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Is it #ownvoices or exploitation?
In an effort to seek out marginalized authors, the publishing industry is driving many away.
This is a partial transcript from this video, which also includes stories from dozens of marginalized authors and their experience with the #ownvoices movement.
A few weeks ago I received this email from an aspiring author, which I’m sharing in full with permission.
I'm writing to you to ask a question about some advice that I have seen regarding authors who write about characters from marginalized identities. I recently saw a video in which you gave this advice and it has always been something I struggle with…
In the video "Why Literary Agents Reject Query Letters (12 Mistakes to AVOID!)" you say:
Especially if you are writing a protagonist with a marginalized identity that you yourself do not share, ask yourself:
Why am I really doing this?
Am I really the best person to tell this story?
My question is about the second question: What is an author supposed to do if the answer is, "no"? Like, I'm probably not the best person to tell this story, but it's a story that has merit I am the one who is writing it . . . so . . . am I supposed to find someone else to write it? Or is the implication that the story should just be shelved if it can't be told by a person from that identity?
I am asking this sincerely. I'm really struggling with some imposter syndrome here . . . I am a cisgender queer person, but my protagonist is a trans woman. In addition to being partnered to a trans person, I have been advocating for trans healthcare at my place of employment and am deeply enmeshed in queer advocacy. I've also been working with four trans women who are sensitivity readers for this book and all of them have had glowing feedback for me and are eager to see it published.
But at the end of the day, I'm cisgender. If I'm being honest, I'm not the best person to tell the story of a trans woman.
And that question, "Am I really the best person to tell this story?" keeps me up at night. Especially when I see agents specifically say that they are looking for authors who are from marginalized identities . . .I'm from a marginalized identity, but not the most marginalized identity that is featured in my book. If I query this book to them, will I be implying that I am a trans woman when I am not? Do I need to include a caveat that I am a bisexual woman (like my protagonist), but cisgender (unlike my protagonist)? It feels . . . uncomfortable to talk about my own gender and sexuality in a query letter, but I don't know how else to approach this.
I guess what I'm asking is:
If my answer is "No, I'm not the best person to write this book, but nobody else is writing it . . .," then how do I proceed from there?
This person and I have corresponded since, and they added the following:
One thing I just wanted to mention is that one of the comments said something about it being a misconception that trans authors weren’t telling their own stories already — that those stories are being told, they just aren’t getting published and so we don’t see them on the shelves.
Just in case, I wanted to clarify that when I say “nobody else is telling this story,” I’m not saying that nobody else is telling stories about trans people. I mean, quite literally, that nobody else is telling this story — the one in my head that hasn’t been written down yet. The story centers a trans woman and her identity as a trans person is important to how she experiences the events unfold, but my goal isn’t just to get a trans story out into the world, it’s to get this story out into the world.
But so many of the comments brought up the (excellent) point that publishers see an identity and think of it as being a “[that identity] book.” So if I write a story featuring a trans person, am I necessarily taking away an opportunity from a trans author to tell a story that would, by the mere fact that they have the lived experience, be more authentic?
And I think her last paragraph, and her statement that publishers see an identity and think of it as being a that identity book, is why we need to start with how things were before #ownvoices was even a thing.
The starting point
It’s easy to look at this kind of question today and say “can’t editors just judge books based on the writing?” Or as this commenter said…
i think all authors should just be completely anonymous and have no socials and no author bios or photos at the end of their books and no public appearances. that way books would be evaluated by their merit only. i think that would be very nice. lets try that for a little bit and see how it goes.
And yes, completely judging a book based on the writing and the story is the ideal. But you have to realize ownvoices isn’t something that just sprang up one day unprompted. It was a reaction to decades of exclusion. And even today, with ownvoices and we need diverse books etc, there are countless examples of authors and books being othered, and that othering often resulting in rejection.
An example, my debut group, author whose first novel was rejected because editors “already had an Asian American kid book on the list.” This was back in 2014. I think we all know no editor has ever said “no thanks, we already have a white kid book on the list.”
Tokenism has been the default in publishing for its entire history in this country. A book would never be rejected for having a white or straight protagonist (or author), but we only have room for one minority on the list (if that). I have had several white authors - self-identified progressive authors - in the last few years tell me they don’t think they can get a book deal these days because they aren’t “diverse”.
First of all, because semantics matter: one person can’t be diverse.
Second of all: that’s not true, full stop.
And I really try not to be too reactionary or condescending to that, but I point out that if you look at the Publisher’s Weekly deals every week, guess what? You’re gonna see white straight authors! So…no. When you’re on the privileged side of the seesaw, you experience the movement towards equality as you going down or even being oppressed. But it’s really just the playing field starting to level out. You have to look at where we started, and not base your entire perception off your singular experience.
But also, I get where they’re coming from - not because I think white straight authors are being oppressed, but because publishing has without a doubt made diversity and #ownvoices a trend. The authors I’ve heard privately complaining about this…to them, it’s no different than saying “dang, I love writing vampire romance but that’s not in right now, guess it’s just not my time.”
But diversity is not a trend, it’s simply a reality of the world. Trends die. Trends go away. Having an industry and books that reflect the reality of our world isn’t a trend, or it shouldn’t be.
The fundamental problem
This comment said it best.
Publishers are dumping the diversity issue onto authors because they are not diverse themselves. If they had people from diverse backgrounds reading the books and able to recognize authenticity, they would not need authors to disclose their backgrounds if they do not want to. A lot of the controversy over the past few years that has lead to the "own stories" push (which started out with very good intentions but often turns toxic) was because of books like 'American Dirt' - about Mexican migrants and written by a white woman. When Mexicans who had immigrated to the US read it, they noted how weird some of the characterizations were. Because there was no diversity in the publishing process for the book, they were blindsided by the backlash.
I would argue that if someone can write a character who is not like themselves in a way that people who do have that lived experience feel is authentic, then there is no problem. The problem comes when people write about other experiences in an inauthentic way that ends up harming the community presented. And for that to be determined requires a diverse staff at publishing houses.
I have said this in past videos and I’ll keep saying it; the whole issue of diversity with authors and books won’t truly be addressed until the publishing industry, particularly the big five, offer salaries that are liveable for Manhattan and make it so that people who do NOT have a financial fallback or support system of some sort can apply for editing, marketing, and design jobs. Having a more diverse staff will lead to better quality books. And as this commenter pointed out, and I agree…a lot of these editors are aware of this but now they’re so afraid they can’t assess for themselves the authenticity and quality of a story from a marginalized perspective, they demand the author show their receipts or qualifications out of fear of the potential backlash.
So yes, cancel culture has entered the chat. A topic for a separate video, but here’s the cliff notes version of my opinion: People in positions of power deserve to be held accountable for harmful words or actions. Frequently, they are not. As a result, out of frustration, online mobs form to vilify not-so-powerful people for things they said or did in the past with little to no consideration for how they might have evolved and even repented since then because if we can’t take down those select few powerful jerks who are actually passing laws that are actively harming people and making the world an objectively worse place, we can make ourselves feel better by destroying the life of an influencer who tweeted something offensive six years ago and call it progress.
Books and authors get cancelled all the time. And look, I am an editor, and to my fellow editors I say - this is on us. If we can assess the quality of a story from the perspective of a serial killer or a dog or a dragon and deem it worthy of publication, surely we can do the same for stories told from the perspectives of human beings of a different race or orientation than our own - and if we fail, surely we can own that and grow, and not use authors and sensitivity readers as a shield.
Speaking of sensitivity readers…
Sensitivity readers aren’t the solution
Here me out - I’m not saying we shouldn’t use sensitivity readers, and I’m not saying they can’t be extremely useful. I’m saying they aren’t the solution to this issue.
To be clear, I’ve always been in the camp that authenticity readers have been a thing authors have used for as long as authors have been around. But publishers are increasingly using them as a shield and that is both unfair to the author and the reader, and also they often aren’t even effective at actually identifying harmful stereotypes in a story.
An anecdote from this piece on sensitivity readers in Writers Unboxed:
Alberto Gullaba Jr. wrote a novel titled University Thugs about a black ex-convict who, after his release from prison, enrolls in a predominantly white university. His agent was thrilled with the novel, and to help with marketing asked Gullaba about his own ethnic background. Gullaba told his agent he was Filipino, and the agent’s enthusiasm promptly cooled. He requested that Gullaba submit the manuscript to one of the agent’s staff members, who was Black. One little problem: she had been born in the Caribbean and raised in the U.K. How she had any greater authority than the author to speak for a Black American male ex-convict remains unclear. In the end the agent withdrew his representation and Gullaba published the novel independently and pseudonymously.
That agent was excited about the book until he learned the author’s race - which, among other things, tells me this agent doesn’t trust his own gut. Then passing it off to a Black staff member who could not speak to the Black American male ex-convict experience any better than I could is so beyond ignorant.
Getting a second pair of eyes on a project is a great idea. But that agent wasn’t looking for help, he was looking for a shield. And I’d bet anything that staff member wasn’t paid for that extra labor she did, either.
And that’s not the worst anecdote, either.
Unfortunately, the horror stories are not limited to what has happened to writers. In an anonymous piece titled “I Was a Sensitivity Reader—Until I Realized Why I was Hired,” the anonymous author recounts how she was recruited by a senior editor because she (the author) was working class, had overcome difficulties with alcohol, and had experienced both domestic abuse and mental health issues. She was part of a team assembled due to similar backgrounds:
The sensitivity readers were all under 30—there was even someone who had started as an editorial assistant who was still in her late teens. When I met the rest of the team, I realised we had all been recruited because we had some form of trauma. Whether it be abuse, addiction, or issues around sexuality or race, we were all somehow drawing from our previous suffering. One had a history of self-harm. In hindsight, it felt like manipulation of young impressionable employees, who were being paid less than £20,000 a year to effectively reopen old wounds and safeguard the reputation of the publisher.
It’s difficult not to come away with the sense that this preoccupation with language and “sensitivity” is an escape hatch, policing speech rather than engaging in the far more difficult tasks of pursuing real diversity and opportunity for marginalized individuals, communities—and writers.
You know that thing where it feels like white people are more worried about being called racist than they are worried about actual racism? It’s that vibe. And when that happens, we get situations like editors and agents using marginalized authors and sensitivity readers as shields.
Inclusivity statements (or are they demands?)
We also get statements on manuscript wish lists and agency websites about inclusion. Now, some of these are, in my opinion, totally fine. They say something along the lines of “we welcome submissions from XYZ marginalized communities.” To me, that’s akin to a company’s diversity statement. “We don’t discriminate based on race, sexuality, etc etc.” Of course, actions speak louder than words, but the statement itself is just an acknowledgement that hey, we know our industry has a history of exclusivity to these communities and we’re committed to being inclusive. Cool.
But then you have agents and editors who lump this into the list of stories they’d like to see in their submissions. “I’m looking for vampire romance, space operas, psychological horror, the next Graceling, and stories from BIPOC, LGBTQIA, and disabled communities.”
To me this is…maybe not a red flag, but like a pink flag? Because I think, or I want to think, most of them are coming from a good place (although some are undoubtedly just virtue signaling). But even if it is coming from a good place, slotting this into your list of current interests and trends just tells me it’s temporary. It tells me on some level, you see it as a trend? I also perceive it to be very subtle, and probably unintentional, othering. A light implication that if you are from one of those communities, that experience is the premise of your book? Sorry to state the obvious, but…BIPOC people might write vampire romances. Queer people might write space operas. A person with a disability might be writing the next Graceling as we speak.
Then we have agents and editors who have some version of this on their wish lists: “no submissions about marginalized characters if it’s not #ownvoices.” And that’s…again, maybe not a red flag, but a darker pink flag? Because first of all, it tells me that the agent or editor doesn’t trust their own judgment of whether or not a story feels authentic. And second of all, as the email I shared at the start of this video illustrates, it leads to confusion, doubt, and even fear among marginalized authors. Because what qualifies here? What if you’re marginalized, but not in the EXACT way as your protagonist? What if you’re queer or trans but in the closet, or you’re simply not willing to disclose that for your own safety? What if you have an invisible disability or a mental illness and you aren’t comfortable sharing that with a literal stranger, much less committing to talking about it publicly in the event your book is published? Does this agent or editor require a doctor’s note, medical records, a urine sample, and a complete psychological evaluation as well? Do they not see how this kind of statement is actively driving away the very marginalized authors whose voices they claim to want to uplift?
It’s not inclusive. It’s exclusive. And I have to wonder how long it’ll be before someone takes legal action.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal laws prohibiting discrimination against a job applicant or an employee during a variety of work situations including hiring, firing, promotions, training, wages and benefits.
Federal laws currently in place include:
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Makes it illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin or sex. This law also protects employees against retaliation for going forward with a claim regarding discrimination in the workplace.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act: This amendment to Title VII expands the protections regarding “sex” to include prohibiting sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth and/or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth.
The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA): Prohibits sex-based wage discrimination between men and women who perform equal work in the same workplace.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA): Protects employees or future employees who are 40 or older from discrimination in the workplace.
Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA): Makes it illegal to discriminate against a qualified person with a disability from employment or during employment.
Okay, let me state the obvious upfront: the agent-author and the editor-author relationship are not employer-employee. So I am fully aware that these laws don’t cover this situation. And I am far from a legal expert at all. It’s just that when I imagine a scenario where, for example, a marginalized author is coerced by an agency or publisher into disclosing some part of their identity in order to get representation or a book deal…if that author has a really good lawyer and the parameters of the situation are just right…I can see that lawsuit, you know? And I really question why industry professionals are so comfortable publicly saying “hey, if you want to work with me and you write about a gay character, you’d better prove to me you’re gay too, or it ain’t happening.”
It baffles me that self-proclaimed progressive and/or liberal people don’t see how wrong this is. But it’s happening.
The argument for staying in your lane
“Stay in your lane” was not, from my recollection, the message of #ownvoices. But a lot of people took it to mean as much. When I look at the advice about asking yourself “am I the best person to tell this story,” I can see how it might be interpreted that way. And I hope by now that if your reaction to this whole discussion is “anyone can write anything they want and it shouldn’t matter,” maybe you can understand how decades and decades of stereotypical portrayals of people of your ethnicity, sexuality, religion, etc would make you feel differently. How you’d be thrilled to see an author from that community write an authentic story about that experience that resonated with you and showed readers that this community you belong to is rich and complex and beautiful and so much more than just a punchline, a villain, whatever.
Back when the Black Lives Matter movement was really starting to get national attention, I taught a workshop where aspiring authors brought in the first chapter of their books. One of the authors I worked with was a white woman in her fifties who had been following the news. She was outraged and deeply moved by the stories and was writing a novel directly inspired by one of those incidents.
Was she the best person to tell that story? No. As well meaning as her intentions, even that first chapter had a few stereotypes. If she’d posted that chapter publicly, she would have been dragged as a white savior trying to profit off the pain of Black people.
And I will admit, I struggle with this. As an editor, I would not have published that book - not because the author was white, but because even I could identify that the story didn’t feel authentic. But as a teacher, do I want to discourage a person who is attempting to empathize with another person’s experience?
This is fiction. It is, actually, about walking in someone else’s shoes. So I guess where I’m at right now, to keep going with my earlier example, is that I would not tell this white author to NOT write the book about a specifically Black experience. She can write it. But in the ideal world, when she goes on submission, and an editor reads it and passes it around the team, and that team is a diverse one, they will determine whether or not it’s authentic and free of stereotypes and you know, A GOOD BOOK OR NOT, and they will make their decision based on that quality and there will be no need to slap together committees of underpaid marginalized staffers or reach for the shield of sensitivity readers before they make that decision.
Also, as for whether or not I think an author can effectively write outside of their own experience…of course I do. You’ve probably seen those memes about female characters written by male authors, and they’re really funny and yeah I’ve read some pretty terrible portrayals of women by men. But also some of my favorite female characters of all time were written by men. I was completely obsessed with Carrie when I first read it as a teenager and it remains one of my favorite horror novels of all time. Stephen King didn’t have the lived experience of being an abused teenage girl who’s traumatized by her first period and subsequently bullied, but he sure did a good job of writing it.
Oh, and he had help.
“I couldn’t see wasting two weeks, maybe even a month, creating a novella I didn’t like and wouldn’t be able to sell,” King wrote in his memoir On Writing. “So I threw it away … After all, who wanted to read a book about a poor girl with menstrual problems?"
The next day, Tabby went to empty the trash in the laundry room and found three crinkled balls of paper. She reached in, brushed off a coat of cigarette ashes, and unwrinkled the pages. When King came home from work, she still had them.
“You’ve got something here,” she said. “I really think you do.” Over the next few weeks, Tabby guided her husband through the world of women, giving tips on how to mold the characters and the famous shower scene. Nine months later, King had polished off the final draft. (Mental Floss)
Kind of sounds like a sensitivity reader, eh?
The argument for NOT staying in your lane
Before you start thinking I’m saying “oh us poor white authors being told we can’t write about non-white people” - one, that’s not what I’m saying, two, as the email that inspired this whole tirade makes clear, it is (as always) marginalized authors who are being hurt by this weaponization of #ownvoices the most.
I was on a panel once with a debut author. This author was from a marginalized community, and their debut centered that experience. During the panel, the author showed us the galley for their second novel - and the cover featured a white girl. The author talked a bit about their inspiration, then said “I chose a white protagonist because I’m not about to let any publisher pigeonhole me into ‘that author who writes about this one marginalized experience ONLY.’”
It was the first time I realized that this was a thing that was happening. This was before all the stuff started coming out about agents and editors weaponizing #ownvoices. Rejecting aspiring authors only when they find out the story isn’t #ownvoices, and encouraging them to submit an #ownvoices book instead.
In these conversations about writing in or out of your lane, someone will usually make the point that it depends on whether or not the character’s marginalization is a focal point or incidental. For example, if the main character is gay, is the story centered around them coming out or dealing with homophobia? Or is it a story about a quest to save the world from a dark lord and the hero happens to be gay? Is it an issue book, or is it escapism?
I’m not going to say you can’t write an issue book if you haven’t lived the experience of that issue, but you definitely have your work cut out for you if you decide to go that route. And I know a lot of people in marginalized communities are so sick of the lazy stereotypes that they might say this is a hard no. Reader’s choice, I respect that.
Escapism stories tend to get a lot more slack. I have a paranormal trilogy about a biracial girl and I’ve never seen a review or received any online criticism that I should’ve stayed in my lane.
And this is something I’d love to see discussed more in the ongoing conversation about #ownvoices - that a lot of marginalized authors out there WANT to write escapism and are being discouraged from doing so by publishing gatekeepers.
Because when you write an #ownvoices issue book, you are drawing on past trauma. And I’m not using the word trauma lightly - these authors are reaching deep down and connecting with truly horrific experiences they and their loved ones have been through directly related to their marginalization and pouring that pain into their fiction.
There are authors who do this willingly, it might even be cathartic for them, and I’m grateful we have those books. Those books absolutely deserve to be published.
But if a marginalized author just wants to write a sappy rom-com or a dragon epic fantasy or a gory slasher, they should be able to do so, and if those books are good they absolutely deserve to be published - not rejected with the note “you’re a great writer, if you ever want to write about your own trauma for profit, query me again!”
What IS “the lane”?
If you’re a masochist who wants to get dragged by book reviewers, here’s a tip: write a YA novel with a bisexual protagonist. You can’t win. Your Goodreads page will be a dumpster fire. They’ll be mad your main character had a love interest who was their gender, or who was not their gender. They’ll be mad your main character had a love interest at all, and they’ll be mad your main character didn’t have a love interest. They’ll be mad if your MC’s a slut. They’ll be mad if your MC’s a prude. They’ll be mad if there was sex but no romance, romance but no sex, both, or neither. If you dared put your MC in a love triangle they will literally come to your house and set fire to your cat.
So why is this? It’s because until recent years, bisexual characters were rare and they were never the main character and they were usually written with some pretty harmful stereotypes. So readers, especially bisexual readers, would get so excited to see a book centering their experience - then rage when that book didn’t actually reflect their experience.
Because here’s the crazy thing: there is no one bisexual experience. (!!!) There’s no one Black experience or indigenous experience or deaf experience or autistic experience or neurodivergent experience or trans experience…you get my point. No community is a hive mind, except maybe the clone community.
So I understand where the anger is coming from. It’s usually not a reflection on the book; it’s a reflection on the industry that simply has not published many books that center characters from these communities free of harmful stereotypes.
As a white woman in my forties, if I want to read a book or watch a show about a white woman in her forties, I have a lot of options. Most of these characters aren’t going to reflect my experience, but some will. I have enough options that when I do read or see a character who really reminds me of myself in some way, it’s cool but it’s not like a shock.
I can imagine that if I’d grown up only ever seeing characters like me portrayed as, say, villains, or victims, or whatever, yeah, I’d absolutely lose my mind with joy when a book came out that was #ownvoices to my experience. And if I read it and it didn’t resonate with me, I’d be disappointed.
But that doesn’t mean the book was a poor portrayal. It just means we need more books with characters from those communities, because each one portrays a different experience.
Should you disclose personal information to an agent or editor?
So what’s my advice when it comes to what you do or do not disclose in query letters or while on submission? I think if you’re comfortable disclosing it, go right ahead. If you’re not - don’t.
It's not a required component of a query letter or submission. And that puts the onus on the agent or editor to ask you if they want to know. Hey, are you biracial? Hey, are you trans? Hey, have you been diagnosed with a learning disability? My hope is that having to ask would give at least some of them pause to reflect on the wrongness of what they're doing, you know? Everyone has a right to privacy. That includes authors.
You might run into a few of those agents who are clearly treating #ownvoices like a trend and will reject you if your identity does not perfectly match your character’s. And believe me, I understand how hard it is in the query trenches and how you might not want to take an otherwise awesome agent off your list. But I’ll just say this - if you’re uncomfortable with what the agent wants you to disclose, and you decide to disclose anyway, be prepared to see that all the way through. By which I mean, the agent will want to include that in your submission package, which means your editor and your marketing team and ultimately the entire public will likely know.
Also, there are a lot of awesome agents and editors out there too, who will be willing to listen to you and your concerns. And importantly - while it’s true the publishing industry isn’t nearly as diverse as we want it to be, it isn’t completely homogenous. There are agents and editors of color, who are part of the LGBT community, who have disabilities, who are neurodivergent, etc. And many of them are no doubt having these conversations at these agencies and in these houses. I say this because my traditional publishing rants get pretty bleak and this one is no exception, but if this is the path you want to go, I don’t want this bringing you down - I just want to help you navigate the journey.