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.
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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