Representation in publishing is important. But I think a lot of people underestimate just how important it is to have all voices represented, not just in publishing, but in media at large. Media has the power to open up parts of the world to us that we may not be exposed to in our own lives. If you’re someone who lives in a small town in the middle of nowhere, for example, maybe you’ve never met a queer person before. Maybe you live in a predominately white town and have had few—if any—interactions with BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color). And if that’s the case, your only exposure to cultures, sexualities, and beliefs that aren’t the ones you’ve been surrounded with your whole life, comes to you through media.
Keeping that in mind, I felt it was important to address a lot of the complaints I’ve seen by authors in the writing community who feel that calling for representation in publishing is somehow unfair to them, or that it’s “going too far.” I’m sure that if this post gets any traction that it will also get a lot of delightful hot takes, but sometimes the Angry Noodle has to get a little spicy, know what I mean?
“I Don’t Know Any [LGBTQ+, BIPOC, Disabled] Folks, So I Can’t Represent Them”
Well, that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? Despite how diverse our world really is—and how diverse you can make your world regardless of whether it’s realistic fiction, science fiction, fantasy, or what have you—you have only been exposed to the stories of people like you. And no matter what you’re writing, that’s pretty limiting.
Part of being a writer is researching. If we as a community can joke about how the FBI must be tracking us because we’re looking up how to best hide a dead body in preparation for our murder mystery, then surely we can also take the time to do some research into communities that aren’t exactly like our own, can’t we? Surely someone in your sci-fi space opera that spans the whole universe is at least reminiscent of people other than straight white men and their beautiful straight white love interests, right?
If you don’t know any [LGTBQ+, BIPOC, Disabled] peeps…try to! Not just for your writing, but because the world is huge and yours isn’t the only perspective that matters.
“You’re Taking Spots Away From White Writers”
Here’s the thing: no we’re not. It’s possible that the Black Lives Matter movement will inspire a change in the industry that gets more POC published, but at least as of 2019, there was still a noticeable gap in representation that extended beyond characters to the authors, editors, and agents themselves.
A 2019 survey conducted be Lee & Low Books found that the industry is still overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly cis, overwhelmingly straight, and overwhelmingly non-disabled. U.S. publishing statistics in 2018 found that children’s books had more books featuring animals and objects than they did Black, Asian, Latinx, and Indigenous representation combined. It also found that half of all children’s books published that year featured white characters—an enormous gap in representation.
And that’s not all. A recent hashtag on Twitter started by Black YA author L.L. McKinney, #PublishingPaidMe, encouraged both Black and non-Black authors to share how much they were paid for their advance. Not only are Black authors published less often than white authors, but the gap in how much Black and white authors get paid is astonishingly wide. Black authors who had been published before, and to great acclaim, revealed how much they had to fight to get advances that surpassed $100,000 for their later books while the debut novels of some white authors immediately reached as much as $200,000.
Again, maybe we are slowly reaching a point where the industry can acknowledge the gap and work to close it. But until that happens, no, white writers are not being rejected in favor of Black authors—certainly not as much as some complaints make it seem.
“But Brioche,” you might be thinking, “If representation in publishing does improve in the near future, then that means spots really are being taken away from white writers!”
Well, dear reader, that is true. But one of my favorite quotes feels very apropos right about now:
‘When You’re Accustomed to Privilege, Equality Feels Like Oppression’
Giving someone else a seat at the table means that, yes, you will have to scoot over a bit. But that doesn’t mean you’re being removed from the table entirely.
“I Just Picture All My Characters [White, Cis, Straight, Male]”
Now, obviously the number of characters an author’s book has varies, but if you have a pretty standard number of characters, really? You’re telling me you can’t picture having any trans characters? Gay characters? Ace or bi characters? Black, Hispanic, Asian characters? Non-binary characters? They all just so happen to be white, cis straight dudes?
Look, I get it. It’s easier to write what you know and what you’re used to seeing. But it’s something you have to break out of. Because you know what? This world is diverse. Yes, media tends to be very white-centric, male-centric, and cis-centric, but it doesn’t have to be, and you don’t have to contribute to that narrative.
Expose yourself to what little media does properly represent marginalized groups. You might find yourself inspired to write that character that you never thought you’d be able to picture after all.
“Having [Insert Underrepresented Group Here] Characters Is Not Historically Accurate”
Before you say this, be sure you’re not one of those people whose only understanding of history is what you’ve learned in school. History is written by the winners, as they say, so of course it seems perfectly reasonable for a lot of people to say that us brown and/or queer peeps weren’t around certain areas at certain points in time. But doing that fails to take into account all of the nuances of history. For example, we think of cowboys and we think of the epitome of the tough white man who kicks ass and takes names…and also beats back the “savage Indians,” which is problematic in and of itself. But in reality, one in four cowboys were Black, as it was one of the few jobs available to freed enslaved people at the time, and about 15% of cowboys were Mexican. But when you watch TV shows or read westerners about the life of the rugged cowboy, they’re usually portrayed as white men with nary a POC cowboy in sight. Old Hollywood films and TV shows were infamous for portraying the old West as how we think of it today, using actors like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood as the representation of cowboys that they, quite frankly, were not.
That’s just one example. Of course, it all depends on the story you’re writing, but the reality is that history isn’t as white-centric, straight-centric, or cis-centric as we’re made to believe, and chances are it won’t destroy your story or ruin its historical accuracy to have a character who doesn’t fit the usual WASP mold.
But there’s something even worse about the nitpicky gripes about “Black people didn’t exist in this place at this time” in realistic fiction, and it’s the gripes about certain marginalized groups not belonging in a world that you made up.
Which brings me to my next point…
My response to this one is simple: why? Why did you feel it necessary to actively erase groups of people? After all, you were the one who built this world. You’re the literal god building this world from scratch. What is it about the plot or your worldbuilding that necessitates the removal of everyone except straight cis white men (and the occasional woman to be the love interest or the hot badass who learned how to fight from her older brothers)?
My guess is laziness, comfort, and perhaps even some wish fulfillment. Maybe it’s easier for you to write a world where everyone is straight and white. Maybe you’re more comfortable writing what you know. Or maybe, deep down, you would simply prefer a world like that. And that’s a big bummer.
Here’s a fun fact about underrepresented groups of people: they’re still people. Yes, you need to be a bit more careful with how you represent them because representing a group of people poorly who already don’t have a ton of representation in media can be pretty harmful, but they’re still characters with their own problems, ideas, and traits that make them just as interesting and fun to write as the kind of characters you’re already comfortable writing.
Ultimately, what you write is up to you. But just give it a try, is all I’m saying.
“Readers Won’t Relate”
Nah, man. Readers can relate to anyone. I’ve rooted for cyborgs, spaceships, spirits, and even a highly evolved swimming pool robot, and if we can do that as the audience, then yes, we can sympathize with people who aren’t the same race, gender, or sexuality as us even if they aren’t entirely like us. Hell, because of the abysmally small amount of representation most marginalized groups get, we’ve all gotten accustomed to relating to and empathizing with people who don’t necessarily look like us for our entire lives. I mean, I may be a tiny bi Afro-Puerto Rican woman, but the number of books I’ve read featuring a straight, buff white dude with supernatural abilities kicking ass is pretty astounding.
What I’m saying is, we have the capacity to empathize with characters and their struggles, regardless of what they look like, how they identify, or who they love. Your book will not immediately be thrown into the trash by readers everywhere just because you had some brown folks in it.
“I Just Don’t Like [Insert Marginalized Group Here]”
Well aren’t you just a delightful bowl of sunshine.
I would recommend meditation. Or yoga. Or just generally trying to be a more pleasant person.
“I Tried Having Representation in My Book and Was Called [Racist, Sexist, Homophobic, Transphobic, Ableist] For It”
If you made an attempt to have some representation in your book but people from the community you’re trying to represent repeatedly called you out on doing it in a way that only harms them, then what you’re doing is arguably worse than if you just hadn’t included them at all. For example, if you have a Black character who steals, speaks outlandish and horribly inaccurate AAVE (African-American Vernacular English), and gets violent at the slightest provocation, congrats: you have made a mockery of the group of people you were trying to represent, and have done more harm than good.
Part of seeking representation in publishing means seeking accurate representation, not goofy and/or harmful stereotypes. Remember when I said at the beginning that people living in a small, predominately white town with little exposure to POC only get that exposure through media like books? Well now maybe they’ll come across your book. And they’ll read about that stereotypical Black “thug” character. And now they’ll subconsciously apply that stereotype to all Black people because they have nothing else to go off of other than poor representations like yours.
“But Brioche,” you might say, “If you think bad representation is worse than no representation, I should just not have any representation because I know I’ll do it wrong.”
That brings me to my next point.
“I Get Crap For Writing A Book About [Insert Underrepresented Group Here], But I Also Get Crap For Not Having Representation In My Book. What Gives?”
It depends on the representation, yo. When we say that your book should have more than the usual suspects because we live in a diverse world, we’re not saying, “You should be writing a story about what it’s like to be Black.” In fact, maybe don’t do that.
“Representation” doesn’t mean, “Write about a marginalized group of people and center your entire book around the fact that they are marginalized.” It means, “Hey, maybe your fantasy book that you’re writing in a sprawling world with drastically different climates and cultures should actually reflect that by having, y’know, different people in it.”
I’ll give you an example of “bad” representation that I learned from Kelsey in our talks about proper rep. American Dirt, written by Jeanine Cummins, is a book centered around Mexican immigration that received a seven figure advance from Flatiron Books and wound up getting chosen by Oprah’s Book Club. The problem? Cummins is a white woman writing specifically about an experience that has nothing to do with her, and appeared to almost fetishize the issue both in the book itself and in celebrations about the book, where the tables were “adorned with barbed wire centerpieces.” In her author’s note, she mentions that she wished someone with darker skin would write about that experience—despite the fact that many have—and essentially called herself a bridge for that gap. To write about an issue that, again, does not affect her in any way and profit off of it when there are Mexican authors who have written about the same thing, none of whom she acknowledges when she mentions her concern about “nobody writing about this,” is what I call “bad representation.” The truth is that some stories aren’t ours to tell, and to tell it anyway is, well, bad representation.
It may sound like white writers are dealing with a catch-22 (Shouldn’t represent, but also should represent), but that’s not the case. There’s a difference between telling a story that isn’t yours and having representation in your book. For instance, there’s a huge difference between having a Black character in your sci-fi novel as a white author and writing a book about slavery. Probably shouldn’t do that second one.
“But I Don’t Need/Want a Sensitivity Reader”
You can choose to go without one if you want to. But you’ll have to deal with the ramifications if you write something ridiculous.
I once read a self-published urban fantasy book about a Black woman written by a white man, and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that it did not have a sensitivity reader.
Because it showed. A lot.
Fun fact: AAVE is an actual dialect with its own rules and traits like any other. It is not just, “Let me force my Black character to sound as ‘Black’ as possible by saying things like, ‘I is going to the store.’”
If you had a sensitivity reader, then you would know this. But this author in particular clearly did not. And boy did it show.
So yeah. Fly by the seat of your pants if you wish, but understand that you may not be doing it as correctly as you think you are.
“Publishing Is Getting Too PC These Days”
Or maybe we’re finally at least starting to take into account the feelings and experiences of people who aren’t exactly like us.
It isn’t hard to try to keep an open mind and take others’ feelings into account. Media has almost entirely erased whole groups of people and their stories for a long time, and that’s not easy to rectify. Before getting angry about writing communities becoming “too PC,” consider the fact that we’re all finally making an effort to ensure that everyone’s voice can be heard equally. It might seem like an inconvenience to you, but it’s kind of a huge deal to everyone else.
“I Worry I’ll Get Blacklisted By Agents and Publishers If I Speak My Mind About The Industry, and That’s Censorship”
Funnily enough, I sometimes worry about the exact same thing. Am I pushing too hard for the diversity that it seems a lot of publishers (at least the major ones) are reluctant to seek out? Am I burning bridges by being outspoken about my political beliefs when addressing an industry that is known for lacking diverse characters, diverse authors, and paying diverse authors their fair share? Maaaaaaybe. But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to see the change you want to see in the industry, even if it means getting blacklisted for it.
It’s gotta be a risk you’re willing to take if you think you’re doing what’s right. Can you honestly say that you are if you’re defending an industry that overwhelmingly publishes the same people, writing about the same topics, over and over again? Are you invalidating someone else’s identity or implying that their story isn’t good enough to be told by saying that certain books get published for the sake of diversity and only diversity? Are you implying that you’re a better writer than certain queer and/or BIPOC authors and deserved to be published instead of them? Are you just straight up being racist/sexist/homophobic?
I’ve said this a million times, and I’ll say it again: you have the right to speak your mind. But the people around you do too, and if they don’t want to be associated with you or your work after you grace them with your hot takes about how trans women aren’t women or racism isn’t real, that’s their right as well.
“My Book Wasn’t Published, and I Bet It’s Because They Went With a Diversity Publish Instead”
Maybe your book just isn’t that good, yo.
Okay, that was mean. But I really have seen people make complaints similar to this, and while I find it frustrating, I don’t find it surprising. There is a tendency for non-BIPOC to blame rejection on “diversity hires” or “affirmative action,” whether it comes to admission to college, a job hiring, and yes, the publication of a book. It’s honestly pretty harmful to those communities because it invalidates the individual’s accomplishments and makes them question themselves. Impostor syndrome is very real, and POC in particular suffer from it because they have to deal with the additional concern that the only reason they accomplished anything in life is because they’re that token [insert race/gender/sexuality here] accepted for the sake of looking woke.
It’s not fun. Don’t make people feel that way.
“It’s Just Not Fair/What About Me?!”
Having a market that overwhelmingly caters to you suddenly start catering to you a little bit less is not what’s unfair. What is unfair is having to fight tooth and nail just to get a fraction of the representation that white, straight, cis men already get to have.
You’re not being erased. Trust me.