Friday, January 13, 2017

I'm black, my book isn't.

This summer, I joined Twitter and followed several agents. I kept seeing the hashtag "we need diverse books" and/or diverse authors. Some advice I read even said to put your ethnicity into your query as a qualification. But I'm confused about what to do in my particular case. I am African-American and live in the rural South, but my book has nothing to do with my experience of being a minority in the South. Heck, my main character is Caucasian, and only one black person appears in the book at all.
But more and more, I'm seeing beta readers say things like "I will only read diverse books and/or diverse authors," and I'm confused about where I would fit into all of this. I am a minority, but I don't write about it in my work. Are agents/beta readers looking for me or not? I know I have to write an exceptional book before this even matters, but I'm curious about your opinion on this

This is a really interesting question and I'm not sure if there is one answer, let alone a right answer.

When agents talk about diverse voices, they're generally talking about story. They're looking for books with characters who aren't all mainstream white.

More than that they're looking for characters who aren't stereotypes: all (or the only) black kids speak urban slang; all (or the only) Asians are computer geeks; all the stoners are skateboarders, all the Southerners are racists.  One reason the movie Dope was so fun to watch was everyone seemed real, not two dimensional character paper dolls. Some black kids were nerds. Some were drug dealers. Some were the good guys. Others weren't. It felt real.

If your book has a rich array of characters who aren't two-dimensional, you'll be fine.

The real question here is do you want to tell agents you are African American, and if so, at what stage.

I think right now I'd be more likely to look at something if the author wasn't white, simply because I want publishing to look more like my neighborhood and less like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

But it feels weird to me to tell you to list your ethnicity, because I certainly would not tell a writer to say they are Caucasian. Yet, my own desire to have more writers of color seems to mean you should.

Like I said, I'm not sure there is an answer here.


80 comments:

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I'm thinking I want to mention the no no of my age in a query but it's not the same dilemma, is it, so I won't.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Ooh, this is a very good question (and I dig your answer, Janet)!

Because, as I am white, I've wondered about the other diversity needs some agents seek, such as gender and disability, and the point at which one discloses. It feels like such a super awkward thing to work into a cover letter, y'know? But if it's part of a submission call, a #MSWL, whatever, that's "permission" (invitation?) anyway.

Donnaeve said...

My reaction was the writer's ethnicity should be as important as their gender. In other words - not at all.

I'm glad QOTKU clarified what is meant by diverse - because this has always been a head scratcher to me and for the very reason she stated at the end - she wouldn't tell a white writer to say "hey, btw, I'm white."

Like OP already recognizes, write an exceptional story, and like QOTKU says, write characters who don't land squarely into a niche role, then you have the sort of story folks will want to read, no matter what.

Good luck OP!

MA Hudson said...

My guess is that it wouldn't hurt say something like, 'I am African-American but I don't write about it in my work.'
Put it in the housekeeping section of the query. You never know, it might pique someone's interest enough to get a request for a full. Then, of course, it'll be about the strength of your story.
As Janet's said on other occasions, be bold. What harm's it going to do?
Good luck and let us know how you go.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

My first thoughts?

I do have diverse characters in my WiP. In my query drafts I DO mention in my bio that I've served a bi-racial church for the past 3+ years. I want to assure agents that I don't do stereotypes. I also show (not tell) this indirectly via the paragraphs about the story itself.

(Does that mean I get characterization and background for people of color perfectly right? I'm human and I'm Caucasian, so I probably won't but I'm learning. I'm a person in progress.)

And I think the reason writers don't need to state in their bio that they're white is because that's the automatic assumption unless we're told otherwise. Just as we assume (at least I still do) all characters in the stories we read are white, unless the book blurb or something about the character's physical description tells us otherwise. Is this assumption related to age? Or related to whether we've grown up in small all-white villages or cosmopolitan areas that have more diversity? I dunno.


Colin Smith said...

This is a tough one, which is good because this could be a useful and lively conversation! :)

Like Janet, the more publishing looks like our neighborhoods, the better we will understand the people around us who are not like us. However, two issues spring to mind (and I'm sure they're not the only two issues--just the two that spring to mind before 8am on a Friday).

1) How do white straight people (men in particular) help or hinder this desire?
2) How can the publishing industry encourage diverse voices without losing sight of the Most Important Thing: getting great stories into the hands of readers?

One of the ways to address #1, which is hard for us white straight men, is NOT to assume I can represent the struggle of my minority friends. Sure, I can have diverse characters, and I can show them experiencing some of the struggles POC (for example) have in a largely white community. But I shouldn't assume to be able to walk in their shoes. ROOTS is not my story to tell.

As for #2, that's probably the hardest. We want to encourage diverse writers, but should an okay book by a black author be given publishing preference over an amazing book by a white author? It's the same dilemma in business: do you give preference to the less qualified applicant because s/he is belongs to a minority? I tend toward the view that to be truly equal, and avoid patronizing people, you keep the bar the same, and take the best regardless of color, ethnicity, creed, etc.

OK, I've stirred the pot some. Don't be afraid to chime in. This is a great learning opportunity for everyone. Me included. :)

Colin Smith said...

To answer Opie's question... my first response would be to say, "No! Don't mention your ethnicity! Let your work stand on its own." BUT, then I think of Donna slipping bookmarks in with her bills, and I think, "Use whatever acceptable means are at your disposal to get your work read. If that means mentioning you're a POC, or your book deals with an issue that agent has said she's looking for, then go for it!"

kathy joyce said...

What an interesting microcosm of race in America! Agents want black voices in books, but not stereotypical black voices. What does that mean? Is a nerdy black character different than a nerdy white or nerdy Asian character? A nerd is a nerd, but for the book to be noticed, the character will have to somehow deal with the fact that he's black. So it still comes down to stereotypes, even if that means that the character is demonstrating that he's not the stereotype. He can't just be a black character without dealing with his race as that character. Otherwise, you could just add a phrase that the main character in your book is black. But agents would tell you that he's not "black enough" because he doesn't have a black voice. I wonder if agents would be equally interested in a story with a black voice written by a white author, as they would be in a story with a white voice written by a black author. I guess that's the question isn't it? Or, the real question is, does it matter? I don't know, but it would be an interesting experiment to query both ways and see if there's a marked difference in responses. I suppose that, in the end, you have to decide if you want it to matter that you're an author or a black author.

b-Nye said...

Interesting point of view. Diversity addressed on two fronts. Joining the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or penning their greatest hymn. Both?

Matt Adams said...

I think you ought to find a way to slide it into you bio without saying it directly.

I have no idea how to do that.

kathy joyce said...

Please don't forget to tell us what you decided to do and how you did it!

Lennon Faris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lennon Faris said...

Hmm. Interesting question. I like Janet's honest answer. My initial reaction is that I would NOT want an agent to want me more based on my ethnicity, so I wouldn't mention it in the query.

Then again, in the query bio you always say a few different things about yourself, hoping your potential agent will think, 'oh that sounds like a really interesting person and I want to work with them.' And ethnicity is a lot more than just a physical description. So, I guess it just depends on what you personally want to project?

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I think Donna said it best. When I read something, I couldn't give a flying curse word about the race, gender, or planet of origin of the author. The book is either well written or not. I either enjoy the story or I don't. And there's not a damn thing any agent or publisher can do to change what I enjoy reading apart from causing me to pick up the book in first place. And my taste is different from others so a book I can't stand, some other million folks might love and vice versa.

So write a great story and go from there. Like Janet says, have great real characters and plop them in a good story, and I am pretty sure you are good to go. As for mentioning whatever your diversity might be, I think that's entirely up to the author. it might be something best left until later in the process. I am definitely not telling anyone I am a tattooed half blind freak of nature until there is nothing poor agent and publisher can do to get rid of me apart from calling in the Catholic Church for an exorcism.

Colin Smith said...

kathy joyce: Perhaps the point is just not to assume. POC and white people often have the same concerns, and talk about the same things, so you may not always be able to tell ethnicity from dialog. They can even share speech patterns depending on where they grew up. So, ask: why is this character white and not black or Asian or Latino? If you know people of a different ethnicity, what would tip you off that they are not YOUR ethnicity? Maybe sneak some of those elements into your characters.

RachelErin said...

The nice thing about social media is you can have pictures and 'about mes' of yourself floating around. If you follow agents on twitter, have a nice photo in various avatars, these will come up when they google you.

Which they will, when your book is amazing.

I met a friend of an acquaintance for a networking coffee once, and was a little put off when he came up and said "Hi Rachel!" I asked straight out how he recognized me. Google, of course. (Many people I know google everyone they know. I do not, so I still find it a bit strange).

One nice place for authors is about.me, where you can put an extended bio/whatever you want on a single web page. Then you can talk about where you're from and how it affects your work. It's free and can be basic or fancy.

Given what I've read about white authors writing black characters, and from my African-
American colleagues (psychologists, psychiatrists, and writers), I bet your stories and characters do differ from the mainstream majority, because your experiences have been different, even if (for now) they don't directly address issues of race or minority experience.

Grace Wen said...

I look forward to seeing the response because I'm in a similar pickle (I'm Asian American, but not all of my books have Asian characters in them). My name gives me away, though, so it's not the same dilemma.

I'm glad there's more discussion about diverse books, but sometimes the whole thing makes me squirm because it feels like I'm watching people talking *about* me (general "me," kind of like the royal "we,") without talking *to* me. Example: when people have a knee-jerk reaction against the Asian nerd stereotype, I want to explain where that stereotype comes from (at least in my experience). I want to explain how stories about Chinese people on the coasts is far different than my experience growing up in the Midwest. I have so many stories I want to tell, but I'm concerned that this push toward diverse stories is limited to diverse stories that conform to certain anti-stereotypes or different, but no less harmful, preconceived notions of what a diverse story/author "should" be.

Colin asked, "Do you give preference to the less qualified applicant because s/he is belongs to a minority?" IMO, this question assumes that the qualifications themselves are objective. They're not. Qualifications reflect the subjective values of the person/organization doing the assessing. I suspect there are so many amazing stories out there competing for so few slots that the actual problem is having to choose among TOO many stories that clear the quality bar.

DLM said...

This is one of those times my mind goes straight to an author's social media presence. Not every agent might click the Twitter ID or Facebook page in a signature block, but those things need to be there - whatever platform you use, make yourself find-able there.

With your blog or your avatar(s), you can make "who you are" clear without making a point of that as if your gender/religion/ethnicity/body identifies your identity (or even your writing). And you can also make whatever makes you diverse clear comfortably.

This is the second time in days I'll point to the real estate of a query letter. If your being African American has nothing to do with the book, how does one go about making it relevant to the introduction to it? And yet ... yeah, we DO need diverse authors just as much as we need the diverse characters. As much as I want to agree with Donna and Elise - as a READER, I don't care either who an author may be - I also agree with those agents who are seeking diversity. This *is* a business and that is a dynamic within the industry, and agents and publishers have to look at works and their creators differently than I do in my living room, curled up with the end product of their efforts.

Looking at questions like this, it seems like you have to put yourself in the place of agents receiving a query, but I just find that impossible to do. I don't have the knowledge.

I guess this is where the query research can be a guide. Have a query that specifies your identity, and one that does not. (I had multiple queries, but for different reasons.) When you see someone actively seeking diverse *authors* - no brainer, use the identity query. When you see one who doesn't speak about #WNDB online or in their "what I'm looking for" blurbs or interviews, maybe you can use the generic query.

This one is truly a stumper.

DLM said...

Heh, and RachelErin and I were clearly thinking along similar lines with the "about me"/avatar points!

Grace, I have wondered about that aspect of the discussion; thank you so much for speaking to that! Anti-stereotypes can be just as poorly written as stereotypes, I'm sure we've all seen it done. And sometimes it can be done the same way often enough that what starts as an "anti" becomes a new stereotype. Your final paragraph is so beautifully well put I want to just stop reading for the rest of the day.

Colin Smith said...

Grace: What about women whose last name is their married name? You could have a white or Asian woman whose last name is Sanchez. Or a black woman whose last name is Ivanov.

I find it fascinating (and sometimes alarming) when I stop and examine my assumptions... :)

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

What a great question... And what a terrific conversation. I was going to chime in with my own thoughts but I would be echoing what DLM said, so all I'll say is: What DLM said.

Colin Smith said...

Grace: And yes, I was assuming that the organization hiring has a set of qualifications that applicants need to meet. For the vast majority of organizations, those qualifications don't (or shouldn't) include gender or ethnicity. Those qualifications will be subjective to the one setting them, but they should be applied objectively. :)

John Davis Frain said...

I find this an easy question, and I harken to an old economics / entrepreneurial phrase for its simple answer.

"Find a need and fill it."

First credited to Ruth Stafford Peale, wife of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale.

Agents and the publishing industry have expressed a need for diverse authors and diverse characters. Guess what Opie? You're coming to their rescue. Darn straight you should mention that you're here to fill their expressed need. The only argument should be whether you mention it at the very first or near the end of your query.

The industry has sounded the alarm bells for diverse authors. I'm happy to tell you I'll answer that call. Or any other way you want to mention it in the query.

Grace Wen said...

Colin said: "What about women whose last name is their married name? You could have a white or Asian woman whose last name is Sanchez. Or a black woman whose last name is Ivanov."

Hee, yes, good point!

One more thought: diversity has been a topic in a lot of the publishing industry newsletters I receive. What's fascinating is how they appear to assume the newsletter recipient is white. So, from my viewpoint, I see white people telling other white people how to write PoC characters. It's...odd to watch.

Craig F said...

There is no one answer because race and gender in writing are a function of the story to be told.

I am afraid that many of those who want more diversity in books are calling on it from their own failings. My De Colores friends and I don't discuss our various races and genders in the real world, why should I do it in my writing. I don't not do it, it is not a function of the writing. It is backstory and may get told as such but is not a major topic.

In other words I am not writing about race. I am writing about a plot and story arc. I include those things where they fit. I do not make Mary Sue characters just because someone else says it is too something else.

Others can have different ways of looking at it. Their stories might have a reason to point other things out. Do it because the story demands it, not because society thinks it needs it.

Colin: your British is showing again.

Jessica said...

Hi guys, I'm OP! Thanks for answering my question, Janet!

I'm thrilled by everyone's responses. For me, it just feels uncomfortable to mention it in my query. "I am an English major, and I am also black. Thank you for your consideration." It's even stickier in my case because my name "sounds white" (not my words). I've had bosses before who were violently surprised when I showed up for the first day of work and I wasn't at all what they imagined. So on one hand, I feel the need to state it--not only to improve my chances of getting published, but to avoid a kind of "deception," if that makes sense. On the other hand, my book is a paranormal novel about zombies...and I just don't see the relevance.

I love the suggestion about social media--I didn't even think about that! I am extremely introverted, so my Twitter and Facebook are virtually empty. Taking a few nice photos would probably alleviate my concerns altogether. I also like the suggestion of sending out two different queries, as the demand arises.

Thank you to everyone who made suggestions, and please don't stop the discussion! It's an interesting topic that I've thought about for a long time :)

Sherry Howard said...

Great discussion. I actually saw in one submission guidelines yesterday specific instructions to let agent know about any diversity of author, including disability. Which I have, so I included in only that one query, while I normally wouldn't unless it was reflected in the character I wrote #ownvoice. I have a mobility impairment from a spinal cord injury, and it had a huge negative impact on my physical ability to write for a while (enter smalll, mobile keyboards). Physical disability is often on "seeking diversity lists," but it's an awkward thing to discuss. Hope my writing speaks to someone.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

To Colin's point, my brother married a Chinese woman. She disappeared (abandoned my brother and his son years back) His son appears entirely Asian but by his name you would never know. My nephew spent his first six years of life in Taiwan.

I am bias and think my nephew is the coolest kid ever. He is fifteen now and literally a genius. He has an Idenic memory (some call this photographic), speaks Mandarin, Cantonese, and English fluently. But he is not enamored of school and so does not obsess about grades. There is nothing typical about the kid. He wants to write and build robots at the moment. Robots will take over the planet if he continues with this. We are working on a Sci-Fi alternative history thing together which has been loads of fun. He has done a lot of anime in his youth as well. Brilliant stuff really. I think he could do a lot with it if he wanted.

He probably would not mention his ethnicity in a query. He really gets a bit heated when people assume things about him (or others) based on superficial characteristics.

He has, on many occasions, had people ask him either if he is adopted or why is his father white? I guess those kind of simple assumptions are really what we are all trying to get past. After all, we are all individuals and unless you are a borg, your experience is diverse in ways those who are not you would have no earthly clue about And yes, it is good to get new perspectives, but really, superficial characteristics you have no control over does not a great writer make. It's voice.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Jessica, like someone else said, please keep us updated.

Julie Weathers said...

OP, first off, congratulations on having a book ready to query. that's a huge accomplishment. Also, this is a good time for you. I follow, did follow, I have about every agent except Janet muted now as I am tired of the "OMG we're all going to die!!!!!!!" hysteria. When agents were actually talking about publishing, there was a constant request for diversity and POC authors. Even if your work doesn't focus on that, it gives you bonus points.

I think the beta readers who are saying they will only read diverse books are being a bit elitist. You don't need them. You need honest readers who are more interested in giving a truthful opinion than making a political statement.

In an ideal world, people should be judged on merit, period. No one should care if you are green, female, male, in between, polka dotted, chameleon, young, old, whatever. In the real world, I know my age is going to turn some agents off. There is no ideal world.

I've already had complaints that I shouldn't be allowed to write for black people, especially slaves in Rain Crow. Maybe not, but I'm basing a LOT of these characters on diaries and letters, real people. Hopefully, I get it right.

If we only wrote what we are, there would be no Dune or Outlander or Game of Thrones or Sherlock Homes or Agatha Christie or Gary Corby mysteries.



Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Every General Conference I watch the MoTab. Yes, there are a few POCs, but not as many as I'd like. Presumed it was simply a reflection of the Salt Lake population.

Then there's my ward, which is mostly POC. My Euro-descended sun-burnable skin is a distinct minority. Yet I always join the choir because i have a powerful voice.

So, join MoTab? Sure. Tour the world. Write their greatest hymn?

Actually, I'd prefer that. My great-great aunt did that some fifty-plus years ago. There isn't a single Mormon today who doesn't know "I Am a Child of God".

Now that is impact.

BJ Muntain said...

Regarding Colin's #2: "but should an okay book by a black author be given publishing preference over an amazing book by a white author?"

That depends on the publisher, their goals, their audience, their tastes, and what they see the market wanting. Especially the market.

Being published isn't like getting a job, where you show a perfect manuscript and get chosen. Publishing is far more subjective: what exactly do 'okay' and 'amazing' mean? For that matter, what does 'publishing preference' mean?

Publishers are going to publish what they think will sell. Some publishers do have a preference for 'diverse voices'. I know of one publisher that ONLY publishes 'diverse voices'. If a publisher thinks a novel by a black author will outsell a novel by a white one, they'll publish the black author before the white one, no matter how 'okay' or 'amazing' one or the other will be. You could write the most amazing book in the world, but if publishers don't think they can sell it, they won't publish it.

Donnaeve said...

OFF TOPIC:

I meant to share earlier, but my brain is doing that thing again where it disconnects itself from my body - imagine how that's working for me...

I just wanted to say that DIXIE DUPREE is part of Books On The Subway, and was place on the subway in Brooklyn yesterday.

:)

Back to writing - head down and into it. DEADLINES are breathing down my neck.

MB Owen said...

If I read another Judeo/Christian mother who is a closet alcoholic who hates her lesbian daughter I think I'll scream. Perhaps the writers skipped out on the sensitivity reading?

I enjoy diversity in stories because LIFE interests me but I don't pick up a book exclusively because the writer is of a certain ethnicity. If the writing smacks of conformity-thinking, I'll stop reading. I read because of the writing quality and the story interests me. Cynthia Kadohata is a fantastic example. Love her books.

Jessica--sincere congratulations! Would love to find you on Twitter.

Adib Khorram said...

Jessica, I agree with Janet and others who have said you should mention you're African-American in your query, especially if the agent has specified they're looking for diverse books. Diverse books encompasses more than the main characters—it's diverse perspectives that people are clamoring for. Whether your characters are white or black, you bring yourself and your perspective to your work.

I disagree that beta readers who only read diverse books are elitist. Making a conscious choice to champion those facing systemic exclusion from the publishing industry seems to me the opposite of elitism.

While it's important to address stereotypes (and to write beyond them), the fact remains that agents and editors and even writers often lack the cultural context to realize when they're reading/writing stereotypes about other cultures, which is one of the reasons sensitivity readers have become such a hot topic lately, and why the drive for diverse perspectives is so crucial.

I have a lot of other thoughts about this but I'm having a hard time putting them into coherent words. Maybe later.

MB Owen said...

Donnaeve - Congratulations!

nightsmusic said...

So many comments this morning to try and read through but;

OP You probably don't read romance, you might read fantasy, but if you ever want to see the different kinds of diversity, pick up a Sherry Thomas book. She's Asian, writes in her second language of English which she learned from reading romance and fantasy in English, and writes some of the best books in her genre of Regency romance and Fantasy that are out there.

Then there's PJ Parrish and the Louis Kincaid mystery novels which are excellent! Written by white sisters about a black PI with a...somewhat convoluted background, they're wonderful stories that really bring Louis to life on the page.

While I understand the whole character diversity thing, I think it's more important to write where you're comfortable. To force oneself to write a diverse character because it's expected takes away from the story because most readers will sense the strain. Writing the best story you can is the most important thing. Writing to the "latest" hot thing going, in most cases, makes for a mediocre story at best.

Jen said...

This was a great question. That is all.

-- Donnaeve: Congrats!! I don't get a chance to come here often, but when I do I love hearing good news about everyone's successes! :-)

Colin Smith said...

Jessica: As I said earlier, if an agent says they want to hear diverse voices, then don't be shy. We all need to consider every opportunity that comes our way to present our work (again, Donna and her bookmarks).

BJ: Yes. Ideally (at least IMO), each novel is assessed on its own merit, not based on the ethnicity of the author, or the diversity of the characters (though both of those factors could, arguably, be key to making the novel exceptional). However, as you correctly point out, publishers don't always live by the mantra: "It's all about the story." Other considerations (mostly money) are usually more determinative as to what gets published. We may not like that, but it's a fact. And not necessarily a bad fact. After all, we all have to eat, pay mortgages, and buy each other's books. :)

Picking up on MB's comment, two stereotypes I'm particularly sensitive to that don't often come into the discussion are Brits and Christians. Few authors outside these two groups get them right. Surely diversity dictates that we mind our stereotypes with regard to EVERYONE?

Colin Smith said...

nightsmusic: Yes! We shouldn't bow to the demands of politics or publishing trends to the detriment of our stories. However, I think it is good to question our first choices. Why is this character white? Or male? Or female? Does it matter? Would the character behave differently if the character was a different gender or ethnicity? Would that make for a better, more interesting story?

JKR has often been asked why it was Harry Potter, and not Harriet Potter. I've heard her say more than once that the character came to her fully formed, and he was a boy, and that was that. I believe she did consider changing his gender, but she didn't think it worked as well for the story, so she kept him Harry.

Claire Bobrow said...

Jessica: thanks for posting such a thought-provoking question, and congrats on having a manuscript ready to query!

Donnaeve: congrats!

I agree with so many of the comments today. It's difficult at this point to add much of substance, but I'm throwing my hat in with the folks who think you should mention your ethnicity. Keep us posted. Good luck!!

Colin Smith said...

I know I'm running my mouth a lot today, but topics like this really do interest me... and despite my vommenting, I love hearing from everyone about how these issues affect them. Are POC really bothered by their lack of representation in literature? Do you think of the characters you read in terms of your own ethnicity, despite what the cover or the author may tell you? Or do you just read the books and enjoy the stories?

[SERMON]
If there's one thing the past 12 months has highlighted its the fact that we all have done an ABYSMAL job of truly listening and understanding people who are not like us. I'm convinced a large reason Hillary lost, and Brexit passed, is because certain sections of those countries were convinced everyone thought like them. And they were wrong.

We all need to be having conversations like this more often. Let's not just listen to our peers and our echo chambers. We don't have to agree with everything we hear. But we need to listen.

[End Sermon] :)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Go, Donna! Congratulations

Lennon Faris said...

Jessica - exciting times. Sounds like you got some good ideas :)

Grace - "So, from my viewpoint, I see white people telling other white people how to write PoC characters." - That made me chuckle.

Donna - congratulations!!

Casey Karp said...

I want to thank Janet for drawing the distinction between "diverse characters" and "diverse writers," rather than lumping them together as "diverse voices". Because "characters" are something I can do something about; "writers," not so much. In practice, combining them into a single term tends to submerge the "characters" aspect, and as a white male, I do get a lot of "Oh, you can't have a diverse voice," reactions, both implied and overt.

My first (unsold) novel and my current WIP have prominent characters of Indian descent. Because, y'know, I know a heck of a lot of Indian and Indian-Americans. The RagTime Traveler (now in pre-order! (hint, hint) and my other WIP have at least as many black characters as white, because it's right for those times and places.

And everything I've written has important, major female characters. Because women exist.

I like to think I've handled all my characters well--and my beta readers (a diverse group themselves) haven't had any irredeemable complaints--but getting that into a query without coming across as tokenizing or patronizing is tricky.

Grace Wen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Grace Wen said...

Colin: "Are POC really bothered by their lack of representation in literature? Do you think of the characters you read in terms of your own ethnicity, despite what the cover or the author may tell you?"

I can only speak for myself, but yes, I'm bothered by lack of representation. Here's the weird part: I didn't know I was even allowed to be bothered by the lack of representation until relatively recently. I thought it was normal to be invisible, so invisible that my brain defaulted to white characters unless told otherwise. After all, that's all I saw in my real life too (I grew up in a region that was over 99% white). The subtle message I got: I don't matter. That's not a message I want to perpetuate.

Imagine growing up where the only pop culture character who looked remotely like you was Long Duck Dong from Sixteen Candles. On the flip side, I hope I never, ever see another litfic story about a middle-aged white male English professor having an affair with a student.

Colin Smith said...

Grace: Thanks! So, what's your pet peeve when non-Asians write Asian characters. What do we usually get wrong? :)

Grace Wen said...

Colin: My tongue-in-cheek response: not having them. *boomtish*

I kid, but am I really?

Oops, that's one over my allowed three comments, so I'm signing off. This is such a wonderful community--thanks for indulging me.

Kathryn said...

I don't usually comment, but this is such an interesting discussion I think I'll jump in :)

I recently read an agent's Wishlist stating she sought black authors and she didn't want to tiptoe around it because her previous attempts to draw diverse authors came up short. I imagine other agents are less direct because, as in Janet's case, they would never ask for a Caucasian to state so in their query. But perhaps noting ethnicity is the difference between a pass and a partial request. So even if an agent simply states that they’re seeking diverse authors then yes put in, "I'm a black writer and this is my first novel."

We need diverse role models in our books and outside them too!

John Davis Frain said...

Hey Donna, this sounds fantastic.

"I just wanted to say that DIXIE DUPREE is part of Books On The Subway, and was place on the subway in Brooklyn yesterday."

I confess I've never heard of it. It sounds like there's a subway library that sets books free for enjoyment by riders. But that might just be the romantic in me getting out (which has never been unleashed before, I'm not sure what's happening here!).

So, I reckon you'll you be sending your husband and kids to ride the subway and distribute bookmarks pretty soon. Pack your bags, kids! Road trip!


Colin Smith said...

Grace: I hear ya! :) BTW, I'd gladly take your place on a shuttle to Carkoon if you wanted to say more on this. :)

John: I believe that's exactly the idea.

Donna: YAY! That's awesome. :)

Steve Stubbs said...

What strikes me as a key point when I read this is, the story itself is not black. If I were an agent these many years ago and Claude Brown sent me the yet-to-be-published MS for MANCHILD IN THE PROMISED LAND, I would be scrambling all over the place to get him signed whether he announced his ethnicity or not. I am not completely brain dead (despite what you might hear on the grapevine) so would assume nobody could write that book without being familiar with living black in New York. But the book is a masterpiece. Claude could be an Eskimo who tends a desert botanical garden at the North Pole for Santa Claus. The book is a masterpiece. Who or what Claude actually is would only matter if we were selling Claude instead of the book, or if Claude were somehow more important than the book, I am thinking of movie star biographies or books by other celebrities. If Yogi Berra were still alive and penned THE YOGA SUTRAS OF LAWRENCE BERRA, the author might be more important than the book itself. Alex Haley may have been more important than his book by the time ROOTS was published. I don’t get the sense we are quite there yet in this case. I would vote for selling the story in the query and not the author’s ethnicity, unless the OP knows for sure that ethnicity is an important selling point with the target agent.

April said...

How about not say anything in the query, but include the URL to your Web site... and have your official picture there on your about page? That way it doesn't need to be stated, but if the agent is looking into it, it's quite clear.

On a separate note, I wonder if "hidden immigrants" should bother saying one way or another? For example, I spent all of my formative years and many of my adult years in Japan (22 out of 31 years total), but I am white. I am an American citizen, but I only moved to the US again recently and feel quite foreign here. I wonder how a case like mine would come into play? Does it not matter because I look white and speak English fluently? I'm curious.

Julie Weathers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elissa M said...

I have so many thoughts on this, if I tried to articulate them all, I couldn't possibly keep this comment under 100 words.

It bothers me to think that persons of color are expected to write about their experiences as people of color in order to be considered "diverse".

My main thought is, however, what others have said: If the story is good, your ethnicity, gender, country of origin, or year of birth shouldn't matter in the least.

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

It's been a while since I've commmented here but I read the blog daily. Jessica's question enthralls me.

I recently listened to the NF audio book "White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America"

Here is a NYT review link. After rosé I'm too lazy to hyperlink it... The thing I don't like about the book is it's documentation style. Such the history book.

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/26/books/review/white-trash-by-nancy-isenberg.html

I think every fucking American should read it because it is not about the white or black or blue, it is about class. The poor are considered breeder stock. I'm in shock, and now understand the recent election. There is nothing new, but something very old.

Jessica's question, the recent election, and the 35 books I read by black authors in 2016 make me wonder: How much are the mainstream big publishers influenced by political shenanigans?

Is the request for diverse authors influenced by the last 8 years?

I understand that somewhere at some time the publishing industry was instituted as independent from politics. BUT realistically, if you need to state your race to fill out a job application and pay your taxes how independently minded are publishers from upstream influence?

Julie Weathers said...

For those of you who are ready to query, the Sun vs. Snow query contest is getting ready to start up. The list of agents is here. There's also a link to Michelle's blog where she has details about the contest.

Michelle does a lot to help up and coming authors, so if you get a chance to buy/read one of her books and leave a review, I'm sure she'd appreciate it.

Sorry for the plug. QOTKU can delete it if need be.

Speaking of reading, I ordered Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman philosopher emperor. I need the chill. The Pericles Commission by Gary Corby. (I know, I am behind. I've been leery of gory stuff, but I couldn't resist any longer.) My Sister's Grave Robert Dugoni. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander (Civil War America) I'm anxious to read the last especially because he includes so many anecdotes such as the woman complaining to EAP at the retreat from Gettysburg. "I have heard of the horrors of war, but I never imagined it so. Someone ate my sheep and my petunias have been trampled!"

Donnaeve said...

Julie queue the smelling salts.

Thanks y'all for the congrats, and yes John MS Frain it's just that. A library for the subway. Leave books for others to read. Then return when done. How cool, huh?

Something else Jessica, that I thought of with regard to identifying one's ethnicity, etc. How about the fact that some writers use initials? They're about as identifiable as that long overdue container with something in it at the back of the fridge. Of course there's that whole spiel with J.K. Rowling from way back when.

And then, what pseudonym did she use when she wrote in a different genre, and something other than Harry Potter? Robert Galbraith - which she tried to keep under wraps, and someone leaked it out. But, honestly, with some writers - you just don't know whose behind the laptop pounding out the stories you love. it sort of reminds me of one of my fave movies. AS GOOD AS IT GETS - with Jack Nicholson. He's a bestselling romance writer, and he fits the mold of that about as comfortably as trying to squeeze into Spanx.

So. Despite every angle to look at this, to me and this will sound like QOTKU, (she's more or less said as much) I don't care about X, Y, Z - it's all about the writing - or I should say, the STORY.

Janice Grinyer said...

Opie, JR mentioned she is looking for novels from DIFFERENT types of writers. You have minutes at the most while she is reading your query letter. If you can catch her eye in that brief moment of time, you might have a chance to be represented.

On that note- growing up in the South as a minority, or growing up in Alaska as a Caucasian, or just plain growing up anywhere in any culture - everyone is affected differently by life experiences. This diversity is why no two writers are alike- we bring our experiences and style into our writing- our "voice." Our characters are influenced by who we are; after all, we invented them! So what are all the things makes you different from the next writer?

IMO, because there is an interest, I would put who you are in your BIO line in a query letter i.e. "Being a person of color writing in the south etc." This sentence should reflect who you are to catch an Agent's eye. Remember, other writers are clamoring for the same thing, and are doing everything they can to be different to catch an agent's eye. Be different. Be you. (Spoken from a female writer who currently works in Forestry in Montana, where my 85k word outdoor mystery novel takes place :D)

IMO Telling an Agent who you are in your Bio line in your query letter is just that- letting them know who you are. Your writer's experience is your own- no one else's - it's what makes you, you :)

Good luck Opie!

Julie Weathers said...

Donna Huge congratulations. You are so deserving and I am thrilled for you.

Angie Agreed.

I was going to say more, but deleted it. It just irks me too much. I am, after all, trailer trash so what do I know?

Amy Schaefer said...

For me, the take-away idea from "diversity" is a reminder to be open to other stories. I should capitalize that: OTHER stories. Stories with a different voice. Stories from a different viewpoint. Stories I never would have thought of and can't guess at, because my experience is so tangential to what is being discussed. There are underrepresented groups out there - is it such a stretch to think those different communities could produce stories different than those we have heard before? We all talk about "surprise me". Well, I want to be surprised. In a purely selfish way, I want to be surprised, and one excellent way to be surprised is to hear from people who haven't yet told their stories. And I think encouraging diverse writers helps that.

Ardenwolfe said...

What's the difference between a white author who writes about white people and a black author who does the same? That's right. None. Agents are asking for diverse stories. Not diverse authors. The Help is a case in point.

A white author who wrote about the black experience. Like agents, readers don't care who wrote it. They just want a story they can sympathize with and one they know will sell.

I never imaged adding in any query letter, "By the way, I'm a person of color. Hope that makes you more excited for my story." Could you imagine? Yes, I know agents want more clients of color. But they want us because of our insight. For our unique stories. Not because our skin cells.

I'd only mention it if you have similar experiences within the story. Experiences that show you are THE author to write it. Otherwise, you say nothing at all.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

So, living among people whose ethnic and cultural background is very different to my own, I get to hear their stories.

Talk about different. I hear tales of experiences and events I would never have seen or done in my own culture. I am exposed to another facet of humanity.

I think that is the primary goal of this push to diversity in books: that there are a sufficient number of stories of all these different facets out there.

I wonder if certain cultures' habit of oral tradition (rather than written tradition) might be one of the barriers against those voices getting published?

kdjames.com said...

Excellent question, Jessica (and welcome to the community!). So many interesting responses. I find myself agreeing with one opinion, and then agreeing with another that contradicts it.

Even so, I'm not impartial. I've spent most of my life being judged for "how I look" (which is completely different from being a POC, so maybe not a good analogy, but it's all I've got to work with). Then came the internet and people had no choice but to judge me solely for my writing. My words, not my appearance. It was freeing in a way you can't imagine. So, that part of me says it shouldn't matter that you're a POC. Or any other minority. Only your words matter.

BUT, people "like me" have not been largely ignored and shut out of the publishing industry. So being an underrepresented minority does matter. And agents are currently acknowledging that it matters and are trying to find a different balance of experience and voice. How can they do that if writers don't identify themselves as belonging to the group(s) they're seeking to more adequately represent?

Jessica, it might be true, as you claim, that your ethnicity and experience don't make a difference in your stories or your characters. But maybe that's a small part of the point. Why have POC voices been so systematically ignored or silenced when at least *some* of them are not all that different from white voices? Or when, even if different, their stories can be equally enjoyed and empathized with by (what is perceived to be) a mostly white audience? If words are ALL that matters, why are so few stories from POC writers in print? HINT: It's not because they lack quality.

When you have agents saying, as Janet did here: "I think right now I'd be more likely to look at something if the author wasn't white..." There's a reason for that. And I selfishly agree with what John (MS) Frain said, because I want to hear your voice and others that are not "like me." Do it in a way that makes sense to you, but please find a way to raise your hand and say, "Me. Here I am. I'm that person."


Adib Khorram said...

I must respectfully disagree that there is no difference between a black author writing stories about white characters and a white author writing stories about black characters.

From the day they are born, people of color (in America) are immersed in the white experience. Classmates, television, books—all are populated with white characters.

White people do not experience the reverse. Give me a minute and I can name 10 white authors. Do you know how many people I have met that can return the favor and name ten (or even five, or even one) Iranian author?

People of color must understand white culture intrinsically to survive. The opposite is far from true.

I am not in any way opposed to white authors writing about diverse backgrounds. Far from it. But they have MORE work to do to get the job done right, and they have MORE capability to do damage (through the propagation of stereotypes they didn't even recognize they were writing). Jodi Picoult's SMALL GREAT THINGS is a great example of a white writer who got it right.

Janice Grinyer said...

I do believe it is important for us to recognize our communities diverse backgrounds. When we demand that everyone be the same, you lose history. And bad history repeats itself.

I am proud to be a female working in Forestry. Not behind a desk, but in the woods. Why do I want you to know I am a female? Because there are not as many of us as there are men. We need to catch up for equality.

If I were African American writer, I would want you to know I am proud to be an African American writer. Why? Because there are not as many as there are White writers. We need to catch up for equality.

And if anyone ever insinuates that is because African Americans dont know how to write, Fuck them. ("yes, tell us how you really feel, Janice")

Agents want writers of different backgrounds, and ones who can write well. JR mentions that above. If writers are shamed into not sharing who they are in their Bio, then that looks like racism to me. I have seen writer bios that proudly mention parenthood. Does that really matter as a writer? No? So why not mention that you are are proud to be a writer of color, something that is actually pertaining to the industry and is needed?

Dang, im pretty sure JR has even had people send in photos of their cats, or tempted her with shark bait bourbon, or even had contracts written on napkins so...whose to box who in? ;D


Jessica said...

Hi everyone, sorry for the late reply--long day at school, and then I collapsed for three hours.

First, congratulations Donna!! I've been watching your success second hand on the blog for a while, and I'm really proud of you. I can't wait to pick up a copy of my own :)

There are way too many things I want to comment on, but I'll summarize by saying thank you for such a spirited, yet respectful discussion. I'm still just as confused about what to actually do, but I enjoyed hearing everyone's opinions and experiences. I particularly resonated with what Adib said--even I, as a minority, cannot name a single Iranian author. There's something strange about the fact that I can name ten white authors, easy, but minorities are much trickier.

But then again, I often wonder if demographics has a prominent role to play here. There are more white american authors simply because there are more of them. We're not called minorities for no reason. I think we need to aim for something that represents our demographic within America, and not necessarily equal amounts of both.

Another thing that troubled me was Colin's comment--will my book be picked up, even if it's not as good as another one, just because f the way I look? That makes me uncomfortable because this is my first novel; I'm young (22), and I'm sure I have a lot to learn. *I* think my book is a fun, occasionally thought-provoking read, but what author doesn't? If an agent agrees to represent a novel that is more along the lines of "okay" than "brilliant" because of my skin color, isn't it unfair to readers? And also unfair to me, who could have used honest rejection and feedback? I'm not sure how to feel, and it seems my question has just brought up more questions...

Anyway, my post is WAY too long! Thank you to everyone who inquired about my query process! I'm studying QueryShark extensively and checking and rechecking my novel. I hope to start querying in mid-February. Thank you guys again for the amazing comments!

Colin Smith said...

Jessica: It wouldn't bother me if an agent specifically asked for books by minority writers, and as a result gave your novel preference because (in the words of one of the commenters), you stuck your hand up and said, "That's me!" If you have (or are) what an agent wants, then don't be shy! :)

By the way, my SecondBorn (who is close to your age--thanks, I feel old now) is a huge Detective Conan fan. :)

Jessica said...

Thanks for the clarification, Colin! Also Detective Conan is truly amazing!! But you've also reminded me to delete my embarrassing first attempts at a blog, and I thank you for that :')

Panda in Chief said...

A very interesting question with lots of valid questions and what ifs and what have yous.

First, Jessica, congratulations on being ready to query. I'm not at all sure what the correct answer is. It would be great if all queries were blind, not identified by race or gender, but that's not how things work around here.

My impulse would be, it would depend on whether the agent said they were looking for diverse authors. Otherwise, I would let that information be discoverable via a picture on my website or social media profile. We all want our work to be chosen because of the quality, rather than our identity.

It's a good thing that we don't necessarily have to BE who our characters are, since I've been told that I am not actually a panda.

Just another late night postscript from the left coast.

Janice Grinyer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Janice Grinyer said...

Jessica, If the body of your letter represents your novel well, an Agent will request more pages. Your bio is just the icing :) you are not pushing anyone aside by writing well.

Agents want projects they can sell. And now Readers want diversity from their authors, as you mentioned above. Thats something that works well in marketing, which if you ever have been to a writer's conference, you can't swing a cat there without hitting a placard that advertises the next "Marketing know-how for writers!" session. I know. Not the cat part.

And Im pretty sure Agents arent saying "white writers go home, you are not needed anymore". What they are saying is that if anyone's writing is up to snuff, they will request pages if your bio checks out. (Remember, JR's "AND no Crazy/Asshats" second rule). And If your bio with its included information can help sell the book and you are not an asshat/craycray, yay!

So whether or not you include that you are a minority, whether or not you include that you met said agent at a conference, whether or not you include that you won an Agent's writing contest, and most importantly, whether or not you sent pictures of cats previously (dang. so much a writer can insert into a bio- even a bad bio) it's still up to the Agent to decide if its a "Yay, bonus bio!"

Basically I'm pretty sure an Agent doesnt want to leave out any fantastic writer of any race, creed, planet, foliage, dimension if it will make them money for bourbon. Good bourbon. Not that I am saying that Agents are color blind, but I do believe they only see color in monetary shades- green, gold, silver etc.

Once again, good luck to you Jessica; and keep us all updated :)

Yep. Third comment- im out!

kdjames.com said...

Oh, Jessica, you're too young to be so cynical. Wait until you're at least 25. Don't self-reject by speculating how unfair something might or might not be to other writers.

Having an agent say they'd be "more likely to look" at something from a POC writer is a loooong way from saying that's the only criteria for offering representation, or for getting published. I'd be willing to speculate that Janet, for example, is more willing to look at something from one of her regular blog commenters than from a total stranger. But that's just a tiny first step.

We ALL have to pass the many hurdles that come after an agent takes a look. You said it yourself, you know you have to write an exceptional book. That's true of all of us. When the day comes that an agent says they love your book, believe it. Have a little faith in their integrity and your talent. Don't psych yourself out by imagining it's for any other reason than that you wrote one hell of a good book.

kdjames.com said...

To clarify: I suspect being a regular blog commenter is more a liability than an advantage, as I imagine Janet also expects more from us than from a total stranger.



Speaking of which, this book isn't writing itself while I'm over here vommenting ad nauseum. *scurries back to lurkerdom*

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

What K.D said, systematically silenced voices. This is why I read black authors. I don't know any Iranian writers but I do know many Arab artists.

From the book I mentioned above I learned how the government used eugenics, and created pseudo scientific 'evidence' to prove the worth of wealthy whites. Everyone else has been rated of lesser worth. This is wretched.


The reason I asked how much upstream influence is put on the publishing industry is because lots of novels are mentioned in the book. Including black authors.

Adib Khorram said...

I should clarify what I meant about knowing Iranian authors...I think it was a poor illustration of my point. I as an Iranian-American grew up exposed to Iranian culture in a way my classmates in school did not. But I read all the same required reading in school—Dickens, Shelley, Shakespeare, Orwell, Bradbury. I have the cultural contexts for both Iranian and Western (white) literature. And the same is true of most areas of life.

So when I read a book with an Iranian character written by a non-Iranian, it is very quickly apparent whether or not the writer has done their research and has a true, authentic understanding of my culture. The answer has almost always been "no."

The reverse is rarely true. Most writers of color grew up in white culture and understand it because they have to do so to survive.

Sorry for any confusion.

Ardenwolfe said...

I didn't say white or black authors wouldn't know the experience from each better, I said if the story was good, no one would no the difference. Memoirs of a Geisha is another example. Arthur Golden is anything but a Japanese woman. Yes, he did a lot of research to get it right. We're not talking their experience, we're talking about their ability to convince the audience..

What you're saying is like me saying R.A Salvatore can't write about drows because he's not a dark elf himself.

It makes no sense.

Adib Khorram said...

Actually, I would hold up MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA as a pretty poor example. It fetishizes Japanese culture.

There are no drow school children seeing their culture fetishized in books. This is a false equivalency.

Ardenwolfe said...

I see where this is going. And I don't argue with success. The Help? Memoirs of a Geisha? Homeland? Agree to disagree and moving on.