In the last few years, calls for diversity in both writing and publishing have gained more and more attention. We still have a long way to go in terms of representation, but I find the current dialog encouraging. Something I’ve seen on the rise recently (or at least getting more widespread attention recently) is readers discussing books with representation they find problematic. A disappointing, though not surprising, result of this is backlash against the readers who call out problematic books.
There have been so many cases recently. A reader points out a harmful depiction of a character’s race, gender identity, mental illness, etc. The author responds with public claims that they’re being attacked. Friends of the author gang up on the reader and cry bully, sometimes without even seeing the original review or statement that “attacked” the author.
I applaud authors who try to write diverse characters respectfully. Those who do their research, who learn about the cultures and experiences they’re trying to represent, who work with readers who share their characters’ identities, are doing some great work. And even they get it wrong sometimes.
I am a cisgendered heterosexual white woman from a middle-class background, and not all of my characters are cis hetero white women. I do a lot of research, and I do my best to listen to members of the communities my characters belong to. And I know I won’t get everything right. First of all, there’s no universal Black/Latinx/trans/Deaf/etc. experience, so different readers from those communities may respond differently to my characters. But, as a writer, I’m writing for my readers. Especially my Black/Latinx/trans/Deaf/etc. readers.
So if I write something that hurts those readers, I want to know. I want to know as soon as possible, because I don’t ever want to do it again. And if you call me out in private, I’ll publicly share what you found harmful or problematic, so other writers can learn from my mistakes, and so readers can hear me say, “I got this wrong, I’m sorry, and I’ll do my best to do better.”
Authors, we need to be more open to criticism, especially when it comes to matters of representation. Good intentions are great, but if I step on your foot, whether I intended to do so or not, your foot still hurts. If I’m a decent human being, I won’t gather my friends and demand you stop crying and suck it up because I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’ll apologize and be more careful of where I step in the future.
Good representation can save lives. And bad representation can really, really harm our teens. Here’s just one story, but there are many, many others. Follow awesome people like L.L. McKinney, Justina Ireland, and Debbie Reese and you’ll see what I mean. Listen. Learn.
And if you’re called out, don’t attack the reader who’s trying to save other readers from getting hurt. Apologize, and do better next time.
Readers, if I step on your foot, please tell me.