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I dread being controversial or political online, but I want honest and sincere thoughts on this, with as few in the way of flame wars as possible. My question is more or less: if you’re not a member of a certain minority, do you get to write about it? Since I’m a novelist, I’m thinking in terms more of fiction here than nonfiction or journalism.

On the “no” side, the argument is basically (I’ll just quote this blog post here), “It is not the place of a cis straight person to represent the LGBTA community in order to claim progressive thinking on their part. … By all means we should be allies and make all efforts to be diverse in our work, but we should not seek to take their stories from them when there are so many creators from the LGBTA community who go ignored in favor of mainstream medium, and who would give a far more accurate account and portrayal of their stories. The same goes for race. In that instance, write what you know is applicable.”*

Fair enough. But on the “yes” side, which I admit is the side I’ve been working from all these years, the argument is: assuming the portrayal is done with as much taste, compassion, and realistic accuracy as the author can scrounge up (as opposed to using stereotypes or playing the characters’ culture/orientation/etc. for laughs), then surely it’s better to have more types of characters in more books, no matter what background the author comes from.

Even though I’m white and heterosexual and middle-class and American and therefore boringly generic and privileged in most ways, I recognize the problem of ethnic minorities and LGBTQ characters being underrepresented in entertainment. Plus I’m honestly into some of the stories that could be told with such characters (I’ve long squealed in delight over slash fiction, as nearly all of you know), so I want to write about them. I have this perhaps naïve hope that if someone reads a book that gets them (the readers) thinking more kindly about types of people they didn’t think about very much before, and gets them seeing more types of people as fellow humans with equal status to themselves, then hurray! The book has done something worthwhile! And it doesn’t really matter who the author is, in that case.

In fact, I’m the self-effacing type of author who doesn’t want you to think about ME; I want you to notice just my stories, my characters. It isn’t about me. This becomes a problem when it’s time to get out there and market my work in person with bright smiles, which is a task that sucks the life force out of me, but I digress.

So am I wrong? Should I be respectfully backing off and allowing “those groups” to tell their own stories? I certainly encourage anyone to do so who wants to, and I don’t want those stories to be ignored in favor of mine just because I’m white and privileged and stuff (though given my superbly modest sales figures, I really don’t think anyone’s favoring my work over others, so honestly I doubt this is currently a problem).

In my Greek myth series, I have some gay or bi characters, and others I picture as black or mixed-race. I don’t make A Big Thing of it for the most part; they’re just character details, mentioned alongside what color clothes they wear or what kind of salads they prefer or whether they like loud parties. (As an introvert, I found it WAY easier to write the gay or bi aspects of characters than to write Tabitha’s extroversion--she’s the reincarnated Dionysos, and loves organizing and attending parties, and drinking and being loud. I can’t comprehend being like that. But love and crushes, sure, I get those.)

I do try to avoid stereotypes. I’d rather a book didn’t include any gay characters than have it include one who lisped and called everyone “sweetie” and wore glasses with pink glittery frames. Same goes for all the ethnic-group issues you could run up against. I imagine, if anything, I err on the side of my black characters being too much like the white ones, such that you might not even know they’re black. But then, I also went that route because for the purposes of this story, it doesn’t exactly matter what their genetic makeup is. Also, a friendly mix of races and cultures is part of the new global civilization, and I feel like we do get to be casual about it, as long as we’re compassionate to everyone.

The one “minority” I belong to is that of women, and I’ll go on record as saying I have nothing at all against male authors who write in depth about female characters. In fact, I think more of them should, as long as they follow the guidelines discussed above: avoid stereotypes, view everyone as a human with equal rights and personal subtleties, be as fair and realistic as you can.

Anyway. The more I ramble about this, the more I realize it could be an entire doctoral thesis (and I’m sure it has been for lots of people), so I’ll leave it at that. But I welcome anyone’s thoughts! If you’re gay or trans, does it bother you if straight/cis people write LGBTQ characters? If you’re black or Latino or Asian (or fill in the blank), does it bother you if generic white people write about your ethnic group?

Further good reading on the topic: Why I Am Scared to Write About Diversity, by Cait at Paper Fury

* I do love this quote from that same post, though:

“ 'You should only ever write what you know.'— Whenever I read advice like this I can’t help but feel like Mary Shelley had some fucking weird anatomy classes I never got at school, and that I’d like to try whatever Tolkien was having." Ha! Quite so.


Dean Mayes
Feb. 23rd, 2016 07:13 pm (UTC)
I'll tentatively put my hand up as one of *those* authors who dared to write about a minority group (in my case Aboriginal Australians) and copped a lot of flack for it - mostly by people who didn't even pick up the book. I devoted a whole year to pure research before I committed to writing the story and was plagued by self doubt the whole time but I decided that, as a writer, I have just as much right to portray a particular group of people as anyone - especially if I am being respectful to said group of people. And, as a writer, the focus should be on the story that is told rather than on the person who is telling it.

See - who brought in this rule that says one group of human beings isn't allowed to observe, interpret and document another group of human beings? I asked this very question once and no one could answer me.

And because of that, I decided that I would write - with integrity - whatever the fuck I wanted.
Feb. 23rd, 2016 07:31 pm (UTC)
I thought of Gifts of the Peramangk when I was writing this! But I refrained from naming you or it because I wasn't sure you wanted to be dragged into it. :) See, I think the book is a perfect example of a story that opened my eyes to what a lot of people have gone through, and increased my empathy, and I'm sure it did the same for lots of other readers. I'm sorry you took flak for that, though I suppose I'm not surprised. It's sensitive stuff and there's no winning. But on the whole I think it does far more good written than unwritten, no matter who the author is.

As I've told you, I also think you're an excellent example of a male author who writes female characters well (and you include a lot of women in your stories in the first place, which is more than some do). Everyone's a complex individual; that's really all it takes for any cast of characters to come across as properly alive. Glad you remember that simple rule!

And if humans aren't allowed to observe, interpret, and document other humans, the entire field of anthropology is out of a job. :) Given that was my undergrad major, that'd be a problem for my academic record...but then, I've forgotten so much from my classes by now that they should probably revoke my degree anyway.
Dean Mayes
Feb. 23rd, 2016 08:18 pm (UTC)
I was totally thinking along the lines of anthropology when I first read your post - but I couldn't remember the freaking word! (it's like, ridiculous-o'clock down here after all). Where would we be without that wonderful field of study??? I actually entertained ideas of looking into an anthropology course as a result of Gifts of the Peramangk and I'm still toying with it. But then I just want to keep writing!

Likewise with the whole me writing strong female characters penchant. I never really thought about it when I started out - that I was writing primarily women characters - until it was pointed out to me quite graciously. I find women much more interesting. I think I have been influenced by women growing up - my Mum and both my Nanas especially. And these were women who could hold their own and often did. So it just seems natural to me to be able to write women protagonists - especially when I put them in situations that challenge the orthodoxy.

Feel free to put me up as an example to all and sundry btw - I'm good for it! :)

Edited at 2016-02-23 08:19 pm (UTC)
Feb. 23rd, 2016 09:08 pm (UTC)
Not to barge in here, but one thing that doesn't get pointed out enough is how rarely such "critics" are writers themselves. Sure, they write lots of outraged blog posts, but they almost never have anything else to say but sniping at those who actually get books published. (Or music recorded, or dances performed, or comedy acts presented, or anything else actually accomplished.) It's the main reason I tend to see such ranting as coming from a place of jealousy just as much as from any misguided sense of "calling out appropriation". (By which they mean MISappropriation, but we'll let the lack of vocabulary knowledge go.)
Feb. 23rd, 2016 09:30 pm (UTC)
Oof, yeah, there is a definite culture on Goodreads especially (and probably also tumblr) of super-snarky reviews. In fact, "snarky" doesn't begin to cover it; it's very nearly vicious. And in at least a couple cases I've looked at, the reviewer's bio info says something about them being an aspiring writer. Now, I remember being young and snarky (which I regret these days), and I get how they're trying out their writing skills by seeing what kind of cleverly nasty things they can think up to criticize others with, but that is not a good foundation for a professional writing career, my young friends. I mean, you can build a name on snark, but I'm not so sure you want to. The sailing is smoother when you're known as someone pleasant to work with.
Feb. 23rd, 2016 10:09 pm (UTC)
Snark is the poor man's wit - a sad, self-indulgent attempt at seeming more intelligent than one really is. I've been trying to scrub it from my internet presence, but it's hard going when everyone seems to approve of bitchery as a form of communication. I find that, for me, a very good way to short-circuit that tendency is to remember the effect it had on me when my own mother would use it against me. She hurt me so much, so often, with her sneering as I was growing up that to this day I cannot bring myself to sing in front of her, because the look of disgust and the "Ugh!" she uttered the last time I tried (at age 12) wounded me so deeply. (I didn't even try to sing at all for five years after that comment.) The damage that snark has done to our cultural and political zeitgeist is immeasurable, in my opinion. If one is angry, then one should be honestly angry; if critical, then honestly critical; if happy, then honestly happy. This nastiness is just ugly and divisive.
Feb. 23rd, 2016 11:06 pm (UTC)
Ouch; I feel for you in internalizing your mother's remarks. One of the most frustrating parts of becoming an adult is realizing that there are lots of other adults who have never learned to be a kind, wise grown-up, and possibly never will. As you say, the snarky attitude is sort of the central career of a lot of people in entertainment, news, and politics. I'm trying to catch it early with my own kids, who I see trying it on from hearing it at school and wherever else (though I'm sure I undo half my efforts when I snap at them in tired moments). It is tough, because I approve of humor and I can see how sometimes snark is really funny, but these days I do try to look for gentler and more self-deprecating ways of being funny instead of tearing down others.