I’ve been thinking about this recently, especially in relation to an argument I’m having on Facebook (I should’ve known engaging with people on social media was bad…oh well).
When we talk about inequalities in the publishing industry, it’s often extremely difficult to talk about overt discrimination because the publishing industry is so opaque. Agents and editors often won’t give a reason for rejecting a query other than they “just didn’t feel strongly about it” or “couldn’t connect with it.”
But the problem with saying you “couldn’t connect” or “don’t feel strongly” is that identity politics inherently get buried in there. An abled white person may very well say they “couldn’t connect” with a book about a disabled person of color, no matter how well it’s written.
Identity, and the nuances of lived experience, always affect what you write. That’s why, for example, a white person writing about an Asian character will often write a different portrayal from an Asian person writing about an Asian character. Or why a gay man writing about a gay character is different from a woman writing about a gay character. Etc. And to clarify, this is not meant as an argument for why “writers shouldn’t write outside of their own experiences.” Rather, I’ve been thinking about this topic and wondering whether this is why non-marginalized authors writing about marginalized characters seem more likely to get published than marginalized writers writing about their own identity (with maybe the exception of memoirs or “issue fiction”).
Just to take a personal example:
The way I approach writing mental illness in fiction, as someone who has struggled with depression and as someone who spends a hell of a lot of time thinking about portrayals of mental illness in fiction, is vastly different from how a neurotypical author would do it. And it did cause some conflicts with a publisher (not the one who eventually accepted the manuscript). Over and over again, I see books that feature either “true love cures mental illness” or “if you’re mentally ill, you’ll know when you meet your One True Love because they’ll automatically understand and accept every part of your illness, despite having no psychiatric knowledge or prior personal experience whatsoever.” Those were two tropes that I deliberately went out of my way to avoid—because I thought they were harmful, especially considering my own lived experiences—and I lost a publication opportunity because of it. While that publisher has, in fact, published plenty of romance novels that feature a more stereotypical approach to love and mental illness.
Another anecdote: My story featuring an Asian American love interest—considering the number of Asian American love interests in the queer fiction scene is vanishingly small (and I do keep track)—was rejected by a publisher. I’m an Asian author, as is obvious from my name in the query; I can’t hide it. My story was not about that character being Asian American at all; it comes up subtly, as backstory for the character that’s only explicitly verbalized near the end, yet all of my Asian American critique partners picked up on it. So anyway, I was rejected. (That publisher also asked me to remove a part of the story that included the discussion of the Asian American character’s cultural background.) About a week after that rejection, I saw that the same publisher was releasing a book, written by a white author, with an Asian American love interest that featured all of the clichés—oppressive and conservative parents, “children should be seen and not heard,” parents kick child out because of Shame to the Family Honor(TM), etc.
I know this was obviously not a message directed at me, but boy, did it feel like a slap in the face.
And it made me think about how people from the majority group develop certain stereotypical, inauthentic expectations for what constitutes an “authentic” story about a minority group, and then they perpetuate those stereotypes through what they read, promote, and publish. (Let’s not even get into all of the issues around autism representation, which is enough for a thesis all on its own…)
I guess I don’t have any conclusion other than, it’s not fair. And I suppose it’s why the #ownvoices concept became so important (even though there are things about #ownvoices that I’m ambivalent about).