricating an identity to achieve an ideal, only to fail miserably. 

Yes, the characters are unlikeable, but they are so in a way that mirrors most people’s own flaws and delusions. 

For all its glitz and glamor, there’s a somberness to Gatsby that shines through its elevated, yearnful prose. On your first read, you might find it underwhelming – maybe even just plain frustrating, especially if you were required to read it in high school.

But Gatsby just needs some coming around to; once you start approaching it with a bit more openness, you might just see why it’s still hailed as a beloved classic.  

The Catcher in the Rye

Listen, we get it. When someone says they love The Catcher in the Rye, that does raise some eyebrows – after all, protagonist Holden Caulfield has been described as whiny, problematic, and even dangerous to himself as a result of his unchecked mental health issues. 

But The Catcher in the Rye remains worth defending because it perfectly captures the anguish of growing up, being perceived, and staying vulnerable to people despite how many times they’ve failed you. 

Catcher is a treatise on the objects, people, and places Holden clings to for comfort and the lengths he goes to distance himself from pain. Not everyone will enjoy his escapades, whims, and reflections as he wanders around New York City, but most will relate to Holden’s desire to freeze time and evade the realities of adulthood. 

Holden has a distinctive voice and personality that’s imbued in every page, and no one is spared from his dryness and sarcasm – not the people he encounters, nor the readers on the journey with him. It makes for an interesting experience, to say the least, and you’ll find yourself sympathizing with him more and more as he eases his defenses. 

Anything written by William Shakespeare

We won’t fault anyone for turning their nose up at the Bard’s work, especially since the language is an absolute head scratcher (shoutout to the Sparknotes kids and No Fear Shakespeare owners in junior high). And while these plays aren’t perfect, they’re well-loved because they’re poetic, relevant, and universal.

Shakespeare was a master of rendering the whole range of human emotions sensible, even with its endless nuances. 

Everything Shakespeare’s form, themes, storylines, and characters are bound to hit close to home. While his plays are occasionally criticized for being gap-filled and vague, the beauty of them being so open-ended is there are more opportunities for readers to find themselves in their interpretations. 

Some of Shakespeare’s plays have been dubbed ‘red flags’ for anti-semitist, misogynist, and sexually inappropriate themes (such as The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, and Romeo and Juliet, to name a few). But these plays, like the other books on this list, are products of their time – so while they won’t always uphold modern progressive ideals, loving them doesn’t equate to agreeing with everything they preach.


If you’re one of those people who picked up Dune for Timothée Chalamet but ended up hugely disappointed, we don’t blame you. Yes, it’s hard to be aware of what’s going on around 60% of the time and yes, it drones on and on about intergalactic politics. But once the plot picks up, you’ll be hooked until the very last page – you’ll just need a bit of patience and perseverance to make it through.

Dune is far from perfect, but it’s called the quintessential science fiction novel for a reason. If you find it in yourself to get past the stilted writing and the overload of jargon, you’ll discover that it’s a gripping, fast-paced tale of resistance, morality, and coming-of-age. 

Protagonist Paul Atreides has big shoes to fill at age 15, and there’s a lot to learn from reading about a young man who faces extreme pressure and steps into roles that carry the weight of entire galaxies. 

For all those who call “red flag” on Dune because it’s a “white savior story,” think again. In fact, the next installations in the saga see Paul’s messianic complex crumble. As Dennis Villeneuve, director of the book’s film adaptation, said, “It’s not a celebration of a savior. It’s a condemnation and criticism of that idea of a savior. Of someone that will come and tell another population how to be and what to believe… it’s a criticism.”

Harry Potter

Ever invoked the She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named card when faced with a Harry Potter fan? Trust us, we know – Potterheads are well-aware of the controversies surrounding that author, which is why loving the series is such a complicated, guilt-filled endeavor. 

The next time you turn your nose up at someone who tells you they’re a Harry Potter fan, maybe cut them some slack. After all, they were just as blindsided with JK Rowling’s statements as the rest of the world was. And if you became a fan in your childhood, you wouldn’t have recognize the subtle way the books are overtly white and heteronormative, tokenistic, and imbued with bigotry – which are hard enough for fans to reconcile with. 

But nevertheless, Harry Potter was a constant source of comfort and happiness for legions of people growing up, and that doesn’t just go away. The connections that readers have made with the characters, along with the values they’ve learned from the books about love, friendship, bravery, are both sacred and untouchable. It’ll take more than a bigoted author to trump that kind of connection, red flag be damned. –

Andrea Ebdane is a Rappler intern.

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