I want to bring particular attention to this:
Be critical of film and TV, even the stuff you love . . . If you want to be a truly good writer, you can’t have sacred cows. If other people think an episode of your favourite show is sexist or racist or short-sighted in some way, hear them out and consider their point of view. You can enjoy a piece of media while also acknowledging its shortcomings. However, if you hold your favourite writer or producer above criticism, then you’ll likely fall into the same traps as they do, and you too may alienate or hurt people with your work. Accept that no one is perfect, not even your hero. Accept that no one’s writing is perfect, even if it’s hugely entertaining; we all have unconscious hang-ups and prejudices, and many of us write from a position of privilege. One of the best things you can do as a writer (and a person) is to listen to the way other people receive stories.
Because every word is the truth. We do not write in a vacuum. We write about the real world while living in the real world. That’s true whether we are writing about zombies or vampires or high school or genocide or butterflies or all five. Our words have effects on other people.
We need to be mindful of the history of the genre we write. For example, I’m watching Fear of the Walking Dead because I love zombies and will watch anything with even the slight possibility that a zombie might show up. Fear is a spin off from The Walking Dead. One of the biggest criticisms of that show is how few black people there are. There were hardly any black extras either, which is particularly weird given that it’s set near Atlanta which has one of the largest African-American populations in the USA. You would think that the creators and writers of Fear of the Walking Dead would be aware of that criticism. Yet the only named characters killed in the first two episodes were black. Seriously? You couldn’t kill a white named character? You couldn’t let one black character survive?
They ignored the history of their particular franchise and the broader history of US TV where black characters have always been treated as disposable. What were they thinking? They weren’t. They sat inside their blinkered world and wrote from there. Don’t do that.
Critiquing the things we love can also give us insight into the failings of our own work. As Sarah says “listen[ing] to the way other people receive stories” gives you a richer understanding of how our stories can be read and of what stories can do.
I wrote about the racism in my own work three years ago. I would write a very similar post if I were to write it today. It is essential to know as much as we can about our genre and its pitfalls when we write. Otherwise we’ll make the same mistakes.
I write YA. It’s a genre that in Australia, the UK and the US is overwhelmingly about white, straight, middle-class teenagers and overwhelmingly written by white, straight, middle-class authors. The blind spots of my beloved genre are many. This is why we have organisations like Diversity in YA founded by Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon. They have a whole section where they look at the statistics on diversity in YA. I highly recommend checking it out.
All too often white writers who create POC characters expect to be congratulated for having made the effort and do not deal well with criticism of those characters. We forget that POC writing POC get criticism too.1 Have a look at the criticism African-Americans get for not representing their community in a positive way and for not writing uplifting books.
We must also remember that diversity is not just about who is represented in the story and on the covers of those books, which, yes, is deeply important, but also about who is writing and publishing the books. Having most of the POC characters in YA written by white authors is not a huge improvement.2
Everyone gets criticised. No writer is perfect. Jane Austen couldn’t write a satisfying ending to save her life. Her books just end, people! So annoying. Georgette Heyer was a racist, anti-semite, full of horrible class prejudices. If she were alive today she’d be embarrassing the shit our of her fans on twitter every day. She and Rupert Murdoch would probably be besties.3 I still think Heyer’s one of the best comic writers of the twentieth century.4
TL;DR: Read Sarah’s wonderful writing advice. Our writing heroes are fallible so are we. We must know the history of what we write. Listen to how other people respond to stories. Just listen!
- Our own communities often judge us the most harshly. As an Australian the most vehement criticism I get of my books with Aussie characters and Aussie settings is that I’ve gotten them wrong. Aussies don’t talk that why! Why do you misrepresent your own people? Are you actually Australian? [↩]
- I speak as a white author who has written African-American, Aboriginal Australian, Hispanic American and Chinese-American main characters. I know I’m part of the problem. [↩]
- Although she may have been appalled by him being a vulgar colonial. [↩]
- I just can’t read The Grand Sophy any more. [↩]