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April 24, 2018

What Does #OwnVoices Mean for Authors and Readers? — Guest: Bran L. Ayres

Figure taking photo of their shadow on a beach with text: What Do #OwnVoices Authors Owe Readers

Part of the push to encourage diverse storytelling is a movement called #OwnVoices. “Own voices” books are a subset of diverse books that include some type of first-hand experience.

#OwnVoices authors share a diverse, minority, or marginalized trait with their protagonist. While depictions of all types of characters are valuable for expanding choices for readers, many want to read and support authors who provide an authentic perspective, so these books are often promoted with the #OwnVoices hashtag.

But the #OwnVoices label can be tricky in some cases. Not every author writing from personal experience is comfortable claiming the label, as there are many forms of diversity and marginalization that can’t be verified with an author photo and might come with judgment or outright abuse (not to mention be an invasion of privacy).

Consider authors writing authentically from the perspective of a character with an eating disorder. Claiming #OwnVoices would admit to a condition that still comes with stigma from some corners of the populace.

Other mental conditions or learning or physical disabilities can be similarly fraught. (For another example, Wendy Sparrow joined us last year to talk about her OCD character who also practices cutting and how much she had to research despite her personal experience.)

After my post last week about how some authors have created false personas to connect with readers, Bran L. Ayres and I talked about the damage that style of catfishing has done in the LGBT+ community. Accordingly, the #OwnVoices label can be problematic for many reasons within that community as well.

Bran has helped us before with their tips and insights (not to mention a helpful worksheet!) on how to get started in writing with diversity. Today, Bran joins us again to share their insights into the difficulties of the #OwnVoices movement for both authors and readers and tips for avoiding problems within the LGBT+ community (and beyond).

Please welcome Bran L. Ayres! *smile*

*****

#OwnVoices and What Authors Owe Readers

by Bran L. Ayres

Since the inception of #ownvoices by Corinne Duyvis in 2015, thousands of writers have used the tag to let their followers know they share a minority with their characters.

It has been hugely popular and for good reason. Minority authors are constantly written and talked over in the modern publishing industry, and #ownvoices finally gave them some real exposure and a way to connect with readers.

While the #ownvoices movement is great for many minorities, it has proven to be especially problematic for the LGBT+ community. We still live in a time when you can be fired, be denied a loan or—in some countries—be arrested for being LGBT+. This has made #ownvoices somewhat of a two-edged sword for some authors.

Then we have people co-opting the hashtag to apparently sell more books. People who blatantly do not belong to the LGBT+ community but pretend to do so to “connect” with readers and make sales. This is catfishing.

The Problem of Catfishing within #OwnVoices

In early March of this year, it came to light that a popular LGBT romance author, Santino Hassel, who claimed to be a person of color (POC), bisexual father in poor health was actually a husband and wife team. (Some of the background can be found here and here.)

Naturally this caused a huge amount of upset in the writing community, the romance community, and the LGBT+ writers community. The duo not only claimed to be #ownvoices but even solicited money from their readers for bogus health and legal bills in Santino’s name.

For a time, Hassel’s agent and editor backed “him” and had this to say:

But is this true? Is the book the only thing an author owes a reader? When does “branding” become “baiting?”

The Difficulties of Claiming a Label

Claiming to be part of the LGBT+ community is always at an author’s discretion and should never be foisted on them by their readership. Readers should never demand an author out themselves either.

Do #OwnVoices authors owe readers “proof”? by @WriteRainbows Click To TweetEven asking if a character is #ownvoices can be intrusive, and an author is not obligated to respond.

It is understandable and even laudable that readers are searching for #ownvoices to support. But where is the line when the Santino Hassels of the world steal the spotlight from true #ownvoices? How much is an author obligated to divulge about themselves to “qualify” as #ownvoices?

What Do Authors “Owe” Readers?

First and foremost, an author never has to tell you anything about themselves. Ever.

You wouldn’t walk up to a random person who happened to catch your eye because they were wearing a nice outfit and ask them how much money they make. Or maybe you would, but they are not obligated to answer you and will likely be, rightly, indignant at such an invasive question.

Corrine herself weighed in on this, having this to say:

“Q: Has it occurred to you that not everyone is open about their identity? Are you saying authors need to out themselves?

Nobody is under any obligation to disclose any part of their identity. Safety and privacy are essential. We’re just working with the information we have; it’s all we can do.

(And this should go without saying, but if you have information about an author’s identity that isn’t public, don’t label their books #ownvoices without the author’s express permission.)”

So Readers Aren’t Allowed to Ask?

When engaging with an author, online or off, your first question to yourself should be: Would I be willing to answer this question, in public, from someone I only just met? If the answer is no, then it is probably not something you want to ask.

Can’t I ask more questions to verify their claim to be #ownvoices?

Short answer. No.

Long answer, if an author has claimed to be #ownvoices, it is likely easily verified by delving a little into their online presence.

Let’s look at another example of a popular m/m romance author, Josh Lanyon. Nowhere does Josh claim to be #ownvoices, and she (yes, she) is open and honest about Josh being her penname and why she uses a male name. Unlike Santino, who only first appeared around five years ago, Lanyon has a massive backlog of 60 books spanning 20 years of writing.

Never ask someone to produce “receipts” to prove their orientation.

I am married to a cis-man and have three children, but this in no way negates my gender or orientation, and I shouldn’t be forced to provide this information just to satisfy a reader’s curiosity or prove I belong to the LGBT+ community and thus can use #ownvoices.

The same goes for any author. What I supply in my biography and online is what I am comfortable sharing.

How Can Readers Tell Who’s #OwnVoices?

Here are some ways to unobtrusively verify an LGBT+ #ownvoices claim:

  • Do they support other marginalized authors?
  • Do they discuss the issues confronting their orientation?
  • Do they support nonprofits such as The Trevor Project or GLAAD?
  • Do they seek to educate through blog posts, Facebook posts, or Twitter?
  • Do they have online friends within the LGBT+ community?
  • Do they reblog or retweet other #ownvoices writers?
  • Do they engage with others without trying to always sell something?

I have a big side banner on my blog that says “Proud Nonbinary Demisexual Author.” For me personally, I felt this was all the information I needed to give. My orientation, gender, and mental health are something I happily discuss, but on my own terms and at my own time.

How Can We Avoid Catfishers?

What about those who abuse the tag in catfishing schemes? How can you tell if someone is authentically #ownvoices if they don’t have a strong online presence?

How can we avoid frauds who falsely claim an #OwnVoices story? by @WriteRainbows Click To TweetUnfortunately, without knowing them personally, you can’t. But you can take precautions to keep from being taken advantage of.

Catfishers like Santino Hassell will often directly ask their readers for money or donations. This is a red flag.

This doesn’t mean all authors who ask for a little additional support are catfishers, but caution is in order. You wouldn’t give out money to a random stranger, and even if you’ve read every book they ever wrote, the author is still a stranger to you.

Catfishers also like to emotionally manipulate their readers and isolate them from the rest of the reading community by means of elitist rhetoric.

Gaslighting is another common tactic of catfishers. It is manipulative and abusive behavior where they:

  • tell blatant lies
  • deny they said/did something even with concrete proof
  • make personal attacks then use praise to confuse
  • promise things but never follow through
  • turn people against each other
  • tell you or others that you are crazy

7 Common Tactics of Catfishers

Catfishers use these common tactics:

  1. Faked/copied photos
  2. Emotionally charged phrasing
  3. Elitist rhetoric and divisive us/them wording
  4. Divulge intensely personal information and demand or expect the same from readers
  5. Elaborate stories of traumatic life events
  6. Lure readers into “private” conversations within a very short time of knowing them
  7. Make emotional demands of their readers

Authors desperately want to connect with readers, but we usually do this through our stories and characters. I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to talk about online is my personal life. I might give little updates here and there, but by and large, I’ll be either talking about writing, what I’m reading, or a video game I like.

I’m not going to ask you for personal information. And you shouldn’t ask me either. That’s how our culture works, and online culture should be no different.

What do I as an author owe my reader? A good book.

What do I as a person owe my reader? Authenticity.

What do my readers owe me? Nothing. Well, except the price of my book if they decide to buy it. A review would be nice too. 😉

*****

Bran L. AyresGrowing up in rural Missouri surrounded by dense forests teeming with giants, dogwood horses, pine castles and grapevine snakes, Bran has always had a very healthy imagination. This was further inculcated by their mother, who encouraged them to read the likes of Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. Their love of fantasy and writing has never waned even as they got older, and has developed into a need to write.

They currently live in Southern Missouri with three young nerdlings and three precocious felines. When not writing, Bran can be found with their face still glued to the computer screen playing video games or reading.

You can find Bran on their website, Twitter (@WriteRainbows), MeWe, and Facebook

*****

About Forbidden Enchantment:

Sidhe cannot lie. Yet Cedric lies about everything from being happy to being human. Hiding his true appearance with glamor runes, he’s managed to live quietly among humans for nearly fifty years. But as he journeys to the capital at the behest of the empress, a chance encounter with the first dragon to be seen in a thousand years threatens to reveal all his secrets.

Talfryn commits a taboo every time he leaves the mountains. Yet for an outcast, long banished from the dragons’ last city, taboos are trifles. He’s more interested in acquiring items for his hoard. Drawn by the scent of a rare enchantment, he’ll risk everything, including his freedom, to find the source.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | More Info

*****

Thank you, Bran! I greatly appreciate your perspective—and tips—for how readers can find authentic stories they want to raise up without cornering authors about personal information.

I love the goals of the #OwnVoices movement, but I’ve long recognized the many sides of the debate:

  • In addition to reader doubts when the label is used for non-visible traits, #OwnVoices authors based on race or heritage can be second-guessed by readers too, such as with mixed race, Latinx, Jewish, etc. authors. I’ve even seen black authors accused of fraud when the lighting in their avatar photo creates lighter skin tones than people expect.
  • Some want authors from marginalized communities to always write #OwnVoices stories, as though they owe it to the world to add as many of those stories as possible. No one wants their creativity restricted that way.
  • Other readers have expectations about different marginalized communities and think an author is “doing it wrong” when a character doesn’t fit their imagined stereotypes. Even #OwnVoices authors can run into the problem of readers thinking of a community as a monolith, and their personal experiences can be discounted or disbelieved (which is disrespectful and offensive on multiple levels).

Unfortunately, there will always be the Santino Hassel and Rachel Dolezal frauds in the world, simply because fraudsters can be found everywhere. But that risk isn’t a reason to doubt every #OwnVoices author or to stop supporting the movement.

Hopefully with these tips and insights, we can celebrate the stories we love—and those authors writing from authentic personal experiences—without throwing accusations or asking invasive personal questions. *smile*

Have you seen stories promoted as #OwnVoices? Do you look for #OwnVoices stories to read and support? Have you heard of any cases of fraud? Do you understand the tricky landscape of attempting to confirm the label? Do you have any questions for Bran?

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Bran Ayres

Thank you so much for letting me on your blog today Jami!
Just like #weneeddiversebooks, #ownvoices is such an important movement in the industry and I can’t thank you enough for your great post last week about being authentic with our persona’s online! It was the perfect intro to a great discussion. ^_^

Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane

Hey Bran!! I actually didn’t know people would use that hashtag to label books…I thought they were just a statement about literature in general. Yes, good point about an author being outed. I am sort of out and sort of not. So I say in my online author bios that I’m nonbinary and use ze/zim pronouns. But I don’t disclose anything queer or trans in my Facebook profile–except using the they/ them pronoun. I don’t feel ready (if I ever will be) for family and others to see my gender identity or sexual orientation yet. Yeah, I have wondered for some time how we could “prove” that an author who says they are, e.g. a gay man, genuinely has that identity. I can’t think of a surefire way to verify this so far, since an ally or someone who is quite knowledgeable about the LGBT+ community, could also support other queer and trans authors, and post about LGBTQ+ issues, among other things. I think it could also be easy to fake “personal” knowledge and understanding of identity issues, provided the person gained enough knowledge about the community, such as by reading online, asking LGBT+ folks, befriending queer and trans people, etc. In fact, I’ve been thinking that in online forums or Facebook groups, admins do not verify whether you are a certain identity, and you are already allowed to participate in the discussion as an ingroup member. I never needed to prove to the admin that I’m demisexual, for instance,…  — Read More »

Bran Ayres

Hiya Sieran! Thank you so much for such a thoughtful comment. You’re right there is no ‘foolproof’ way to determine something like this. We have to rely on authors being truthful. We cannot police another person’s identity and have to take their statements at face value. But, like I said there are ways to protect ourselves while still being engaged with others.

A straight woman in a queer relationship would certainly have a better perspective on her partner’s challenges than someone whose partner is also cishet. Even so, she should always take into consideration her partner’s feelings and make certain that anything she writes isn’t intrusive or too personal for her partner.

Respect for the other person is always key and we don’t want to appropriate someone else’s experience. She would also need to be certain that her partner is okay with her outing them online and she still shouldn’t claim to be #ownvoices. That would be like saying ‘since I’m married to a POC that means I can claim #ownvoices.’ We wouldn’t do that.

I hope that helps. ^_^

Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane

Bran, this is my first time using the vote up function. 😀

Yes, definitely, she shouldn’t out her partner unless he gives her express permission to do so, and she certainly cannot claim to be queer and/or trans herself (use the own voices hashtag). And yeah, it would be good for said cishet female author to ask her partner to read over her work to confirm that there isn’t anything too revealing or discomforting for him to show to the public.

And if you are the trans partner, you wouldn’t want to feel that your cis partner is using you to gain “legitimacy” with their readers. :/

Bran Ayres

It all boils down to respect and being honest. Simple as that. ^_^

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[…] #OwnVoices is a push to increase marginalized voices in our literature, and Bran L. Ayers explores what exactly #ownvoices means for authors and readers. […]

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