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June 3, 2014

The Danger of Political Correctness for Diverse Books

Magnetic desk toy with various colors of human figures with text: We Need Diverse Ideas

This is one of those posts that will probably get me in trouble, but I believe it’s an important conversation to have. I will attempt to avoid offending anyone, but that’s getting more difficult in our society (which is kind of my point). Wish me luck. *smile*

An online campaign on Tumblr and Twitter called #WeNeedDiverseBooks promotes the importance of books that portray characters of various orientations, cultures, nationalities, and abilities in children’s literature. Diverse books are important for adults too—not simply for the sake of diversity—but so that by sheer number of representations, any one type of character isn’t limited to a stereotype.

The truth is that we are all diverse. My life experience is not the same as any of you. And every one of you have different experiences from each other.

No one stereotypical character will ever represent us, no matter our color, nationality, abilities, or background. Yet stereotypes exist and will always exist.

That might sound like a depressing thought. We might think that if only we worked hard enough, shamed others enough, pushed enlightenment enough, that we might be able to avoid stereotypes.

The simple fact of the matter is that the human brain does not work that way. The human brain is lazy. *smile*

Categories Help Our Brains Process Information

Our senses bring in far more stimulation than we can process. How much do we pay attention to the color of our carpet in our home? We don’t. (Unless we hate it and are thinking of changing it.)

How much do we pay attention to the background noise of our refrigerator? We don’t. (Unless it’s making weird noises and we worry it’s about to break.)

How much do we pay attention to the weight of our clothes on our shoulders? We don’t. (Unless the fabric is scratchy and driving us crazy.)

Our brain ignores everything possible so it can function without being overwhelmed. Our brain constantly puts everything we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell into “ignore” or “this is different—pay attention” categories, and we only consciously notice the latter.

We put people we see or meet into categories too. We think young/old, male/female, tall/short, etc. We ask what people do for a living. We inquire whether we have friends, schools, neighborhoods in common.

This is not bad. This is normal and unavoidable.

In fact, brain research suggests that we can’t remember things unless we can “attach” that information to something we already know, like one of those magnetic sculpture desk toys except made of connected memories. Categories help us remember.

We will never be able to look at an unknown person and not have our brains seek to categorize them in some way. Because of that instinct to categorize, stereotypes—preformed branches for attaching similar new memories—will always exist.

The Danger of Political Correctness

Some might agree with me and then state that the problem comes when stereotypes are harmful. Great! But how do we define harmful?

Kristen Lamb wrote a MUST READ post about political correctness:

“These days, I find myself less prone to joke or make conversation with others of a different ethnicity or culture because, bluntly, it’s exhausting and I always seem to screw it up. I find myself hedging everything I say, backpedaling, and struggling to remember my proper and approved PC vocabulary.

We walk on eggshells to avoid “offending” someone. We no longer can make mistakes. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”

I’ve seen people say the phrase “Oh, that’s so lame” is offensive to those who can’t walk. And then I’ve seen even more people—all of whom really can’t walk—say “Don’t be ridiculous. It’s just a phrase, not offensive.”

Multiply that by the hundreds or thousands of potentially problematic words or phrases, and we don’t know who to listen to or what to think.

  • Should we follow the lead of those actually with the experience (of which, as they are not a monolithic stereotype, might have differing opinions)?
  • Or should we avoid attracting attention from those without the experience, but who wait, all-too-eager, to call us out on some infraction like the thought police?

We can have the best intentions in the world and still screw up. Quite frankly, political correctness has too many rules, and no one will ever be able to remember them all, especially when various interested parties can’t even agree on whether there should be a rule about something. Being unaware of all of the rules, or being unable to keep them straight, shouldn’t earn us an *-ist label or prove that we’re “insensitive.”

Most people don’t mean to be insensitive or offensive. Yet the default response seems to be to attack or judge rather than to inform or give the benefit of the doubt.

As Kristen said, constantly walking on eggshells and fearing saying the wrong thing is nerve-racking. The result is that we’re less likely to relate with others of a different culture or ethnicity. That it seems easier to avoid others than it is to avoid making a mistake.

That avoidance of diversity out of fear is the real danger.

Stereotypes are most harmful when they prevent us from making new friends or being open to new ideas. That goes for people and books.

The Danger for Diverse Books

My friend Roni Loren wrote an insightful post about whether authors are scared to write diverse books. The (understandable) answer for too many is “Heck yeah, it’s too risky.”

In an in-person encounter, we could at least apologize or try to explain our intentions. In a book, we can’t even do that. If we get something “wrong”—which as I noted above, is nearly unavoidable—we’re going to offend someone and not be able to “take our words back.”

The result? If authors don’t want to take the risk, we’ll have fewer diverse books on the shelves.

Worse, those limited numbers will mean each book with a such-and-such type of character will seem more important or be more notable. Any stereotypical aspects will stand out more, rather than being drowned out by a flood of other representations of such-and-such type of character.

Fear of being judged “wrong” in the eyes of political correctness can make us more insulated—from both a variety of people and ideas. That is harmful for all of us.

Should We Write about Experiences We Don’t Share?

Some might think it a good thing if authors aren’t willing to take those risks with unfamiliar scenarios. They might think diverse books should come only from those with the appropriate experiences. While I understand the frustration when authors “get things wrong,” I disagree with that idea in general.

I’ve been to book signings where authors are giving away free books, and the lines for the non-white authors are almost always the shortest. We all “discriminate” in our book reading. (“I don’t like that genre.” “I don’t like stories with that trope.”) Subconsciously, even though they’re not racist, the attendees see those authors and categorize their books as something they couldn’t relate to.

Would we rather that insulation of people and ideas continue? Or would we rather prod people to broaden their experiences?

If it takes reading a diverse book from a white-bread author to show people that, yes, they can relate to stories with diverse protagonists, I say bring on the diverse books from any author who wants to take on the challenge.

Roni’s post shares several tips on how to do our best to “get it right,” starting with not having “a ‘default’ that everyone who walks onto the page is white, straight, and middle-class until proven otherwise.” I hope any author who tries to show diversity in an honest, non-stereotype-driven way is welcomed.

My Choice for Diversity

As I said at the start of this post, I believe we are all diverse because we all have experiences that no one else shares. We need diverse books because they help us explore and discover various beliefs, values, and experiences—and through that exposure, we’ll learn more about ourselves and how we can relate to others, no matter our various backgrounds.

No one looking at the color of my skin would guess that I grew up as a minority in my school (the only white girl for much of elementary). The stereotypical “white” experience doesn’t apply to me any more than the stereotype of xyz ethnicity applies to any real person. The same can be said for our characters.

Heck, I write paranormal. Some of my characters are dragons, unicorns, faeries, and the like. Am I not supposed to write those characters because I haven’t experienced what it’s like to be them? *grin*

Am I not supposed to write from my heroes’ point of view because I’m not male? That’s not how my genre works. We’re supposed to be able to use our imagination to write fiction.

I write those characters with the attitude of being true to the characters. I use the same criteria when writing my human characters, whether white, black, Asian-American, Native American, gay, straight, etc.

I write books with diverse characters and don’t worry about trying to capture everything “right” because I’m not writing about any such-and-such type of person. I’m writing about a specific character, and as long as I’ve stayed true to their specific experience, I’m avoiding stereotypes.

Will I receive negative reviews for my choices? Undoubtedly. My xyz character won’t be xyz enough. Or maybe they’ll be too xyz. Or I didn’t do a good job of capturing the xyz experience because I didn’t touch on abc.

Whatever. There’s no such thing as a universal xyz experience, so I’m not going to worry about it.

I’m writing my characters’ experiences, and while I would never knowingly write anything offensive, I’m most interested in staying true To. My. Characters. No one is going to like everything we write anyway, so worrying about whether someone might not like our characters because of diversity is a dead end.

We need to stand up to the fear of accidentally getting something politically incorrect. If we don’t, literature—and our lives—will become even more insulated from people and ideas different from our own. And that would be a real dead end.

Have you participated in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign? Do you worry about accidentally being politically incorrect? Have you ever written diverse characters? Do you plan to? Do you think political correctness can cause damage to our willingness to explore diverse friendships and characters?

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79 Comments on "The Danger of Political Correctness for Diverse Books"

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Karyne

I think you’re 100% right. I wrote a much briefer blog post on the topic last month because I found the whole campaign confusing. It seemed like people were pushing for diversity over quality. I want agents and publishers to select books that are good, regardless of whether or not they’re diverse. If they happen to be diverse, so much the better! But I’d hate for political correctness to heavily influence the publishing industry.

Sophia
Sophia

I go on tumblr; I have seen the most politically correct of the politically correct…The oversensitivity drives me crazy sometimes.

But.

That doesn’t mean they don’t have a point.

This makes it sound like the mild inconvenience of possibly being accused of insensitivity is far worse than actually being racist, sexist, etc.

And the whole justifying categories based on brain processes thing comes off as an excuse for not even trying to make an effort. Like potentially perpetuating problematic stereotypes that hurt people is far less of a problem than bothering to put some thought into it.

Daniel Swensen

We couldn’t please everyone even if we don’t raise the apparently terrifying specter of political correctness. Not every book will be for every reader, and that’s as it should be. It would be a pretty bland world otherwise.

I think it’s important to remember that people just wanted to be treated with respect, regardless of who they are or where they come from. And people want to see themselves represented in fiction, as human beings with real emotions, not as caricatures or symbols. Accomplishing this as a writer is challenging, but I think even more so when we come from a place of fear and entitlement, comparing our critics to “thought police” and likening being criticized to an attack on our freedoms akin to Nazism, and claiming our own experiences and outlook as universal to all. I’m not saying you’ve done or said any of this, but I’ve certainly seen it done and said, more than I’d care to.

I don’t think treating people respectfully and with humanity is as terrifying as people think. And it is true that the best intentions can go wrong, and that issues like these can be complex, but I think it really comes down to respect, context, and a willingness to learn. For that reason, I think it’s important that we challenge our own perspectives as frequently as possible, no matter who we are and where we come from.

Taurean Watkins
Jami, I take take part in the movement the hash tag #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and did a video that I hope comes off as I mean it to: http://youtu.be/gBleB-Vr7EM One thing I’m glad you noted was that diversity is not limited to ethnicity, and while the #WeNeedDeverseBooks moments spawned because of a kerfuffle around ethnicity, there’s more to it. That said, I think I don’t think people on average that “lazy” in their thinking. I certainly understand why we compartmentalize and categorize to avoid overwhelm, but there’s a BIG difference between what you’re saying and just being willfully ignorant and snobbish. As I’ve said before, we don’t inherit EVERYTHING from our family, some things are just “My Stuff” be it bad or good. I grew up with smokers, but I never became a smoker, and while not everyone can resist temptation to experiment, not everyone submits to pressure in all instances either.” After all, when parents are alcoholics, that doesn’t instantly deem the kids will follow suit, whether they later drink as minors or after being legally old enough to do so. Now addiction is different than social ignorance, but you get my point. That said, you can learn to rise above your programming. Matilda and James (Of “Giant Peach” fame) sure did, wouldn’t you say?” (I still feel Dahl could’ve stood to have some adults in his books who weren’t abusive and still have kids come out on top, but that’s my only nitpick with him…) While I see truth in… Read more »
Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Another fantastic post!
I haven’t participated in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. Hadn’t heard about it, but I will be searching the hashtag now that you brought it to my attention.
I have seen, however, first hand, the line differences at book signings between black and white authors. Can’t stand that. Two of my critique partners and very favorite people in world are black. And we’ve discussed the differences in the number of books on the shelves with black models, or a black author on the back cover…there are much fewer of those out than there are white. My crit partners are excellent authors. I don’t want the color of their skin or that of their characters to keep them from being as successful as the next author, mainly because people might be closed minded enough to think they can’t relate..
I have written diverse characters…I’ve written homosexual characters (which I plan on adding to another novel, though they are not the love interest or main character, they still hold pivotal roles in the story) And I’ve written in African American characters as well…again, not as main characters.
Does that mean I’m racist? I don’t think so, but now that I’m discussing it here with you, I wonder…what does it mean? Why haven’t I branched out and written a black hero or heroine?
It’s definitely something worth thinking about.
Thank you so much for your wisdom and for having the courage to write this post. it was awesome!
Tamara

Carradee
Categories Help Our Brains Process Information *blinks* I want to research this, now. My memory actually functions in categories—well, I should say, it functions in categories when it works properly. I have some suppression issues. With reason. But…it’s still problematic, sometimes, because some people get ticked off when I have to process the answer through the categories, rather than give them the answer immediately. (A few of those “some people” are why I have memory suppression issues. But that’s kinda off-topic.) I also have an excellent memory for data, especially if numbers aren’t involved. (I tend to transpose numbers.) But I’m also a generalist who knows at least the basics on a ton of topics, so I have a broad spectrum of categories into which to parse data. Kinda sad thing I’ve realized this week is that I can often quickly spot manipulation and identify the type, but I have no mental categories for “drunk” or “intoxicated” or “drugged”. None. I know I’ve seen people drunk, or doped up on meds, and I’ve probably even seen people on drugs. At most, I might think, “She doesn’t need any more alcohol,” but my brain doesn’t jump to “She’s drunk.” Pretty much, someone else has to bring it up for the thought to even occur to me. I’ve grown up around alcohol, with people drinking enough to be affected, but everything was always described as “relaxed”—or, at worst, “tipsy”. Among my parents and their friends, “drunk” is often redefined to mean “have… Read more »
Jennifer Rose
Of course, this is a sensitive subject – and one that does need to be discussed. In my current novel, I’m working on having a highly diverse population – but that is because the world involves refugees from all over the ‘world.’ So how awkward would it be to have only white males in my refugee city? And frankly, I’m having fun meeting all these ‘different’ people! I agree that we have to stay true to our art. My other novel is completely populated by ancient Japanese people, and that’s okay too. On the labeling topic- I want to add a layer to it: yes, we all make an instant label when we meet someone, but it is what we DO with that information that makes a difference. Do you keep that person in a particular ‘bucket’ even though they move on to show you evidence to the contrary? Do you apply all your past experiences with that ‘label’ to the person you just met? [tangent- I think that’s why stereotypes in novels can be so successful – people are applying their own emotional experience of that stereotype to that character]. Articles like these are great because they keep the conversation going. Once the conversation goes silent, that’s where harm lies. The movie/writing industry is saturated with such a high percentage of white males, it’s ingrained in our minds that’s what most characters are. I think it’s the DISCUSSION that’s of key importance, so we do actually stop and question… Read more »
Kristen Lamb
Kristen Lamb
Great post! What irks me is that certain groups are immune when it comes to stereotyping and categorizing. Yes, we need the shortcut and we simply CANNOT know everything (I.e. that someone is Argentinian and not Hispanic and yes I have been REAMED for that). But other races have no problem referring to me as the “white woman” and I don’t have issue with this. But, if I say, “Yeah, you’re looking for Cynthia, the black woman with short hair” then I am being insensitive by not saying “African American?” I need to be able to spot the difference between a Cuban and an Ecuadorian, a Thai and a Korean, but “white” is okay even though I am primarily Scandinavian and our looks, values and culture are very different from English, Italian, Polish or Russian. So as a “white” person, I’m supposed to be an expert on PC and instant recognition of all world ethnic groups, but the same burden isn’t on others? I say that people need to just LIGHTEN UP. I don’t demand the world know I am a Scandinavian-American. I’m an American. Yes, the white lady with the big mouth :). And as far as writing a diverse group of characters, sometimes I think we as writers might write those of another race, religion, sex, etc BETTER because we pay far closer attention since we aren’t part of those groups. My male characters are ALWAYS better than my female characters and likely because as a chick? There… Read more »
Kristen Lamb
Kristen Lamb

And the irony of writing that post on PC was when I looked through all my relationships and friendships and school experiences as a kid and young adult in Texas, I WAS THE MINORITY. I didn’t realize that until 25 years later. My group of friends has three Vietnamese, a Choctaw, three Mexicans, two African Americans, there Muslim-Americans…and then me, the “white” girl ;).

Jennifer Rose

Haha, Kristen!

I had a similar experience in my friend-group in high school, as I went to an inner city school.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
I love this post! 😀 Yes I definitely agree that we should stay true to THAT SPECIFIC PERSON (character) rather than that SPECIFIC CATEGORY of person. Good point in that we thus shouldn’t worry so much about getting the “types right”, lol. Yeah I used to fear writing from the POV of male characters, but now I’m not afraid anymore. In fact, I find that I write from male POVs more often than from female POVs, lol! I heard from George R.R. Martin that we shouldn’t fear writing characters of the opposite gender from us. Instead, we should think of them as PEOPLE, not as GENDERS. This makes a lot of sense and now I feel perfectly comfortable with and LOVE writing in the male perspective. I even find it easy and not at all unsettling to write in the POV of a male being in love with a girl or even to write sex scenes in the POV of a male. Because he is a person, not a gender. :D. In fact, I think if we want to worry at all, we should worry more about similarity of PERSONALITY rather than of gender. It’s easier for me to write a male character with a personality similar to mine, than to write a female character with a very different personality from mine. That said, we can still write about people with different personalities from us. Though I find that no matter how different they are, unless they are minor characters,… Read more »
Renn Hadley

I think we are all looking to see ourselves represented in fiction and we’re also constantly categorizing everything as “like me” or “not like me”. Do we humans have a natural tendency to villainize or fetishize what we see as different? I’d like to see respectful discussions about how specific words do trigger feelings, because while we can’t please everyone, we can all broaden our understanding of how our own perspective is shown in our writing.

Thanks for bringing this up.

Anne R. Allen
This is an important topic to discuss, although I don’t really think there’s a solution. I get reviews that criticize my books as “politically correct drivel” because I have a diverse cast of characters. And others say my books “set feminism back 1000 years” because my heroine is more Lucille Ball than Lara Croft. We live in the age of the permanently offended. There are people who will take offense at anything, even if it means purposely twisting words or making up stuff that isn’t there. One of my favorite writers is Ursula LeGuin, who makes you think differently about stereotypes by not telling you the POV character is black until halfway through the book, and he/she changes gender along the way. But I see lots of people who hate being “tricked” out of their usual stereotyped shorthand by her writing. Not that there’s anything wrong with the shorthand. As you say, the human brain thinks in categories. They make for easier reading. I think that in the end, we have to write what works for our story. And that usually ends up following the old rule of writing what we know. I figure if you don’t know any African-American trans people, you probably can’t write about them as well as you can about Armenian-American farmers in the Central California Valley where you grew up. Or fat Irish girls with unmanageable hair if you happen to be one. So write about the Armenians and fat girls with bad hair and… Read more »
David
David

“Political Correctness” = pseudo intellectualism hiding intentional destruction of any opposing free will based thoughts and ideas. Why it persists and continues to grow seems based on the amount of teeth gnashing the NON-“Politically Correct” waste on it. It (PC) seems to have taken on a uncontrollable life of its own bringing down any who oppose it.

This whole subject could easily devolve into a diatribe against a political party or derogatory spiel against main stream media.

Instead of withering up and blowing away as all bad ideas should, this will continue to grow and demand an ever higher price for free thinking non-conformity. What a shame!

Kelly Roberts

Great post, Jami (as was Kristen’s)! My next novel features a main character who is paralyzed in an accident. I am not paralyzed, so I know that in order to make sure I understand (as well as I can) what that type of life event does to a person beyond the physical is to research, research, research.

This will involve talking with people who know what that’s like. In my day job, I happen to work with employees who need accommodations at work due to medical conditions/disabilities, and many of them are paraplegics or people who require assistive devices to walk. I’ve worked closely with them this year and seeing their challenges has opened my eyes. This type of diversity is horribly lacking in fiction, especially in YA. The teen years are hard enough–imagine losing your ability to walk when you’re that age. That’s what I want to explore in my work.

But like you’ve said, my MC will be her own person, with her own life experiences. She’s not going to be “generic” paraplegic. Will it speak to everyone with that experience? No. But this story is much more about this one person’s experience.

Linda Maye Adams

Last year, I wrote “The Disability Challenge” for Unleaded Fuel for Writers. It’s worth posting here, and can easily be converted to other diverse characters: http://unleadedwriting.com/2013/01/08/the-disability-challenge-getting-a-disabled-character-in-your-story/

I think the challenge is that diversity is such a volatile issue that discussion turns into knock down drag out fights that scare people off. Political correctness, unfortunately, tends to speak to the people who don’t need to hear it or don’t want to hear it, and leaves the people who might make a difference too scared to try. A challenge like the above is a very simple way to get your feet wet in a safe way. I did it with a relatively minor character in one of my books (a guy in a wheelchair who painted surfboards), and he turned into an awesome character. Which I wouldn’t have gotten if I hadn’t tried it into the first place.

Fiona
Fiona

I very much appreciate all your writing tips, but that out of the way, I came away kind of confused about what you were trying to say.

I agree some people are afraid to “write diversity” and I get why–but as you point out, if authors can write fantasy (or be another gender), they can do race, too. I agree white shouldn’t be the default.

So, we are on the same page there, but being “true” to your character is to me a cop-out. It’s easy to say, but doesn’t change much. Unfortunately, much does need to change, because 8% for characters or authors of color is not enough. I don’t see agonizing about how authors can’t be “authentic” writing from the viewpoint of another gender.

I do try to make sure I always have someone diverse. I mean, I write fantasy. If I can write about a ghost, I can write about someone who is a different color (or gender) than I am.

Alica

Wonderful post! And I agree I want more diversity in my books, and I love writing diverse characters as they travel to countries I’ve never been. I do my research, try and find someone of that xyz to give me their opinion on how I’m doing and for my YA series I’m totally cheating, its written 1st POV, so all my diverse characters are seen from her POV and I’m not in their heads.

Ron Estrada

Well said. I responded on the blog of a writer who started the campaign (though it was probably multiple writers). I agree that minorities get treated differently. I work a mile outside the Detroit city limits. I talk to these guys every day. I hear the stories. But I also stated that we cannot force readers to read more diverse books just because it’s the right thing to do. We read diverse books because the stories are good and characters interesting (funny how that universal rule works). We read diverse characters because we’re sick of reading about people just like us. I will write in a black Detroit man because he’s a fantastic character, not because black Detroit men get watched like hawks whenever they enter a department store. This attempt to engineer human behavior has been a losing proposition for centuries, and will result in the inevitable backlash. Like I said, I talk to my black Detroit friends here where I work. And I no longer walk on eggshells. Niether do they. Start there, with a conversation, then you won’t need some hashtag campaign to change the world.

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[…] of Self-Importance—Can We Find a Cure? Jami Gold wrote a fabulous follow-up piece about how PC could endanger diversity in books. If we allow PC to reign, will it discourage authors from writing about a diverse mix of characters? […]

Matthew Brown
Oh, this is something I shouldn’t comment on, because I really just don’t care about diversity in literature. I’m certainly not afraid of it, but I don’t feel that any victory has been gained because a book’s character is female or black or gay. There was a time when we were supposed to be colorblind. I always hated that phrase. Now, though, we’re supposed to celebrate diversity by making certain that everyone is represented, even in fiction where the people are not people, they are words on paper. I think colorblind was better. Can I relate to a female or black or homosexual character as well as a white, straight male? Yes. Absolutely. In fact, I take a bit of umbrage at the idea that any of these things is a barrier between myself and the ideas and experiences of others. I don’t need characters who resemble me or those that I know. I certainly won’t resist the idea of diversity in literature, only the deliberate quest for it. My resistance to this quest for diversity is, ironically, based on a kind of idealism. I hate to sound this sunny and naïve, but I do truly believe that we are all the same. As you’ve pointed out, Miss Gold, we are all different and diverse unto ourselves. We are also all the same. We all think. We all feel. I think it’s misguided to APPLY diversity to a story. Write the characters that you see in the story. Just make… Read more »
Trever

Great article. Glad to see someone else noting that it’s not as cut and dry as many people make it out to be. It’s not just as simple as ‘buy more diverse books’ or ‘write more diverse books’. PC Sameness is literally stagnating our culture and not having the positive impact it was originally intended for.

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[…] Kristen Lamb wrote a post called The Disease of Self-Importance—Can We Find a Cure? that I would NEVER have been brave enough to write. Jami Gold wrote a follow-up piece full of fabulous badassery about how Political Correctness could endanger diversity in books. […]

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[…] so far I’ve survived the discussion about diversity in literature from last time. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment because I want to touch on one concern […]

Lolita Moroney
Lolita Moroney
Unfortunately being on the inside doesn’t protect you from the PC brigade. A future book I want to write features epilepsy quite heavily and whilst I have epilepsy myself, I can guarantee that there will be people who take offence to it. To be honest, I don’t care. I think that most people will recognise that it’s just an expression of the question we all ask when things get tough, “Why the hell did I get lumbered with this?” Even though my portrayal would be just as valid as any of my epileptic peers I expect it’ll come in for some heavy criticism. The pep squad is so intent on quashing any kind of stereotype that it almost denies people the right to their own feelings and thoughts. It’s sad when you can’t express anything other than shiny happy crap because someone believes that it’s to the detriment of the group. I’m in a Live Journal community called Epileptics and we were all quite happy sharing our experiences and woes when someone came along and posted a rant about how she found the name of the community unacceptable as the term “epileptic” was offensive. She herself was a carer rather than a sufferer (yes I said sufferer as we sure as hell don’t enjoy it) and she was universally told to get a grip and stop being so sensitive. The truth is as well that sometimes epileptic is the only word that makes a sentence make sense and trying to… Read more »
Piper Bayard

Great comment, Lolita. I think the only thing we can do that can ring true is write from our own experiences with these things, and we all have them in some form. There will always be haters and trolls.

As for the gender issues, well said. I remember being amazed in law school that even the most serious women students spent their time obsessing about the men. Needless to say, the men found other things to talk about.

I am determined to write strong women who are actually women. What self-proclaimed feminists don’t seem to realize is that women are not men with girl parts. We are different. We have different brain chemistry, we have different life experiences, and in many things, we have different values. So the women in our books have curves, they like sugar, and while they may be great shots with sniping rifles (we write spy thrillers), they also knit great sweaters and make lasagna. I’m tired of overboard PC feminism putting women down for being women, and I refuse to play along. I have to believe there is an audience for strong women who aren’t men with girl parts.

Thank you for your perspective and your courage.

Piper Bayard
Great post, Jami. For myself, I don’t give a rodent’s rear end about PC. I’m a child of the 60s. The whole point of the Civil Rights Movement was that everyone is a PERSON first, and that race, religion, and disabilities are IRRELEVANT. Unfortunately, that has been turned on its ear, and race seems to be more relevant than ever. In the 80s, I was shot at, my horse was shot, and my family was savaged and run out of a predominantly Mexican-American town because we were white. In the 90s, I was told by minorities that I would not be considered for jobs because I’m white. My daughter was the only white girl and only middle class girl at her school in first grade, and we had to move her because she was constantly the brunt of vicious racism. The result? I am more convicted than ever in my belief that racism is racism, no matter who perpetuates it, and there’s plenty getting spread around by the people who scream foul the loudest. The behavior is the behavior, and no one gets a pass. At this point, I’m so sad to see that The Dream of racial equality is being buried by the new institutional rise of racism. All of the questions we fought to have removed from medical and education forms are back with even deeper implications than before. Racism has become an industry, and there is a great deal of money and political power in convincing people… Read more »
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Rather Not Say
Rather Not Say

I live in a wheelchair, and I’m fine with “That’s so lame.” It’s not elegant, but it does give a good impression of impotence. Oops! Did I say “impotence”? (Look it up. It means more than you think.)

The fact is, I see nothing wrong with brushing back the worst of the “offense-taking” class. If I say something and you take offense to it, I’m going to do a fast evaluation, finding the ratio of my Non-PC-ness and your level of offense-taking. If it comes out I went over the line, I’ll apologize. If the fault is yours, I’ll probably just cut you out of my experience. That whole walking-on-eggshells is so not my style.

I’ve never written a crippled (disabled, differently abled, atypically abled. GIVE ME A BREAK.) character (when I go into my imagination, I want it to be better than everyday life), but I do have one in mind for a short story–because the wheelchair is such an awesome prop. Anyone who takes offense to the comedy I make of it can kiss my arse–but you’ll have to wait till I transfer to the bed and roll over. Oops! Did I say “roll”?

I did! I did! But then, that’s exactly how I roll.

Your mileage may vary.

Rebecca McKnight
Rebecca McKnight

I don’t try to write for diversity, it just kind of happens because I write about things that have really happened to people I really know. (In a totally fictional way, of course)
I don’t even think about it until test readers say things like:
“Wait, wouldn’t Angel go to Mass with them?” No, because Angel is partially based on a Hispanic friend of mine and the stuff he deals with for not being Catholic is part of the character. (never mind the person who asked, “He’s a guy and his name is Angel?”)
“I don’t think a gay man would react like that/say that.” Really? Because that scene was based on something that happened to a very dear friend of mine while we were out somewhere.
“I don’t think it’s realistic for a paralyzed woman to travel across the state on a motorcycle.” Well, that character’s experiences are partially based on my best friend in high school’s sister who travels the country in a specially adapted sidecar her husband built for her.
I’m not really sure how to make my characters “more realistic” when I take my inspiration from real events and real people? People accuse me of “trying to make a point” with my gay characters, for instance. I guess my point would be that this is how the real gay men that I know act. Why do I have to be making a point?

Rubyfruit
Rubyfruit
For context, I’m black, a woman, and bisexual, so maybe some resentment based on people acting as though trying to write about experiences that aren’t fully theirs is like writing space aliens, or books supposedly made for my demographic have never once reflected my own experience, even a little bit, might bleed through onto my comment, so forgive me if I rant a little. I haven’t participated in the online campaign precisely because I dislike what Tumblr has done to this exact topic. There is a point to be made that there is a need for greater diversity in books, but every time that point is made, the people who shout the loudest are the ones who drop the anvil onto their own feet every time they shout down a writer for not doing it “right”, for not trying hard enough. Because it isn’t good enough that a character is something other than straight, white, or male, or whatever; the characters can’t interact as people, but as representatives of their particular group, with the full experience of being in that group according to what is held as the One True Experience. And at least from my having read “urban fiction” (where one is meant to read “urban” as meaning “for black people”), that One True Experience is the most grindingly miserable one possible, rife with discrimination and general awfulness, the details of which I’m not getting into here. I know that fiction is fiction but if the point that’s supposed… Read more »
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Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Hello, it’s me again! So recently on Pinterest, there was a post on how to make your guy characters actually sound like guys…I did NOT click into it, because my guy characters in my head were entreating me not to click it, haha! In fact, if my main guys actually sound like guys, they would be out of character!! Lol. My guys are either more feminine or androgynous, very few sound “masculine”, and that’s good, because I like feminine or androgynous men better in romances and other stories anyway. Also, I don’t want them to sound like “their gender”. I want them to sound like themselves! For instance, I have a male character called Damien, and I don’t want Damien to either “sound like a guy” or “sound like a girl” (though the latter is definitely preferred, haha). I want Damien to sound like Damien! George R. R. Martin commented once (don’t remember if I told you this already) that we shouldn’t be afraid of writing in the POV of characters of the opposite gender from us; instead of thinking that they are the opposite gender, we should think that they are PEOPLE. Individuals. This tip is really helpful. If we look at real life, we’ll see that actually, people’s speech is made up of a mix of “feminine” and “masculine” ways of speech, or even “gender neutral” ways of speech. I am pretty sure I sound mostly gender neutral, lol, but I sometimes sound “feminine” and sometimes “masculine”, but… Read more »
Sophie
Sophie

I’ve seen this campaign go around on Tumblr, and it did make me think. Right now, I live in a place (Abu Dhabi, in the UAE) with so much diversity, it wouldn’t be right to ignore that.

However, my immediate reaction to characters who have a trait I don’t have is to go “Ack!” when developing them, because then I think “What if I get this wrong? I don’t want to offend anyone…”. (Interestingly, none of my characters have anything I have–despite that actually making sense. For example, I’m autistic, and yet none of my characters are autistic… Weird.)

I suppose it is good living in such a diverse place, because that means I have a better idea of what diversity is. I’ll probably treat it as normal because it is to me. I’m not making a point when I develop a character who is asexual or a character who is transgender/transsexual. That is just part of who they are, and that’s the way it should stay

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[…] can make sure we’re not lazily defaulting to stock characters. As I’ve said before, “If it takes reading a diverse book from a white-bread author to show people that, yes, […]

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