Tuesday, 15 May 2012


Some authors I admire (for example, Kristin Cashore, here) have recently talked about mistakes they've made in their work, and have examined how that makes them feel going forward with their storytelling. I've done a lot of talking about this - the idea that we can't overcome prejudice unless we're willing to admit fault - and I'm encouraged to see other writers discussing it too.

But as I was reading Kristin's article, which is basically about having done something wrong and then being called on it, a thought struck me. There's a flipside to this issue, and I've never really seen it addressed. I thought I'd talk about it here, for the benefit of aspiring and newly published and (maybe) slightly longer-term published writers who have faced or will face it in their careers.  

What do you do when you've done something (or everything) RIGHT...and no one cares?

With Shadows on the Moon coming out in the U.S. in April, and with all the ongoing discussions about race, sexuality and portrayals of disability that have been going on in the YA community, I've been asked many questions about my decision to embrace diversity as much as I can. One question that comes up again and again is: How do you cope with worries about getting it wrong? Aren't you scared?

Of course I give them my heartfelt answer about stepping out of the Good Person Bubble. I tell them that in my experience, mentally admitting that you can and will get things wrong really does lift a weight from your shoulders, and makes you feel incredibly free on both a creative and personal level.

But for many authors there's an awareness that can sit on your shoulders with a weight nearly equal to that Good Person Bubble. This is the knowledge that you will agonise over your portrayals of diverse characters, of people who have disabilities, mental illnesses, or who are not cis-gendered or straight, and take what feels like enormous risks in order to be truthful and real, and after all your work and your care and your joyful realisation that you got it as right as anyone could...

No one will notice.

The vast majority of people simply will not care.

We've had so much fuss over the colour of Rue and Cinna and Finnick's skins in the adaptions of The Hunger Games books. On one side of the thing you have heaps of praise for Suzanne Collins for including side characters who aren't white, and on the other, people panicking at the mere idea that a character they like might not have pale skin and Caucasian characteristics (like them, presumably) in the movie. But the general reaction to both the books and the films was one of surprise and trepidation, as if no one could quite figure out how to handle books where significant characters might be of any other race than white. As if The Hunger Games Trilogy was somehow groundbreaking in that respect.

It's really not.

There are books out there with truly diverse main characters. Books that give lead roles to people of colour, and people of diverse sexualities and gender presentations, and where characters with disabilities are allowed to not only exist but be heroes. And yet, in the ongoing discussions about race and diversity in YA, those books - the books that apparently answer everyone involved's prayers! - won't be mentioned. Because barely anyone's heard of them.

I feel honestly baffled by this. Everyone and their eccentric uncle Phineas is crying out for diverse books, begging for them, weeping over the lack of them...but if you provide one, it will skate under the radar and the crying, begging and weeping will continue unabated.

I can think of a few authors who write truly diverse books who enjoy brilliant sales - but in every case those writers had to build up their careers over decades and decades, moving agonisingly slowly from newbie to small-time midlist to respectable midlist to a top-selling to bestselling author. Some of those authors, if you look at their publication credits, have massive gaps in their careers during which they gave up and did something else for a while because the lack of response to their work either made their publishers drop them, or discouraged them so much they lost the will to keep on writing. I wonder how many others there have been who started out with the best of intentions and gave up two or three or four books in, feeling that, no matter how many concerned articles were written about the need for diverse YA, there was simply no real market for it.

At a certain point, as a writer who has dedicated so much passion and care to creating books that leave you with a satisfied conscience, you might find yourself looking at your royalty statement, and then looking at the Children's New York Times Bestseller's list and counting up the books with all-white, all-straight, all-able-bodied and all-neurotypical casts - or worse, casts where any characters who don't conform to this are confined to stereotypical side characters - and you will probably feel despair.

I'm not overstating there. It is despair: cold, creeping, whispering and wailing at the corners of your awareness. You will ask yourself, 'If I had written a book like that, a so-called 'normal' book, a book that conformed...would I be a bestseller now? Would I be able to afford a pension, and a mortgage on a nice house? Would I have fans all over the world and a movie deal? In writing diverse books...did I make a huge mistake?'

I know this is likely to happen, because it happened to me. Sometimes, when I see the hype machine grinding away for one of those Hot, Hot, Hot New Novels, or read about a huge deal for a debut novellist, or see a book come out and immediately hit that bestseller list like a canonball and then sit there at the top for weeks - and I can see that yet again any concerns about diversity have been brushed aside in order to create an apparently oh-so-appealing vision of reality where straight, white, able-bodied neurotypical people have all the agency and all the adventures and all the darn fun - I STILL feel that cold, creeping sensation. I still hear the whispering and wailing too.

The sad truth is that on ninety-nine out of one hundred occasions, writing brave, rich, diverse books will not result in any of the stuff you dream about.

It won't result in fantastic, Twilight/Hunger Games level sales figures.

It won't result in movie deals.

It won't result in critical acclaim and glowing reviews.

Why? Because the vast majority of people who read your books (I'm including EVERYONE in this, from young readers to professional reviewers) are so used to the skewed vision of reality which has been blasted at them by society and the media all their lives - and continues to be blasted at them everytime they turn on the TV, watch a film, walk by a billboard - that they WILL NOT NOTICE. They'll flinch from or skim over the descriptions of racially diverse characters, block out the gay ones, imagine the hero with the walking stick as able bodied. Or worse, they'll frown over these diverse characters, label the book 'weird' because it makes them uncomfortable for no reason they can really adequately explain, and put it down. And move onto yet another bestselling book filled with that familiar 'perfect' cast that contains a couple of stereotypical 'minority' side characters and the version of the world that they are used to.

Realising that is so, so disheartening. 

But let me put my arm around you, Diverse Authors. Let me give you a warm hug and a plate of chocolate cake and a mug of coffee and explain the realisation I finally came to about this.

The reason there are no standing ovations for authors who take that risk and write those diverse books, is that much as we YA authors do write with a particular awareness of our audience, ultimately you don't spend hours of your life sweating away over your notebook and keyboard for anyone other than yourself.

When you chose to embrace diversity and create stories which include rich, beautiful, realistic casts of characters, you do that firstly and primarily for you. Because you know deep down that your book is better, stronger, more truthful that way. Because it makes your heart sing, and your brain smile, and your fingers fly.

Occasionally one us may get a heartfelt letter from a fan or a librarian or teacher saying how much the effort we put into diversity meant to them. Or we might get listed for a diversity-specific award. One of our books might do really well. And each and every one of those things is a marvellous validation of the effort that goes into our work. But the best validation, and the only one which will make you feel warm again and banish the weeping and wailing from your ears is the knowledge, that you've written what YOU believed in.

Not for the sake of recognition from peers, not for universal acclaim from review journals, not even for a lightning-leap up the bestsellers list and a movie deal, but for the sake of your own soul.

If you have that, then those years of struggle which are most likely ahead of you while you work your way up from newbie to small-time midlist to respectable midlist to top-seller to bestseller (while still rightly appearing arduous from down there at the bottom) will no longer seem impossible

Don't look for standing ovations. It's entirely possible you will never get them. Look instead for fulfilment and satisfaction within your craft and within yourself as a person. Those things, once attained, will keep you warm for a long, long time.


Rhia said...

Thank you for another useful and reassuring post!

I try not to describe characters in too much much detail, just pop in an occasional hint so that the reader eventually realises 'Oh, so that's what she/he looks like' (although it's essential to my present WIP that the hero - for want of a better word - has flaming red hair, which cuts down on the cultural diversity a bit!)and I've had to do some heavy revising when one of my characters turned out to be a really nasty piece of work, and I realised that I was - quite unintentionally - well on the way to racial stereotyping.

And sometimes you just can't do it - I just can't write an action-hero/heroine who's in a wheelchair, for example, and to make them the brains behind the whole thing is just sooo cliched... for me, anyway.

InCreWriMa is really helping me. Can't wait to report in this week..

Zoë Marriott said...

Rhia: Well, it's good that you're thinking about it! But remember that for a lot of readers, hinting won't be enough. If you don't tell them flat out that your character has dark skin or whatever, they will assume 'white' and be shocked and horrified later if they realise they were wrong.

Also, with the disabled hero/heroine: you're right that it's hard to write a fight scene if the main character is in a wheelchair. But being confined to a wheelchair isn't the only form of disability in the world. What about a character who has a mental illness? A learning disability? Has scars or a physical deformity like am arm that was badly set in the past, forcing them to fight in a different way? Or suffers from a persistent health condition like migraines or epilepsy? These are all things so many people in the real world deal with and still manage to live full, exciting, heroic lives. Thinking outside the box like this can make a story so much more interesting and unique :)

Rhia said...

Zoe: Thanks for that: I'll have to put a bit more thought to my early descriptions (though I do rather like challenging the reader's preconceptions, I must admit. Not every time, though.)

As for disabilities - my comment there was meant to be a little tongue in cheek. All my characters are flawed in some way - isn't everybody? - my heroine has a phobia which threatens her relationship with the hero (gosh, must find a better way to describe them) as it is directly related to his job, and another is struggling with a background of abuse, which he's tried to keep secret, but which is now threatening to overwhelm him.

There are some lighter moments in this!

Isabel said...

Wow, excellent post! I'd really never thought about the situation in this way before, and it is very disheartening. Thank you so much for bringing it up!

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: Thanks. It isn't a great situation - we're never going to get where we want to be with diverse books for young people if writers who go there end up being disadvantaged because of it. But I hope that things will get better, especially if we talk about it.

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