So, I had an interesting Monday. After a long weekend spent remodeling my kitchen, then a long Monday at work that was so busy I had to stay late, I was less than thrilled about receiving some disrespectful comments and messages from one of my readers and followers on IG.
This person, who had been baiting me with comments on IG for quite some time, eventually came at me and tried to tell me what to write. Now, ordinarily I would just listen to a person’s suggestions about stories to write. After all, inspiration can come from anywhere! However, this individual’s tone and attitude were incredibly disrespectful and demanding. I tried my best to be cordial, but it came to a point where the individual didn’t really want to hear what I had to say – they just wanted to make their demands, then if I didn’t concede, label me according to their biases.
This reader complained that there was “too much religion” in my upcoming novel, Every Bright and Broken Thing, and that my writing wasn’t diverse enough. Ironic, considering two of the prominent characters of EBABT are African American. As well, Sons of Slaughter and Pack Animals feature Hispanic and Native American main characters. At this point, I knew the individual wasn’t really suggesting that I include more diversity in my novels. After all, every one of my books has represented an array of social issues such as homelessness, mental health, sexual assault, and domestic violence. Honestly, as far as books go my stories are incredibly diverse. But no, what this person was really after was either my agreement to write LGBT characters or an excuse to accuse me of being homophobic. Mind you, never once did I say anything against LGBT individuals except to say that I don’t write them and don’t plan to. I suppose this was all this individual need to accuse me of homophobia?
Anyway, I’ll paste some of our conversation below for you to make your own judgment.
*Reader replies “No” to a questionnaire about who is excited for Every Bright and Broken Thing and follows up with the statement “there’s too much religion.” I took this as an opportunity to share a little bit about why I write faith into my stories on a second IG story post.
Reader replied: But even if you are religious, you should still write about characters of any race (I do), gender (I do), or sexuality. (Faith is conveniently missing from this list.) You shouldn’t let your religion get in the way of your career. Implement it, but you shouldn’t let your prejudices get in the way of writing realistic characters. (Apparently my characters are only realistic if they’re gay?)
Me: My books are actually quite diverse. J EBABT features two black central characters. SOS features a Hispanic MC and a Native American MC. PA features Hispanic MCs and Native MCs as well. Every book I write features central male AND female characters. My books also have strong representations of mental health, sexual assault, and domestic violence. As an author, I write from MY faith, MY values, MY personality and passions. While I understand the need for diversity and have worked hard to implement social and racial diversity in every story I’ve written thus far, I am not obligated to write stories that cater to every viewpoint. J I hope you can understand that. Besides, my “religion” isn’t getting in the way of anything. If anything, it propels me into something better! J If you’re looking for authors to rep the LGBT community, there’s hundreds out there doing it! But I would ask you… do you expect this same thing from them that you expect from me? Do you expect them to implement positive representation of Christianity in their books like you expect me to represent the LGBT community? If not, I think that counts as a double standard. J
Reader: What you aren’t understanding is your writing style is great and I want (Okay, buddy, here it is. This is about what you want; this isn’t about whether or not my stories are diverse.) to see at least a side character that isn’t straight. You can positively represent your community while also adding characters with any sexuality. (Except that I apparently can’t since you told me my “religion” is too much.) I’m not against religion at all, (Your words say otherwise) but it would be nice to see gay, bi, trans characters dealing with their fate and believing in god. You saying that just makes you seem homophobic. (Saying what? That my books are, indeed, diverse? That my passion is more about giving voice to Christians? That makes me homophobic.) PS, adding a smiley face to everything doesn’t make it better.
Me: Well, man. You can believe what you want. You can label me whatever you want to label me. I really don’t care. But it’s incredibly disrespectful for you to come at me and demand that I write things a certain way. To tell me what I should be doing instead of focusing on and enjoying what I /am/ doing. It’s really not your place. First and foremost, my stories are mine. I write the stories that I wanted/needed when I was younger. Christians are woefully underrepresented in mainstream fiction; the LGBT community is not. Regardless, I don’t center my life or my writing around whether or not it fits with every single people group out there. I write diverse characters because I want to; not because I’m obligated to. That’s just a ridiculous and unfair expectation that you wouldn’t place on anyone else. PS: the smiley faces are there because I’m not interested in making you feel bad, but I do have to honestly address the things you said.
Reader: *Proceeds to give me the finger via emoji.
See, this individual wasn’t really after diversity. To be honest, I’m not 100% sure what they were after other than a conversation that would confirm their suspicions of my beliefs concerning the LGBT community? Maybe he was looking for an excuse to label me a homophobe? Despite the fact that I said nothing against the LGBT community except that I do not plan to write LGBT characters. I even pointed out there’s hundreds of mainstream, popular authors that are offering exactly what he’s looking for.
I spent most of the conversation trying to point out the fact that my books are my own. I didn’t realize until today how fiercely protective I can be over my stories. I always subconsciously believed that once they were published, they belonged to the reader. On the contrary, I realized more deeply that these stories still belong to me. They are, first and foremost, my stories that I desire to share with people. My voice. I don’t demand that people listen, but am grateful if they do.
I discovered that as an author with a growing platform, I sometimes have to establish my territory, to create some boundaries between myself and the average reader – not because I don’t love, value, and appreciate my readers and what they have to say, but because ultimately I have to take ownership for my stories. I have to protect their integrity and not let the demands or unrealistic expectations of others cause me to conform my story to their perceptions. It’s a challenge. I’m writing for a difficult market – both Christian and secular. It’s not an easy feat and these last couple of days have given me my first taste of that reality. But I believe in my stories, I believe in what I represent, Who I represent. And I absolutely can’t let people disrespect that. (I’m thankful that this is only one instance in my growing career, but expect there shall be more. Let it be known that about half of my readers aren’t Christians and yet many of them have been moved by my novels; for that, I am so, so grateful!)
I learned that it’s okay to have that mentality. That protectiveness. Authors, you don’t have to cower from the unfair things your readers throw at you. You can defend your voice, your platform, and your story. It’s okay! You have that freedom and that right! I have an author friend who received a ton of 1-star reviews on her novel (a beautiful story) simply because on a Twitter thread, she was advocating for platonic friendships that don’t end in bisexual romance; people started labelling her homophobic and decided to rally against her on Goodreads. It was really quite pathetic. It made me angry to see a beautiful soul and a beautiful work of art belittled and torn down because of unfair internet expectations. Those are the kinds of things that we authors get to defend ourselves and our works from! J.K. Rowling has defended many aspects of Harry Potter fiercely. John Green has defended many aspects of his own novels fiercely. These big-name authors took ownership of their stories and protected their integrity. So can I! So can you!
Remember this: you write for you. First and foremost, your stories and books belong to you. You don’t have to sell yourself to your readers. You don’t have to buy into what they demand. You don’t have to cater to every market. You don’t have to try and have a corner on every trend. Write for you. You are not obligated to meet every reader’s needs. Your first obligation is to yourself.
Readers are amazing creatures. We all love our readers. We’re all so thankful for their support. But for every supportive reader, there is an equally passionate bully who may try to influence you or manipulate you into writing stories that aren’t yours to write. While there are many mainstream authors who cater to every whim of their readers, the problem with this is that your writing then loses its authenticity. Readers and authors alike can tell when what’s been written lacks depth or authenticity because the story was manufactured, not cultivated.
Readers, we authors have entrusted our stories to you with the understanding that some will enjoy them and others won’t. This is a terrifying level of vulnerability and transparency that we willingly and gladly endure. We’ve opened ourselves up to you. Shown you our hearts; the things that make us tick, the things that wound us, the things that move us. This is a gift. We are not obligated to tell these stories. You are not entitled to read them. Still, we give them.
With the rise of the #OwnVoices movement, too, we live in a culture of fiction that seems to celebrate diverse voices. More than any time in history, African American authors are writing stories that reflect struggles and cultures that are unique to them. Other cultures are doing the same. Asian, Native American, Muslim, LGBT, Catholic, Mormon, Hispanic, Hindu, Buddhist. We live in a culture unlike any previous culture where everyone is lending their voice to the conversation – and everyone else is listening. But not always. That’s what I discovered these last couple days. Sometimes, we can be such passionate advocates for diversity that we try to drown out other diverse voices and views. Beware, dear author, of the increasing sense of entitlement that the Bully Reader carries; thinking that #OwnVoices books must sound a certain way, talk about certain things, and toe the line of what is considered socially acceptable. In fact, this upends the entire mission of #OwnVoices by silencing authors whose stories and voices are unconventional and, at times, offensive, harsh, or abrasive to some. #OwnVoices advocates have to listen, consider, and seek to understand every individual and viewpoint; if they don’t, then they themselves cease to be proponents of diversity.
But the thing is, you write for you. First and foremost. Don’t let anyone silence your voice. It’s a hard road, I know. People will knock stars off your books because they’re angry with you for saying things they don’t like or agree with. It’s a tragedy, because they’re missing out on stories that haven’t been told before. Either way, keep writing. Keep giving voice to your stories; no matter whose feathers they ruffle.
Because, first and foremost, your story belongs to you and no one else.
Here’s an interesting article about the origins of the #OwnVoices movement as well as its already potentially toxic influence in the writing/publishing industry.