Why Identity Politics Could Ruin The Book Community If We’re Not Careful: #OwnVoices and Representation in Literature

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while, as there is a lot I’d like to say about this topic and I wanted to make sure I expressed my thoughts as well as possible! Representation in literature is an important and very complex topic, and I know my opinion on the matter isn’t going to be the same as everyone else’s.

16 comments

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while, as there is a lot I’d like to say about this topic and I wanted to make sure I expressed my thoughts as well as possible! Representation in literature is an important and very complex topic, and I know my opinion on the matter isn’t going to be the same as everyone else’s.

However, I have been noticing a few disquieting trends and I think they merit some discussion. So without further ado, let’s talk about #OwnVoices, representation and “identity politics” on the Bookternet!

What is #OwnVoices?

#OwnVoices is a term I’ve seen used often in bookish circles, so let’s start there.

According to this article, #ownvoices is “refers to an author from a marginalized or under-represented group writing about their own experiences/from their own perspective, rather than someone from an outside perspective writing as a character from an underrepresented group.”

For example, John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down is #ownvoices for OCD, since John Green himself was diagnosed with the disorder.

This makes sense to me; after all, one might imagine that a writer drawing from their own experiences will likely craft an “accurate”, reliable account of what it’s like to be a member of their identity group. While you’re reading an #ownvoices book, you can reasonably assume you’re getting “good” representation of whatever group is the focus of the story.

And I agree we need diverse books; it’s great for people of all different backgrounds to be able to find books where their culture is represented.

However, diversity should not be relegated to #ownvoices books and the author’s identity should never be the most important thing about a book.

Overemphasis on Identity

On Twitter (it’s always Twitter) a few months ago I came across a post about a (white) bookstagrammer who complained about a publisher who declined her an ARC because they were prioritizing giving ARCs to POC reviewers. She claimed this was racist and posted the emails on her story.

The bookstagrammer was soon harassed and canceled by the larger bookstagram community. According to many commenters, the publisher was right in prioritizing Black bookstagrammers because the book in question was written by a Black author about the Black experience.

But should race really be a definitive factor in whether or not someone receives an ARC? Should we be prioritizing skin color over all other factors? Isn’t the point of diverse books to educate others on different identity groups? Why, then, should a diverse book be given only to ARC readers who can “relate” to the characters?

This specific incident isn’t the main thing I’m writing this post to discuss, but I believe it encapsulates the kind of identity hyper-focus I’ve been seeing in certain areas of the book world.

I’ve often seen people mention in their book reviews that they, as a white reviewer, or as a neurotypical reviewer, or <insert majority group here>, cannot provide a fully accurate review for an #ownvoices book written by an author of another identity group, sometimes even referring readers to another person’s review to read instead of their own. I’ve seen the constant “white-men-book”-bashing that goes on all around this corner of the Internet. I’ve seen TBRs of only Asian authors, or only Black authors, or only women, etc. I’ve even read a comment by someone admitting that they are purposefully more lenient in their reviews for books written by POC women and purposefully more critical of books written by cishet white men… apparently in order to combat racism.

Is it wonderful that we’re seeing more books by diverse authors, promoting diverse perspectives and introducing people to points of view they’d never have the opportunity to consider with just their own life experiences? Of course! I’m all for diverse books, and I love learning about cultures and viewpoints with which I have no personal experience.

However, I believe the kind of solely-identity-focused thinking I’ve been seeing here in the book community is damaging because it does more to promote division and an illusion of incompatibility between groups than it does to ameliorate the problems of bias and racism.

The dilemma of white authors

I’ve seen white authors in particular getting flack for two different supposed offenses.

The first is not including non-white, non-straight, non-whatever characters in their books. The books might be criticized for not being diverse enough, or for not being relatable enough for people of minority groups. An example of this is Harry Potter, or Sarah J. Maas.

The second offense is trying to include different representation, but doing it wrong. Maybe the POC character says something offensive, or a plot point is not handled exactly right. Maybe it becomes obvious that the author doesn’t share the culture of their character.

I’ve even seen some Twitter users saying that white people should just NOT write any minority characters, which I think is 1) counterproductive and 2) racist.

Because the difficulty of writing outside your own experience doesn’t only apply to white people.

I recently saw a somewhat baffling comment on a blog post about the Jay Kristoff controversy (he was in hot water for a bit after allegedly appropriating Asian culture in one of his books.)

The commenter stated that she thinks there is a big difference between white authors appropriating POC cultures and white authors using other white cultures. i.e: it’s okay for a white person to write about Russian culture, but not Chinese culture.

But… whether you’re white, or black, or brown, or ANYTHING, writing about a culture that is not your own will be difficult. Even if you’re writing about a culture that shares your level of melanin.

Why would an American white person know any more about Russian culture than they do about Chinese culture, unless their family is Russian? Why would researching and writing about Russia be any different than researching and writing about China? Why would getting things wrong about Russian culture be less offensive than getting things wrong about China? Because Chinese people aren’t white?

The truth is, it’s going to be more difficult for anyone, of any race, to write outside of their own life experiences– but that doesn’t mean we should discourage people from doing so. If we really want to promote inclusivity, compassion and diversity, I believe we should always be encouraging people to look beyond themselves.

Relatability vs. Identity

You can still relate to characters who aren’t exactly like you!

Let’s use the classic example of Hermione Granger. Hermione is white, cisgender, able-bodied, neurotypical, and presumably straight. But how many girls, and I’m sure boys too, around the world related to Hermione for her love of books, her goody-two-shoes-ness, her dedication to school and her ambition? How many people around the world cheered as the series went on and she matured into a leader and a hero of the wizarding world?

How many of these people do you think thought “oh man another white character, I can never relate to her on any level“?

Sure, a Muslim black woman won’t be able to relate to Hermione for her cultural background, but it doesn’t mean she wouldn’t be able to see herself in Hermione’s personality and values.

This is the point of diversity: to help people realize that differences in physical characteristics, cultural background, viewpoints, or identity shouldn’t divide us; people can relate to one another and get along despite their differences.

In Conclusion:

I respect the need for diversity in the publishing industry, and I’m glad people are interested in getting more books about historically marginalized groups. However… this doesn’t mean we should be using race/gender/what-have-you as the definitive factor in choosing books or writing reviews. It’s okay to read a book by a white man, just as it’s okay to read a book by a POC woman. At the end of the day, it’s the literature that’s important, and I don’t want the book community to forget that.

Thanks for sitting through another one of my *hot takes*. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments:

What do you think about the recent direction of the movement for diversity in books? Do you track the race and gender of the authors you read? Do you agree or disagree with my points?

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16 comments on “Why Identity Politics Could Ruin The Book Community If We’re Not Careful: #OwnVoices and Representation in Literature”

  1. Wow, Emily, your discussion posts never fail to be absolutely wonderful! And I actually agree with almost everything you said here! (In case you’re interested, I wrote a post called “Diversity Does Not Make a Good Book” some years back, which addresses several similar issues. My views on some of the examples I used have changed a bit since then, but I still stand by the gist of what I said.)

    I also think it’s problematic if a book’s diversity and authors’ and protagonists’ identities get emphasized above everything else, and if, for some reason, having those things make people think they should be more lenient reviewing those books. I’ve read so many stories that I thought were seriously mediocre but that got heaped with praise in the bookish community, simply because they included diverse characters or because the book was ownvoices. Yes, I wholeheartedly agree that it’s great to see the multi-facettedness of our world reflected in fiction and that it’s particularly wonderful if authors who actually have first hand experience in a particular area share it with us – but if identity politics are the only thing a story has to offer, I usually don’t think it’s enough…

    And I also agree with you that research needs to be done no matter which culture you represent. Sure, maybe for some people who have already had to face a lot discriminization and marginalization, it can feel like an extra slap in the face to have someone from the group that did the discriminating perpetuating badly researched and harmful stereotypes about your culture. But that doesn’t mean it feels great to have your culture badly represented if you’re of a different nationality, either. Being German, it can actually get a bit tiring to see how many American authors apparently think we are all, to this day, purely evil Nazis, and I imagine it must be similarly frustrating to Russian readers to constantly see themselves reduced to communist spies planning the downfall of civilization as we know it…

    Still, that being said, I really think it’s important to see differences reflected in literature, and I commend authors for trying to represent them, even if they might sometimes get things wrong. Because understanding each other and learning about cultures different from our own can do so much to help us get along, no matter what background we have! And if every author only wrote characters whose experiences matched up with theirs, we’d have some extremely bland books filled only with carbon copies of their author.

    I’m not too sure how I feel about the whole ARC scandal thing, though. From a marketing standpoint, it probably does make sense to give books that focus on POC identity to people who will immediately identify with that from personal experience. And it might be a good way to diversify the reviewer landscape, since it is true that wealthy white readers are still more priviledged, simply due to historical factors. But I don’t think it’s okay to exclude someone simply because they don’t have the right racial/cultural/… background. Especially if the whole point is getting the book out to as many different people as possible! There should be more factors going into this, and honestly, a publisher naming a person’s race as a reason why they didn’t get approved for an ARC seems weirdly racially charged in and of itself…

    But yeah, I’ll shut up now 😂 Your awesome discussions are just always so much food for thought!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yes, I agree that there are times when ownvoices books get a lot of praise simply due to that factor and also, people are very quick to cancel books for being “problematic” even when, in context, the book may not actually be offensive– which is another topic I want to discuss one of these days. And true, it does make some sense to give ARCs to people who have personally relevant experience but I just don’t think race should ever be something that is used to make decisions like who should get ARCs. I am an advocate for race-blind policies pretty much everywhere but at the same time I do understand what you mean. I will check out your post on diversity!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a very thought-provoking topic! Again! I really don’t know enough about the community or the situation to comment intelligently. However, you have provided me with a lot of things to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. If I could hit that like button more than once I would! This is such a good analysation of a really tough issue – and I love your ending line “At the end of the day, it’s the literature that’s important, and I don’t want the book community to forget that”

    Liked by 1 person

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