This weekend, I appeared on a panel at The Baltimore Book Festival with other diverse writers about our experiences in publishing and what we wished other potential writers knew before trying to write diversely or, sometimes, about characters out of their normal realm of experience. Here are a few reflections on that below.
The panel had a lot of different writers represented. I was there with Andrew Grey who is the first man to be recognized with the one hundred book centennial award by the Romance Writers of America. He’s also the first m/m writer to be recognized that way as well. I was also presenting with Xio Axelrod, who writes about characters of color and also is an m/m writer. Additionally, there were male/female pairing writers on the panel who focused on mixed race, African American characters and, for some, interracial romance. These writers included L. Penelope, Michele Arris, Tracey Livesay and Robin Covington.
The panel spoke at first about why diversity in fiction matters, which should be obvious by now, but sometimes it feels like something that has to be a reminder for some. Andrew Grey said that he noticed that m/m fiction went to small presses and seemed to become more mainstream as published fiction in about 2006 and that he thought it had a direct effect on changing the minds and views of, especially, its women readers and could have had an influence on the marriage laws being changed. It was definitely a touching moment to see him hold out his wedding band and say that he could marry the love of his life in part because fiction had changed attitudes.
Robin Covington, who is of mixed race and said she had two worlds she was on the fringes of while growing up and admitted that, for her, something that was incredibly important was to see Cher on television. It was a way for Robin to see a brown person on TV and to realize that a brown person could be the star of her own series and command an audience’s attention. Similarly, L. Penelope said that, for her, everyone in her books start off as a default African American character unless there’s a reason to try and seek out the story from a different perspective. The second book in her Eternal Flame series, Angelfall, was set in San Francisco in part so she wanted to research and look through the eyes of Chinese characters who would have been more likely to be integrated into that setting, especially since part of the book took place during the turn of the last century. She also stressed that for her, covers made a big deal. She’d buy any sci-fi or fantasy book that had a black person on the cover because they were so rare and reflected someone like her.
Similarly, she and Michele Arris both noted that there seemed to be a trend where books with African American women on the cover would sell more poorly than the same story with an object on the cover. Ms. Arris said that she had letters from her usual diehard readers when her lowest selling book originally debuted saying that “I just didn’t feel this was for me,” which seemed to stem from the fact that book had an African American woman on the cover. I believe that, also, Xio Axelrod pointed out that Bookbub seemed less willing to put a book up on sale for a deal if the cover contained minority characters.
For my part, I said that I came to lesfic writing because it was both hard to sometimes find the types of books I wanted to read and, also, as a reaction to how many queer women were being killed off for shock value in genre television (as well as other types of TV). We all agreed that it was important to not keep writing default characters as “white, cis, straight” both because as, L. Penelope pointed out, fiction builds empathy which is sorely needed in today’s environment and because, obviously, it sends an implicit message that diverse people don’t get a happy ending when they never read it or see it played out in the media.
The second part of the talk was focusing on both that there were other types of diversity to keep in mind and how to do it.
First, Xio Axelrod and L. Penelope mentioned that you couldn’t just throw in a token character by painting what was originally a white character brown. An author needs to give that character a well-rounded personality like any other and to give them a real purpose in the narrative and, also, research some authentic experiences and background about people of that race or ethnic group…etc. L. Penelope said it’s the little things; she knew John Green had done his research for Paper Towns when the lead’s best friend’s mom collected black Santa Clauses. It’s those little touches that add up because they’re uncovered through the research and speaking to those authentic voices.
Second, I talked a bit about thinking in terms of diverse characters based around physical ability as well as mental illness and neurodiversity. My day job involves psychology so I have often cringed when reading fiction where a character was obviously created by a quick wikipedia perusal. Characters are more than a quick list of symptoms to emulate, always. Again, I think the whole panel advises to read books about that special part of your character, read #ownvoices books as well as part of your research, and then find sensitivity readers. I also suggested for mental illness and neurodiversity research that you could email psych professors (they’ll be thrilled promise) and to also think of social media. The #actuallyautistic tag on tumblr and twitter has good information and there used to be a tumblr called bipolar owl that’s also helpful. However you decide to represent a character from a community different from your own (physical ability, mental illness, race, gender, sexuality…etc.), I think it’s super important to find betas and sensitivity readers from that group. For example, if you need a bipolar sensitivity reader, I’d be happy to help. Frankly, I’d do anything to avoid poor representation in fiction for people like me.
Third, we mentioned what happens and how obvious it can be when people don’t go through these steps. I had recently read a book where characters from one particular South American country sat down to a dinner of salsa and tortillas. Nope. Food’s such a cultural touchstone so, yes, getting it wrong tells a lot to a reader. Also, that particular book had a lot more wrong dealing with how the South American characters were treated (I won’t say which country within South America as then it might give away which book, and this is not a call-out post).
Additional note, I think all of the authors of color on the panel agreed that if you described a character of color as “exotic looking” or with coloring that resembled “chocolate” or “mocha” or any type of Starbucks order, then you were doing it wrong. I cringed in the book mentioned above when the latina best friend’s first description was “exotic looking.”
Please, let’s don’t.
The book I’m talking about here even had an editor and went through betas and a writer’s group. I think what happened is those readers and editorial team members were all white and didn’t realize what was reading as offensive.
Finally, we all agreed that diversity had to be more than a slapdash job to jump on a trend. I believe it was Robin Covington who said that after an unfortunate incident on a panel for RWA about five years ago, she was asked to submit to a couple big five publishers. At the time, she refused to submit because she viewed it as a big NY publisher’s knee jerk reaction to a growing #weneeddiverseauthors trend. All of the panel agreed that diversity wasn’t ticking off a box and making sure you had at least one of each type of author, like a Pokemon collection. It seems that’s harder for publishing to understand, even now. There can be a mentality of “Oh, I have X kind of author, so I don’t need X anymore.” As if one person with X factor in common will have the exact same stories to tell as any other X person. Also, I mentioned that one couldn’t try and take credit for being diverse and embracing that on social media if, at the same time, that publishing house was actually being discriminatory. There is a tendency for some publishers, like Hallmark, to jump on the bandwagon but to still require cis, het stories only.
Diversity isn’t a way to earn a cookie or brownie points. It’s also not something that can be shoved together in order to create a veneer of “trying hard enough.”
So, where does that leave us?
I think that if you want to write in your comfort zone, that’s fine. I think that increasing fictional representation is a big question of giving #ownvoices writers more of a chance. It also includes authors, who want to write diversely, being willing to take the chance and put in the hard work to research and learn to create positive representations. Not carictures. Part of that means finding sensitivity readers and learning and accepting when they say that you need to correct something. And, yes, part of that also means you take a risk of getting it wrong in publication and having to learn from reader critiques. To listen. That said, I also think it’s okay to not write diversely if you’re going to half-ass it or going to refuse to put in the work. The book I mentioned above would have been so much better without the Inca-descended characters and stereotypes about native americans and latinx people. Sometimes, if you’re not capable of doing it right, I think it’s okay to admit defeat and not put out harmful material.
I’d rather there be less bipolar characters out there in fiction, than have the risk of a poorly drawn character who spreads stereotypes and harms the perception of people like me.
Overall, I think, as did the full panel, that diversity in fiction comes from a mix of writers trying to do better via research the right way, readers embracing varieties of fiction, and #ownvoices writers both refusing to quit and pushing for more of a chance. There’s a very long way to go, but we’re still working at it, but we’re making strides too, as Andrew Grey pointed out. He went from pre-early 2000s where there wasn’t even a small press market for m/m fiction to doing well in small press and now preparing to be mass market published for the first time with an m/m book in bookstores.
Keep chipping away!
Also seriously, if anyone out there is considering writing about a bipolar character, do ask me to sensitivity read. I mean it because we all need to help each other and help make sure characters aren’t carictures.