Diversity in YA creator Malinda Lo is currently doing a great blog series on how reviewers often betray underlying biases when reviewing books about characters from marginalized groups. Highly recommended read.
The topic is also a big jumping-off point for me re: some of the issues I’ve faced with my own writing. Part two of Lo’s series covers reviewers having a problem with intersectionality, and that’s definitely a big one I worried about with both Thunderstone and Harper. Thunderstone is primarily rooted in feminist issues, but also has a minor side plot involving a gay couple shunned by their community. Harper’s protagonist is both bisexual and biracial, though the former is a slightly bigger deal for him, and both identities are secondary to the rest of the plot. I worried that readers from non-marginalized groups, or who experience only one axis of marginalization, would find the stories “too focused” on issues they don’t personally experience, and therefore dislike them. So far, most of the feedback I’ve gotten has been positive, but I also suspect I’d have a hard time trying to publish either of them via traditional channels simply because of that.
Back to part one, however, which is that reviewers sometimes consider diverse casts “implausible.” That one’s biting me at the moment, as I’m finishing the stage-two revision for my next novel, a light-SF romance set in a theoretically realistic near-future Seattle. Of the six main characters–the ones who get the most page time–not a single one is a straight, white male. There are two SWM secondary characters: one is a family member, the other a villain. There are also several named but not developed incidental characters (co-workers, bartenders, etc.) who could be straight or white but it’s not clear one way or the other.
A couple of weeks ago, my husband finished his alpha read of this story. He’s a voracious SFF reader, so I trust his opinions on my storytelling. He’s also queer, feminist, etc. and therefore likely to appreciate that my stories include unconventional women and queer folks. But one of the first criticisms he gave me of this one was that it seemed unrealistic in the first several chapters, because virtually everyone with more than a few lines was queer or a person of color, and several checked multiple boxes. The word he used–unconsciously, I’m sure–was “normal.” Yikes.
Frankly, I was unpleasantly shocked by this, as it really didn’t seem like something he’d think. We’ve been together 20 years, and though he grew up in a conservative family, he’s very progressive-minded–and, well, he lives with me–so I didn’t understand how he could hold the same kind of opinion that more-clueless people do. It took an awful lot of intense conversation to dig down to the underlying reasons why he felt this way, and I discovered some interesting things.
First, I pointed out to him that in our meatspace social circle, there are only a few cisgender, straight white guys, and most of them are married to bi women. People who feel marginalized or unsafe in the larger world usually self-select their own personal communities to be heavy on folks who will automatically understand them. We select not only for shared interests–career areas, sports, hobbies, politics, etc.–but for shared experiences of the world, so we can feel at home with the people we call friends, rather than feeling like we always have to be ready to explain who we are and what our lives are like. That’s definitely been true for us, particularly in terms of my gender stuff, which is often hard even for some queer folk to understand. We generally like surrounding ourselves with geeks, too, but when it comes to people we want to be able to trust on a personal level, we’ve gravitated toward fellow queers. So no, it shouldn’t be thought unusual for one of my protagonists, a half-Hawai’ian gay man, to have a black lesbian as a BFF.
He acknowledged that reality, but then countered with the fact that his workplace, while fairly racially diverse, is overwhelmingly straight and male. (This of course led us into a side conversation about how the tech industry treats women, and how official company efforts to support diversity often don’t filter down to the personal level, etc.) He didn’t think it was possible that the science company my characters work for would seemingly have so few SWMs, even though the story is set 40 years in the future in a city that’s already fairly diverse and queer friendly now. I explained that the company probably did have a lot more SWMs, just on the basis of demographic distribution if not the lingering results of systemic oppression, but I just wasn’t telling their stories.
I think therein was the nut of the problem. It wasn’t just that his work life, if not his personal one, was heavy on straight white dudes, it was also the fact that the majority of the mountain of Western pop culture he so voraciously consumes is filled wall-to-wall with white heterosexuality. Some of this could be remedied by him deliberately choosing stuff with more diversity (and he has, and does), but some of it is simply the absolutely enormous glut of stories about a very, very narrow range of humanity. Millions of books, TV shows, movies, plays, games and other media are released every year, yet the number of ones with a protagonist who isn’t at least straight and white, if not also male, is small enough that organizations promoting diversity can make lists and buying guides for people looking for something else.
Even when one’s real-life social landscape is more diverse, the relentlessly homogenous nature of English-language mass-market pop culture makes it seems like the rest of the world–even the English-speaking parts–is demographically a whole lot more straight, white, and male than it really is. At the very least, it may seem as if straight white folks are the only people who have experiences that are interesting enough to write stories about. Everyone else in the world is just a supporting role, at best, for the people who feel like more-natural heroes.
People who consume a lot of pop culture, therefore, may see a story that doesn’t fit that standard, and think of it as unrealistic or self-consciously trying to make a statement. That includes–especially–professional reviewers, who not only go through stacks of stories with the same (non) assortment of characters, but who often exist in a professional (traditional media creation and distribution) and often personal (educated, upper-middle-class urbanite) world that is itself very heavy on the sense that white dudes are simply more interesting as people.
So ubiquitous is the SWM protagonist that such people aren’t even defined by their demographic categories, but assumed to exist apart from such things, as a baseline or neutral state, from which every other person deviates: “Normal,” in the unfortunate word my husband used. Even if a story with a non-SWM protagonist never mentions even a realistic smidgen of the marginalization they experience, it’s seen as a “niche” story at best; one designed to appeal only to those people who share that vital statistic, rather than being something for everyone. We’re all supposed to be able to identify with the Everyman, after all.
Unfortunately, as my husband’s issue with this story illustrates (sorry, M. I’m totally not picking on you!) even people within marginalized groups can think of main characters with whom they share that feature as far enough outside the standard to be a distraction. My novel includes a bisexual techie–not at all modeled on M, but certainly someone with whom he might identify–but being able to relate on a personal level to that character might have seemed to him as distracting from the plot. He reads as escapism; feeling that personally invested in a story might have felt, rather than unrealistic, uncomfortably TOO real.
There were a few other things going on to affect his perception–being unable to be out at work himself, he felt that the blithe acceptance of my characters’ queerness felt off–but mostly, I really do think it’s just that his view of what kind of people the world is really composed of has been warped by media with such an appalling lack of diversity. Worse, it’s warped me, too. I’ve asked myself several times whether a given character really “needs” to be [x] just because I’m afraid some readers will find the story too “PC” or “message-y” or whatever. I worry that in deliberately writing diverse characters, I’m making too big of a deal out of it, and that’s going to turn people off.
However, when those annoying naysaying voices come up, I usually tell them what I also told M: Not only am I not writing stories about SWMs, I’m not writing the stories FOR them, either. The world has absolutely no shortage whatsoever of stories about people like them (and to be honest, stories about straight white women are actually pretty plentiful, too, outside of blockbusters.) They have plenty to entertain themselves with if that’s the only thing they find entertaining. Instead, I’m writing for the people who don’t see themselves nearly enough in the kinds of stories I write.