The #OwnVoices Conundrum

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From Publishers Weekly:

I was straight for part of my life. Most gay people were, at least when I was growing up. I kissed some boys and worried about finding a date to prom, all the while falling headlong for my friends who were girls. I thought everyone felt this way—at least until one of my crushes broke my heart so thoroughly that I had to reconsider my assumptions.

Then I read Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, and the scales fell from my eyes. Simply put, since I had never been exposed to an alternative, I had reversed the definitions of like and love in my mind. It was 1992 when I figured that out; I was 17, and I flipped through the card catalog at my local library in suburban Chicago, desperate to find books about me so I could wrap my brain around this change in circumstances and maybe figure out how to envision my own future.

In case you were wondering, the pickings at the Libertyville Public Library were slim.

Since then, there’s been a fairly miraculous change in the world around me—first in representation of the LGBT+ community on film and in print and then in authentic stories finding greater purchase in publishing through the #OwnVoices movement. What I love about #OwnVoices is that people are starting to catch up (admittedly, not without some backsliding) with the very true idea that minority stories of all different types are relevant to everyone. At their foundation, stories transport, educate, and cradle us. Storytelling has always been a critical part of being human, and diverse storytelling is a critical part of crafting a global society that works for everyone, not just a privileged few.

I believe there’s been wide benefit from the #OwnVoices movement—both for writers finding outlets for their work as well as for readers who now have a much richer selection of stories available to them. I find it interesting, then, that the We Need Diverse Books organization has decided to stop using the #OwnVoices term. In a recent blog post, WNDB says it sees #OwnVoices as having become a “ ‘catch all’ marketing term” and is moving to particularize (and personalize) authors more in its descriptions. Bitch Media also ran an extensive article about the problems with this approach to promoting diversity and authentic storytelling.

But have we, in our push for progress, fallen into an unexpected trap?

I’ve been resistant to categorization my entire life (which, believe me, has not been easy for my parents). I splash around in the deep end of gray areas and kind of love that I’ve left a long trail of confounded people in my wake. I’ve had a career in technology for a quarter century, very often as the only woman on my team. I wear men’s clothes, do most of the cooking in my house, have a well-used sewing machine that’s almost as old as I am, and, okay, I get man crushes sometimes. So, as much as I’ve appreciated (and benefited from) the #OwnVoices label, labels in general make me suspicious.

The beauty of fiction is that it has always gone beyond the lived experience of the author: that’s what research is for, what networks are for, and how sensitivity readers can help. I write literature that explores love, family, and friendship, and I’m committed to writing authentic characters with universal experiences. After a lifetime of living in a world that either wasn’t quite sure what to do with me or was downright hostile, I don’t want to be boxed in with my art. I also don’t want a stupid hashtag to provide cover for inauthentic, substandard writing acquired to fill quotas or facilitate marketing and sales.

I want diversity in storytelling to be celebrated and promoted no matter who is writing, which requires much more than a hashtag; it requires diversity within the ranks of people in power—the gatekeepers, the tastemakers. It requires us all to try hard to put ourselves into other people’s shoes and challenge ourselves to deeply understand and empathize with a variety of experiences. Frankly, it requires more (and more delicate and thoughtful) work than I suspect most people want to put in.

Publishing is a business, and business thrives on formula, efficiency, and succinct and compelling marketing. But publishing is also a conduit for art, which means that everyone in it, writers included, needs to be held to a higher, more exacting standard. There are important stories to tell—stories that can bring us together and illuminate dark corners.

Maybe #OwnVoices isn’t the best solution to this, but bringing diversity and authentic voices to a broader audience has never been an easy problem to solve, and I’ve learned to take what I can get without stopping my push for something better.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

3 thoughts on “The #OwnVoices Conundrum”

  1. Huh, they aren’t saying yet, but tbe idea is starting to filter through that maybe, just maybe, pigeon holeing everything is actually self-segregation. It’s just as bad if you do it to yourself as if it is forced upon you.
    If everybody only reads/listens/views content from their “own voices” they’ll be just as isolated from tbe mainstream as if the majority locked them out.
    It might be a tad too late, though.

  2. The biggest problem with extreme forms of “lived authenticity” is that it can become a denial of empathy… and fiction without empathy is just an “alternative facts” news broadcast (one of those ones effectively satirized in 70s film and TV through putting a colonel’s uniform on the anchor/host). It’s also extremely antiintellectual, because the extreme forms essentially deny the value of research and assimilation.

    This isn’t to say that nobody should criticize works of fiction (let alone nonfiction) for shoddy research and/or obliviousness in any form. To choose one example that sticks in my craw, “military fiction” written by imposing a private’s/corporal’s perspective on the burdens and thought processes of a battalion-or-above commanding officer is more than just annoying. Until you’ve gotten that 0-dark-thirty phone call, thrown on your dress uniform, met up with the chaplain or social-services representative, and knocked on that door… you don’t know. And that’s one of the easier ones to explain; if you want a window that’s only a window but clearly demonstrates the value of “doing your research,” try the less-famous of John Keegan’s essential duology, The Mask of Command.

    And then there’s the problem of where one determines the limits of authenticity. Is it enough to be X and Y when writing a close-perspective portrait of a character who is WXYZ? I can name at least three “withdrawn” novels that ran into serious backlash from that problem… since the end of 2019.

    Informed empathy is the key for the writer… because that is, after all, what the writer is trying to invoke in the reader.

    Now whether some sort of #OwnVoices corollary should be imposed on publishers is for another time, and another (perhaps even more vitriolic) diatribe.

    • Agreed all the way.
      “This isn’t to say that nobody should criticize works of fiction (let alone nonfiction) for shoddy research and/or obliviousness in any form. ”

      The way “diversity” is being promoted no amount of research is acepatable if the author doesn’t belong to a sanctioned tribe. (But only one way.) If the author does, research becomes optional and most times is ignored when presenting other cultures. The result is output only readable by their own tribe and above reproach by those that know better. Name calling results of any attempt to point out deviation from reality.

      This has long been a failing in Hollywood. As you point out, military stories are a common culprit. But the business world is also poorly presented and let’s not forget tbe post-cold war pivot to generic “eurotrash” villains. These days the range of acceptable villains/unacceptable sympathetic characters has expanded to include the religious and pretty much everybody not paroting the official party line. (Either party.)

      (A generation ago, TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL lasted seven years. These days it wouldn’t last seven days.)

      Nuance and facts be darned.

      The mantra of “demography is destiny” is being totally misunderstood, leading to strategic overreach. Again.

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