Thursday, September 22, 2016

#OwnVoices: Authors' Options and Readers' Roles.

I've been reading a lot about diversity in literature, and in publishing, lately.  Quite possibly you have also.  One facet of this is the #ownvoices movement, which posits that what we need is not more white privileged authors writing about "diverse" characters, but a wider range of authors writing about the experiences of people like them.  Whether that's black Americans, or those who use wheelchairs to get around, or people living with schizophrenia, or undocumented immigrants, authors are being encouraged to represent the experience they know, publishers are being encouraged to seek out a wider range of authors, and authors who represent the groups that have historically dominated literature are being discouraged from exoticizing "the other" and from mishandling life experiences we know nothing of in an effort to cash in on the diversity bandwagon.

Taken too far, this can be problematic (can I not write about teenagers if I'm an adult?  can I not write about wizards if I'm a Muggle? can I not write about depression if my mother was depressed?), but then, so can just about anything.  The fact remains that even if when authors appropriate stories not theirs to tell, and reinforce all sorts of biases and misconceptions when doing so, the backlash is not going to threaten their position as a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, culturally Christian, middle class, college-educated, able-bodied person.  As someone who fits every single one of those boxes, any distress I might feel about being called out for unconscious racism (or other -ism) in my writing is always going to be nothing at all compared to the distress of living in a world where you are constantly told in ways large and small that you don't matter. 

I'm not an author, but I adore authors, so I keep thinking about the implications that all of this has for them.  Basically, there are several different approaches that I can see.

1.  Write whatever the hell you want.  Try to make it good.  Ignore the haters.
2.  Write what you know.  Midwestern farmers?  Danish fishermen?  African American lawyers?  Take your life experience and use it in your fiction.
3.  Use your imagination and your experience as a human to create new times and places.  Historical fiction, fantasy, sci fi. 
4.  Write characters who represent a broader range of humanity that people like you.  Get sensitivity readers to help you avoid unconscious bias and inadvertent missteps.  Realize that since no two experiences are the same, some people might still accuse you of misrepresentation, but sleep easy because you know you took care to portray your characters with respect.

The first option, to just not worry about it, is what has gotten people in trouble over the years.  The flamboyant gay friend, the sassy black sidekick.  Tonto and Uncle Tom and the madwoman in the attic.  Then again, a college English teacher once told me that a famous author (Tolstoy?  Hemingway?) claimed that a sheltered young woman could hear a snippet of conversation as she walked past the walls of an army barracks and, if she were a true novelist, be able to go home and write a book about soldiers at war.  Imagination and empathy are always requirements for fiction.  Otherwise, it would all be memoir. 

The second option is classic writing advice.  And there has been and will always be world-class literature written by insiders.  The only real problem with this approach is that if all of the publishers are publishing authors whose life experience is similar, we end up with a whole lot of books about white, middle class people.  It's this that created the whole We Need Diverse Books movement in the first place.  #OwnVoices asks that a wider range of authors take up this charge and write what they know, and that more publishers buy and publish this work.

The third option can definitely work.  Sometimes speculative and historical fiction is a mind-blowing way of deconstructing social norms and prejudices.  Think The Handmaid's Tale; think Left Hand of Darkness; think the Chaos Walking series.  But trying to find a range of representation in most of --well, I'll call it genre fiction even though I worry that sounds dismissive--is an ongoing challenge.  I love the Lunar Chronicles, but many voices have pointed out that the vaguely Asian setting and culture is underdeveloped and smacks of tokenism.  Others complain that George R. R. Martin has created a whole alternative universe of white people, with a few barbaric brown people living down south. 

Then there's the risky way.  Write outside your box, but do it deliberately and with care. I am tempted to call this the best solution, but I know there are drawbacks here as well.  Since white authors living with all other forms of privilege as well are still more likely to get published, improving our portrayal of people with other experiences could result in closing down publishing opportunities for nonwhite and minority authors writing about those same experiences from first hand knowledge.  Also, good intentions are not enough to ensure good results.

E. e. Charlton Trujillo has lately been accused of offensive portrayal of black culture and vernacular.  After spending years reaching out to and working with teens who live on the edges of our society, she wanted to give them voice and representation.  But being Latina and working class did not exempt her from the outrage many reviewers felt when reading her latest work, which includes invented slang and a limited range of characters. 

This example is particularly challenging for me.  I know how many of my reluctant readers are drawn to stories of inner-city teens, complete with gangs and drugs and imprisoned parents.  Is it pathologizing black and Latinx experience to write about that?  What about the kids who see themselves in those stories?  Is it only okay to write about struggle if you personally have engaged in it?  I can only imagine how wrenching it would be to write a book that you think your readers have been waiting for, only to be told that you have done them harm with your words.  On the other hand, "But I didn't mean to be offensive!" is always an inadequate response.  It's not everyone else's job to not be offended; it's your own job to not offend. 

The same type of thing is happening now with Raina Telgemeier's recently released graphic novel Ghosts.  I've read criticisms of her cultural appropriation of Dia de los Muertos, of the glossing over of why there are so many ghosts at a Spanish mission and who they would actually be, and at least one voice objecting to the storyline in which a sibling is "inconvenienced" by the illness of another sibling.  I read these critiques and am torn, because yes, I loved the book.  What it comes down to is that if books were published in a vacuum, this would be a great book.  But since books are published in our messed up world, appropriation and glossing over of history are real problems.  (I call bullshit on the complaint about sibling tension based on illness though.  It exists, and is as worthy of storylines as any other.  Also, Telgemeier always does a brilliant job at writing family dynamics.)

So now I'm back to option one.  Write what you are moved to write.  Write a world that reflects your reality, whatever that may be.  Be honest and true.  Talk to people you know and trust about your works in progress, and talk to people who will bring a different point of view to it.  Also, read widely.  Pick up books by people who aren't like you.  Push to have their voices published.  Don't assume you know everything you need to know about the world. 

I'd love to know what you think about this. 
  • Are there other options I missed? 
  • Is there a more elegant way to say "white, straight, cis-gendered, college-educated, middle class, culturally Christian" without having to type all that but without implying that being that entire list of things is the norm? 
  • How much should intention count when writing "the other"?
  • I feel like writing about characters of other races and cultures is more likely to get an author into hot water than writing about people of different sexual preferences or physical abilities.  Is that true?  Why or why not?
  • What is the role of the reader in pushing the #ownvoices movement forward?  Do we bear a responsibility to seek out works by authors writing about their lived experience? 


  1. This is hard. If I wrote a book about my life, it would be the most boring book ever, and I’d have zero interest in writing it. So I guess my advice for authors would be to write what you’re passionate about, do your research, and be aware that someone will always be mad at you for it.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

  2. You make a lot of good points here. I went to a panel on diversity awhile back and one of the authors made a really good point--no matter who you are or what you write, there will always be someone who tells you you have it "wrong." She is an Indian woman writing about an Indian woman and some people took offense to how she portrayed one of her characters. They claimed that it wasn't realistic, but it was her reality. She had to take that with a grain of salt and remind herself that you can't please everyone. And she urged writers that it's better to do your research and try to represent the underrepresented than it is to just take the easy route and avoid diversity altogether. I thought these were wise words.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

  3. Wow, this is very well thought out and well done. I have so much to say, but then... you kind of did such a good job saying it that I don't know where to start! I think the key is what you've said- how absolutely #ownvoices are SOOOOO important, but that if authors were only "allowed" to write #ownvoices, we'd have basically NONE of our favorite books, because I don't think that JK Rowling is a wizard (well, maybe) and Suzanne Collins probably hasn't killed children for the pleasure of high society jerks, etc. So I agree across the board. I know it is so hard because YES, I absolutely think more diversity not just in books but in the people writing them is a MUST. But, I also think that putting sanctions on authors isn't the best way to bring about diversity either. Especially since NO two people's experiences are the same, no matter what their background. The uniqueness of our experiences is what makes us ourselves, you know? So we'd all just end up writing autobiographies? I like a lot of the points you've made here, Wendy!


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