Here are a few things I believe:
1) Representation in art matters. It’s important to see people in books who look like you. It’s important to see people in books who are nothing like you. It’s important to see people in books who are superficially like you but different on the inside. It’s important to see people in books who are different from you externally whose emotional journeys are like yours. And everything in between.
2) But diversity of representation isn’t enough: the quality of the representation matters. Throwing one woman into a superhero ensemble—especially if she doesn’t have a rich inner life, complex motivations, and so on—doesn’t actually solve the problem. And the arbiters of the representation have to be the people within the community.
3) Certain voices have historically had an easier time making themselves heard. In a Western context, straight male white middle- and upper-class voices dominate the conversation. Even today, publishing largely magnifies those same voices, probably because many editors, agents, and publishers fit into that demographic. Even in romancelandia where women play most of the roles, the white straight middle-class voices tend to be the loudest ones.
4) This doesn’t mean you can’t write an experience that isn’t yours, but it means you have to do it carefully. Start by listening. Read lots and lots of #ownvoices books first. And if you face criticism, don’t get defensive. Apologize and fix it.
5) Writers shouldn’t respond to reviews both because of the power imbalance between reviewers and writers (the latter having more power) and because when you make a book commercially available, accept that reviewers have a right to respond to it however and wherever they want to. The review isn’t for the author; it’s for other readers.
6) Criticism is good and healthy. Debate within a community is a sign of growth.
Into this comes Star Crossed, a book I wrote with my friend Genevieve Turner about two women (one of them African-American) falling in love at a fictional version of NASA in 1964.
Because of warrants 1 – 3, we tried to do 4, including reading #ownvoices fiction and non-fiction; there’s a partial list of what we read in the authors’ note (I’m happy to supply it over email), but we aren’t ultimately the ones who are harmed if the representation in the book is destructive. Our feelings and intentions aren’t important. What the book does or doesn’t do is.
In the twenty-four hours since we published Star Crossed, Genevieve and I have become concerned that we didn’t write Bev’s identity as an African-American woman with as much care and nuance as we should have. We used marginalization to build a bridge between she and Geri without fully addressing the differences in their experiences, thus enacting exactly what Karen Sanchez-Eppler describes in Touching Liberty in terms of using marginalize to constitute identity* and this fault is entirely our own. For that reason, we’ve pulled Star Crossed.
The most important thing we want to say is we’re sorry. Bev’s characterization fell short of our goals and she struck some readers as not three dimensional and realistic. That’s unacceptable. I want to stress that this isn’t in response to one review; it’s a general concern reflected in many places with which we agree.
We believe in the concept of the book, but if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. We’re working on revising Star Crossed, and we’ll let you know if/when we republish it.
Note: I’ve turned off the comments on this post, but I’m open to continuing this conversation over email with anyone interested.
* Karen Sanchez-Eppler’s Touching Liberty is about nineteenth-century women activists (largely white and middle class) and how they used the political plight of various marginalized groups in order to form theories about their (the white women’s) political identity.
In other words, for a bunch of reasons it was too difficult to begin the conversation about their own disenfranchisement, so they talked about the forced removal of Cherokees from the southeast or the subjugation of enslaved peoples. But their political concerns were limited and controlling and colonial, and when the white women didn’t get their way, they lashed out at their erstwhile allies (see Elizabeth Cady Stanton on Frederick Douglass after the Fifteenth Amendment as just one example). So Sanchez-Eppler is writing about how the roots of white women’s political consciousness in the United States have always been white feminism.