Discussion: who are authors writing for?

discussion

Today I want to talk about something that’s more or less always present in the background of any discussion we have in the book community.

Have you ever read a book and got the feeling “wow, this book was written for me”? I’m not talking about the genre of the book, or how the humor resonates with you, or even whether the book was written for you specifically, but more about books that feel like they’re written for a community.

This comes in many forms, and of course representation of marginalized identities is a huge part of it. The feeling I get when I read a queer book that is written in such a way that tells me the author had me and my community in their heart while writing it is something that I can’t properly describe in words, but it feels like a warm hug directly to my heart.

However, I want to be a little more specific in this post and focus on something I’ve noticed in a few books I’ve read that were, supposedly, marketed as being for certain groups of people.

I think there is a trend of books being targeted to marginalized identities that are stuck in old traditions that do nothing but harm those identities.

I genuinely believe that most of these authors are good writers that fail to see how they can break from traditions set by male white cishet authors, and in the process of writing fiction centering characters that before would have been absent or relegated to the sidelines of a book (which is great!), end up hurting the real-life people who specifically sought out that book because they knew they would be represented by it (which is…less great).

Other times, the things that are hurtful in a book are actually the result of clumsy if not downright bad writing, of writers of various degrees of experience that don’t know how to introduce conflict or tension into their plot without resolving to using those tired and hurtful tropes.

And sometimes it’s clear from the premise of the book or from their tweets that the author doesn’t care about who they’re writing for, so they end up writing messy and awful books (*COUGHS* like cis authors writing books about trans girls while misgendering them from the title and centering the narrative about a cis character who’s oh so confused by her transness *COUGHS*).

While I don’t think it’s my job to teach writers how to write, I feel it as my responsibility as a blogger and as a marginalized person who’s been hurt multiple times while reading to bring this to attention and ask myself why the first two categories of writers that I mentioned (I’m going to ignore the last one because I am a pessimist and 100% think those authors are hopeless) end up hurting their readers.

I won’t mention specific books but I will talk about real examples of books I’ve read that have hurt me, sometimes more and sometimes not enough to completely hate the book, but enough to make me still think about this aspect months later.

Curiously (but maybe not), all the books I’m going to talk about are f/f, and I think it’s not by chance that I ended up being hurt more by them. The f/f premise made me feel like I could be safe reading them and the reality of them hit me more because I had no way of bracing myself for it. 

So there was a book I ended up loving because the f/f relationship was so good and it had a lot of tropes that made it such a me book, and yet the only source of external conflict was a deeply homophobic character, which hurt more because the character was a young woman, that went out of her way to insult and hurt one of the MCs of the book, using the stereotype that queer women are predators. This served no actual purpose to the romance or the plot itself. It could have been absent or toned down a notch, and it would have stayed “realistic” but it wouldn’t have felt like literally being assaulted in my deepest fears as a queer woman myself.

(TW mention of rape)
Then there was the historical f/f romance book that started out among pirates, where one of the MCs is a woman disguised as a male pirate and the other one is a woman kidnapped by the crew of said pirates. And the constant threat of rape that she had to go through, as if her situation wasn’t bad enough since she was being held for ransom. And when I say constant threat, I’m talking about the fact that every interaction that the female pirate has with her crew mates for the first 10% of the book are graphic comments about how they (the men of the crew) want to rape the second woman, and wouldn’t she (who they assume is a he) do that too? It was so much and it was so clear that the author didn’t know how else to introduce conflict and to make us feel for the main character that I DNF’d the book with no remorse. (That’s actually the book that led me to write this whole post.)

Before that, there was also the book about and for (if you listened to what the author said) bisexual fat women, which had such disgusting biphobia (by a lesbian character!!!) and fatphobia on literally every page that my blood pressure spikes up every time I think about it. I think it’s the only book in existence that if I had a physical copy in my hands at any point in my life I think I would set it on fire and actually feel good about it, so I feel like that says a lot.

I’m pretty sure you can imagine which of these examples I believe are truly awful writing and which I believe are the authors having a hard time removing themselves from what’s considered “tradition”.

Tradition is: the queer character must be the victim of homophobia at some point in the novel. Tradition is: women in a book are under the constant threat of male violence. Tradition is: a lesbian character must make comments on not wanting to date bisexual women because of their sexual history.

I’m fucking tired of these traditions.

I think a lot of people will argue that because these things (biphobia, fatphobia, violence against women, etc) are realistic, they must be there.

I think this is a bullshit equivalence, and I think it’s time we differentiate between these things being in books purely for shock factor and these things being in books because we can’t always hide our heads in the sand and we actually need books that talk about them critically.

We have to have books that talk about and analyze, for example, rape culture and misogyny, like The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed does (and it does it so well). We also need books where a main character has lived through something awful like rape and sexual assault and is dealing with the aftermath, or books that deal with and challenge the casual or more prominent homophobia that queer people face.

But do we really need books where you can’t go one chapter without the constant reminder of your pain and trauma as a marginalized person? I’m speaking as a cis, white, able-bodied queer woman and I’ve mentioned stuff that’s hurt me personally, but I know I can’t even begin to imagine that kind of microaggressions readers of color, aro or ace, trans readers, disabled or mentally ill readers go through.

Is the hurt you’re putting your characters through eventually going to help a similarly marginalized reader, or is it just going to serve as a reminder that some people don’t see them as, well, people?

And because I know people will ask, I do think that if we’re not careful we might end up overpolicing writers and wrongly canceling a category of books whose writers want to or have to talk about difficult topics. What I might see as something written only for shock value might actually be the only way a writer has to work through their own trauma, and it’s a book that might help a reader with the same or a similar experience.

As long as a book comes with the appropriate trigger warnings (and that’s enough material for a whole other discussion, because so few authors and publishers actually put trigger warnings in their books, and usually early reviewers end up having to do all the work, putting themselves at risk of being triggered), I think a good writer can use almost any topic if it’s done in a thoughtful and critical manner.

But even trigger warnings don’t cover the fact that some books act like sponges for all the genuinely harmful tropes that white male writers have always used in the novel genre, especially in fantasy and historical fiction, regardless of the fact that s these books are being written in the 21st century and their authors are often part of the groups that are being mistreated in the books themselves. We have internalized these tropes so deeply that we can’t think of a world where we don’t write them on page, hurting ourselves and others.

The thing is, making your books more accessible doesn’t mean restricting their target group to only the identities you’ve decided not to hurt. It just opens them up to them.

A perfect and recent example of this is The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon. As I read it, this thought kept surfacing in my head: “This is a book written for women.” But that’s not accurate and I would never advertise it as such in a review without the following addition: it’s a book for every gender, it’s just that if you’re a woman or perceived by society as a woman you won’t have to brace yourself for the onslaught of violence that you are probably used to seeing in epic fantasy. And frankly, if you’re a man you will probably definitely benefit from seeing that a different kind of fiction is possible and that the only thing it takes away from you is toxic masculinity.

I know we already ask a lot of marginalized authors. I know they have to work twice or ten times as hard. But I hope they realize that they have the power to completely break free of these traditions, that not all marginalized characters need to carry the weight of centuries of hurt against them, that they can and should think twice about adding a homophobic or a racist or a misogynistic throwaway comment that has no need to be there when the only effect it will have is to upset a good portion of their readers.

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This post has been at work for more than two months, meaning that I wrote it and then let it sit for, well, several weeks, then scheduled it during pride month but because I didn’t want to share anything too negative during that joyous month, I decided to postpone it until July.

I’d love to hear what everyone thinks about this topic. I particularly want you to share your experiences with books that got it right, that didn’t make you flinch, where your initial reaction was to brace yourself for bad stuff that, fortunately, never happened. 

12 thoughts on “Discussion: who are authors writing for?

  1. Sono il tipo di lettrice che perlopiù legge libri come “conforto”, e ho una serie di generi che consumo come junk food nei giorni che vorrei passare in pigiama. Ecco, spesso e volentieri l’omofobia o la bifobia a ciel sereno in romanzi che vorrei usare come conforto mi urtano. Perché è vero che sono cose che esistono, ma ci sono momenti in cui voglio leggere di un frammento di mondo in cui ciò non è costantemente dietro l’angolo. Se nella premessa si evince che quella che sto per leggere è una storia leggera e briosa, voglio quello (e sembrerà stupido, ma è quello che poi mi porta a leggere le classiche fanfiction anglofone lunghe più di 50k,delle AU che francamente fanno invidia a certi romanzi LGBT… Spesso “accusano” i fanwriter di rendere i personaggi tutti gay, di esagerare, eppure guardacaso è nelle fanfiction che si trova più innovazione e più voglia di lasciarsi certi stereotipi narrativi alle spalle).
    Quando ho voglia di leggere di qualcosa di più realistico, me lo vado a cercare, perché sì, c’è bisogno di entrambe le cose: leggerezza e riflessione.
    In realtà poi non si tratta solo di questo: a volte, con tutto questo insistere con il mettere dramma e angst in storie LGBT, mi sembra quasi che si tramandi il messaggio “se sei queer sarai sempre destinato a essere triste e ad avere difficoltà, se non sei traumatizzato sei l’eccezione che conferma la regola”, che anche NO. Esistono tanti tipi di realtà, tanti tipi di storie personali, perché siamo tutti diversi, e catalogare tutto con l’etichetta “queer=persona con la vita piena di sfighe” vuol dire scrivere in maniera piatta.

    E per quanto riguarda la rape culture… sinceramente io droppo un romanzo già alla prima battuta sullo stupro/sullo stuprare una donna, se poi viene usato come plot device per me è ancora peggio, è una cosa che si commenta da sola.

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    • concordo assolutamente su tutto, c’è ancora bisogno di libri che trattano di argomenti pesanti ma sicuramente se la premessa è ” storia romantica con due donne che si conoscono e si mettono insieme”, non credo che nessuno voglia vederci dell’omofobia gratuita, perché quello sarà sempre e solo un tipo di libro fatto per escapismo. hai ragione anche a dire che le fanfiction in questo sono avanti, secondo me chi scrive fanfiction si sente liber* da quel senso di dover in qualche modo avere dei ganci con la realtà, cosa che invece gli scrittori “””””veri””””” fanno più fatica a scrollarsi di dosso.
      mandare il messaggio che si può essere queer e non portarsi sulle spalle i peso di tutta l’omofobia passata e presente è forse la cosa più importante che possiamo fare con la letteratura queer contemporanea, sono contenta di vedere che molti autori lo stanno capendo e applicando nei loro libri.

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  2. I really like books where presumably straight characters slide into a queer relationship without realizing it. Red White and Royal Blue did it, but I prefer If We Were Villians by ML Rio. It’s not a happy book, but it’s not homophobic.

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  3. You already know what I think of this because we talked about it, but since then, this is something I’ve started paying attention to more – I kept expecting both The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics and A Little Light Mischief to go dark in the wrong (…homophobic) way, and I’m so glad they never tried to portray that kind of “realism”. It’s always great when the author knows who their audience is or what they want from their book. Or, to make another example: the male gaze is even easier to notice in comics and graphic novels (unrealistic anatomy and positions that objectify women’s bodies), and the way Monstress manages to portray attractive women without ever falling into it? Perfection, and that’s why I say that it feels like it was written for queer women.
    Anyway, thank you for this post! This wasn’t an angle I was fully considering before, even though I felt the impact of it, and now a lot of my feelings about certain books I didn’t like (“this feels written by a man”, I often said, but maybe it’s more right to say that “this feels written for men”, since men can and do write realistic female characters when they put some effort into it) make more sense.

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    • thank you for commenting and thank you again for reading this post in its early stages (i know that was a while ago but i get so anxious about posting discussions i kept postponing!) ♥ you’re right, I didn’t mention guide to celestial mechanics in this post because i hadn’t read it at the time of writing this yet, but it’s absolutely true. there’s something about being able to stop anticipating bad stuff that’s so liberating and makes me want to recommend the book to everyone.
      i haven’t read monstress yet (it’s on my kindle, i don’t know why i haven’t started it yet) but i can already see what you mean! i mostly read webcomics or queer comics that are usually mostly written by women or nonbinary people and i feel like i haven’t seen extreme sexualization (i can think of only one such comic that did it) and honestly i have no interest in cis straight comics by cis straight men, especially if they involve women in any capacity, because i know they’ll end up There and nobody wants it (certainly not me at least).
      i’m starting to see so many books i didn’t enjoy in the past through this lens and it’s truly eye opening. One example: Red Rising, i only read the first book and i thought it was well done but couldn’t put a finger to why it just didn’t feel like it was for me: now i know, it’s written for white cis straight men.

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  4. This is such a great post!!!!!!! It’s so messed up that for the longest time, I never even NOTICED these harmful tropes, because that was just the way it has always been. Like, how fucked is that?!? Honestly, it wasn’t until I read the Captive Prince series where being attracted to the same sex was normal and not looked down upon that I actually noticed what I had been missing. I get that this comes across as ignorant, but it made me realise that these “traditions” are messed up and have made me complacent. Take for instance female characters with the threat of sexual assault. I have seen it too much in movies/shows/books, that now I almost anticipate it happening (not in a good way, but in a scared way).
    And speaking of reading books and knowing who they were written for, I feel like that with Red Rising. I love this series (I know you aren’t fond of it, so sorry for bringing it up) but I think you’ll agree with me when I say that 100% those books were written for straight white cis men. Even though the female characters in the series are seen to be smart and brave, the only use they really serve is to prop up the male characters.
    Anyways, I am rambling and I have probably gone off on a tangent from what you are talking about, but I completely agree with what you are saying. Thank you for this post xx

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    • don’t worry Steffy, you don’t come across as ignorant at all!! i think we’ve all been there at some point, and that’s the thing: these traditions are so ingrained in our society and in our entertainment that it’s so eye-opening and frustrating to see what’ been there all along and we failed to see. it’s the reason why i feel so uncomfortable trying to recommend something i’ve enjoyed three or four years ago, because i know that i will see those things through a different filter now.
      i’m so glad you brought up red rising!! i’ve only read the first book but at the time (i think it was four years ago?) i really didn’t understand why i could *see* that it was good, in a way, but also *not for me*, and that’s just like you said: it’s written for the white, cis, straight men. that doesn’t mean others can’t enjoy it (and i’m honestly so happy that you love it!), it just means we see these things that make us feel alienated and we know there’s other options, other ways to make fiction.
      thank you so much for commenting, lovely ♥

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    • you’re talking about the pirate one, right? that’s the feeling i got from just reading about 10%, but i had some hope that it might improve later, but seeing your comment, i guess not :/ it’s so disappointing and sad to see this stuff constantly present in books.

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