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”.
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.
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.