Thoughts on the week that was

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Representation in fiction was a big theme for me this week. At Book Riot, I published a post on US and UK covers. One of them is the cover for JR Ward’s The Shadows. The US cover model could be any race, as he is, appropriately enough I guess, in shadow, with his back to the reader. The UK cover model is clearly black. I wonder why the UK cover makes it visually obvious that the protagonist is not white, while the US cover doesn’t. Is one market more likely to be affected? Why? I always saw the UK and the US as very similar in terms of their racial problems. Maybe that’s wrong, at least in terms of what the UK reader is willing to buy. Either way, I thought the US cover was a missed chance for a best selling author to put her POC protag out in front. If there was ever an author whose book could survive the supposed hit on sales from a non-white cover model, it’s JW Ward. Of course, she herself has stated that her vampires are neither white nor black, because those are human racial categories and the vampires aren’t human.

I read Carolyn Crane’s Behind the Mask, book 4 of her RS Undercover Associates series, which has a half-Japanese heroine and a South American hero. First of all, I loved it just as much as the first three books. The series is generally very violent, the tone dark, with high emotional stakes. I’d almost say it’s like crack but the writing is too good to give it that label. Anyway, the heroine’s ethnicity was mentioned once but played no role in the book and the hero’s was much more significant to his character, the plot, the setting. I was thinking that I’m seeing more white authors write POC characters, and there’s a range in terms of how much it matters to the character and story.

Which led me to wondering, if as a reader I want to read “more diversely”, whether I should be trying to read POC authors rather than POC characters. Of course, in romance there’s a good number of POC authors who write white protagonists. There’s a good discussion of this on the Clear Eyes Full Shelves podcast #29 on diversity. (I enjoy this podcast. It hits the right balance of informal banter, inside bookternet baseball, and serious discussion, although the differences in volume of the different speakers can be hard to take).

I also happen to be reading an ARC of Clancy Martin’s Bad Sex, a loosely autobiographical litfic set in Central America about an affair. Someone at Book Riot person offered it up and I grabbed it because he’s a philosophy professor and I was intrigued. There isn’t much philosophy except for a pretty left field reference to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous violinist analogy to abortion. I’m finding it very readable and I like his voice. However, and this is a big problem, his first person protagonist is supposed to be a woman and I 100% do not buy it. For the first few pages I assumed Brett was a man and I keep having to force myself to think of her as a woman. I’m not sure this will communicate it, but here’s a typical passage I have trouble with:

Brett and her lover Eduard are at a bar and a woman who drums in the lounge band approaches him.

She ordered a Hendrick’s gin and tonic Slice of cucumber. She was younger than me.

“You guys can play,” Eduard said to her.

She was too skinny, and her skin was pocked and covered in heavy makeup. I wasn’t concerned.

“Thanks,” she said. “We’re playing at The Blue Note after this. Eleven o’clock session.”

Eduard looked at me. I looked at the drummer. I looked at her with his eyes, and I could see that she wasn’t too bad.

I’m not saying women don’t assess each other’s looks, or that a woman drummer wouldn’t approach a couple like that, but the way it’s written jars. The voice just feels masculine.

Of course, my conception of “what women are like” is narrow. It’s based mostly on what I’m like and who I know and the stuff I’ve internalized. I’m not sure it’s that much easier to judge whether a character whose gender and race I share is authentic. And that probably has a lot to do with the variety of experiences and outlooks people who even share a gender, race or ethnicity or class can have. I guess as a reader, while reading, it just comes down to whether it works. And in the non-reading time, trying to learn more than I currently know.

Speaking of POC authors, I have been listening to I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot at age 15 by the Taliban for going to school. Of course, that description is so simplistic it’s nearly false. I’m learning a lot about who this young woman is and also how misleading “Pakistani” is in describing her, her family, her background, and her land. It’s narrated brilliantly by the British actor Archie Panjabi, who is on the TV show The Good Wife.

TV: Having a hard time with it. Finally swore off Game of Thrones. Poldark is a dud. Can’t get into Jonathan Strange. I did start watching Ray Donovan, and am enjoying it, but I wish I could find a nonviolent drama. Why can’t I have another Friday Night Lights with strong female characters of various ages, where a fist fight in a burger joint is the extent of the carnage?

It’s another gorgeous summer day here in Maine. A friend’s coming over for quiche in a few, and the Dean and her family for dinner tonight. I have to write a post for Book Riot relating to Go Set a Watchman by 5:00. And visit my Hospice friend, a Purple Heart decorated World War II vet who was stationed in the Pacific. He was on the USS Missouri when Japan signed its surrender with Gen MacArthur. His stories contain not one iota patriotism or glory. What he mostly remembers is how horrible war is for everyone engaged in it.

Not sure how much actual work will get done today. Summer Fridays.

Happy weekend!

14 responses

  1. Absolutely do read PoC writers. When they write PoC, they are more likely to get it right. They have some lifetime of experience to inform them even when they write white characters. And except for a few exceptions, none of whom are Black and some of whom use non-ethnic pseuds, PoC authors (in rom, anyway) start off pigeonholed and disadvantaged in terms of audience. (Jenkins is not an exception to this rule.)

    I think the problem with that excerpt isn’t content but voice. It’s a very male noir writing style. I’ve seen similar complaints (sometimes justified) about m/m.

    I’m just as glad now that I didn’t set up a recording for Poldark. I’m letting Jonathan Strange pile up because after the first episode, I fear it will become a boring BBC historical. My main reason for watching is seeking the narrative coherency the book lacked.

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    • I think I need to separate what I want to do as a reader from these issues for writers. I know I’ve heard black romance writers say things about white writers along the lines of “you can write a vampire but you can’t write a POC?” and I agree with them. But I think, when I’m looking to diversify my own reading list, the best way is to look for POC authors.

      Thanks for the point about style in the excerpt. I agree 100%. Maybe my reaction says more about the gender of literary genres.

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  2. “I always saw the UK and the US as very similar in terms of their racial problems.”

    Why would you think that? I mean, yes, of course in both states there’s institutional racism, there have been race riots, there’s prejudice against immigrants so very, very broadly speaking there are similarities, but on the other hand there are significantly different proportions of minority ethnic groups and significantly different groups making up the majority of the minority ethnic populations, with very different histories. For example, the current prejudices against and issues facing Polish immigrants in the UK do seem to me to be different from the prejudices and issues facing Mexican immigrants in the US. For one thing, the Polish immigrants are legally entitled to be in the UK because they’re EU citizens and for another, I’m not sure there’s a Hispanic counterpart to the UK stereotype about hardworking Polish plumbers.

    The 2001 riots in the north of England involved mainly White British and British Asians (and Asian in this context primarily means British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, who are predominantly Muslim), so there were religious as well as ethnic/racial differences involved.

    In Scotland, some of the recent legislation against hate crimes has focused on sectarian violence/prejudice, mainly between Protestant and Catholic football supporters.

    Here are some figures for Scotland:

    The size of the minority ethnic population in 2011 was just over 200,000 or 4 per cent of the total population of Scotland (based on 2011 ethnicity classification); this has doubled since 2001 when just over 100,000 or 2 per cent of the total population of Scotland (based on the 2001 ethnicity classification) were from a minority ethnic group.

    The Asian population was the largest minority ethnic group (three per cent of the total population or 141,000 people) and has seen an increase of one percentage point (69,000) since 2001;

    Just over one per cent (1.2 per cent or 61,000) of the population recorded their ethnic group as White: Polish. The cities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen had the highest proportions at three per cent of their total population.

    http://www.gov.scot/Topics/People/Equality/Equalities/DataGrid/Ethnicity

    and here are the comparable statistics for England and Wales:

    The majority of the usual resident population, 48.2 million people (86.0 per cent of the population), reported their ethnic group as White in the 2011 Census. Within this ethnic group, White British was the largest, with 45.1 million people (80.5 per cent), followed by Any Other White with 2.5 million people (4.4 per cent).

    Indian was the next largest ethnic group with 1.4 million people (2.5 per cent) followed by Pakistani (2.0 per cent). This is consistent with census findings on international migration , which found that South Asian countries (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) continued to rank highly within the most common non-UK countries of birth. The remaining ethnic groups each accounted for up to 2 per cent of the population in 2011.

    http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/census/2011-census/key-statistics-for-local-authorities-in-england-and-wales/rpt-ethnicity.html#tab-Ethnicity-in-England-and-Wales

    London probably has to be looked at separately because it’s really very different in terms of the make-up of its population: earlier this year it was announced that “Just over 3.8 million of London’s residents (44%) are of a black and minority ethnicity origin, which is expected to increase to 50% by 2038” ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-31082941 ).

    In the US, the 2013 census reports:

    Black or African American alone, percent, 2013 (a) 13.2%
    American Indian and Alaska Native alone, percent, 2013 (a) 1.2%
    Asian alone, percent, 2013 (a) 5.3%
    Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone, percent, 2013 (a) 0.2%
    Two or More Races, percent, 2013 2.4%
    Hispanic or Latino, percent, 2013 (b) 17.1%
    White alone, not Hispanic or Latino, percent, 2013 62.6%

    http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html

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    • Hi Laura. Thanks for this. I definitely shouldn’t have put it the way I did, that is, so wrongly. I clearly don’t know enough about race relations in the UK to be making any kind of statement like that. Obviously the history of slavery in the US would create a very different situation with respect especially to blacks. I think what I was trying to do was ask the question, “why might the publishers have thought a cover with a POC would work in the UK but not in the US.” Maybe part of the answer is contained in those numbers.

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    • Much of this confirms what I learned from other fans of Sherlock back when it was new and fresh. Since Sherlock is set in London, its elision of people of color is reprehensible, but that point that was driven home to me that the UK overall is overwhelmingly white is demonstrated here. In addition, as I’d suspected, South Asians are the largest minority group in the UK, although not necessarily in London.

      Between that and the differences in the slave trade in the two countries, there are huge cultural differences. My observation, for what it’s worth, is that US media — TV especially — is more diverse and sensitive to diversity issues (race and ethnicity particularly) than their British counterparts. Sadly, when it comes to books, particularly genre books, that difference still doesn’t mean a lot.

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  3. If you approve my comment, Jessica, could you fix the formatting of the paragraph about Scotland? It seems to be all over the place.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree with lawless about that Martin excerpt. It sounds “male” to me too, and I think that’s because it has a sentence rhythm similar to a hardboiled detective narrator or maybe some Hemingway. It’s a rhythm that’s already coded male in my mind (setting aside whether we can say the particular way the narrator assesses the other woman as a potential sexual rival seems “male,” which as you say is trickier).

    Someone I follow on Twitter says eir approach is to read “diverse authors writing whatever they want,” which I think is a good approach because it both fosters diversity in publishing (we need more access for more people) and resists pigeonholing. I’ve read some really good pieces by African and Indian writers (or those of African and Indian heritage) on being pigeonholed and pushed to write stories that conform to Western stereotypes (poverty, immigration–issue books). But diversity IN books matters too, if we want all readers to be able to find themselves in what they read. And I think it’s a problem if white authors feel they can’t write non-white characters. Because that’s really othering. (I always think of Phil Klay’s response to people who say they “can’t imagine” his experience as a Marine–that he NEEDS them to imagine, that his experience must not be rendered unspeakable, essentially). So I waffle around on this, but come down on the side of reading all kinds of books by all kinds of people, within the limits of my own taste and time. I think the hardest part is recognizing that part of why things do and don’t work for me as a reader can be my own blind spots and prejudices. What can we do but keep reading, listening, and reflecting?

    Your summer’s sounding pretty nice so far! We finally have cooler weather here and it is a huge relief. I’ve never been happier to put on a sweater.

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    • “Someone I follow on Twitter says eir approach is to read “diverse authors writing whatever they want,” which I think is a good approach because it both fosters diversity in publishing (we need more access for more people) and resists pigeonholing.”

      I love that way of putting it. I know that whenever I don’t consciously make an effort to read POC authors, I don’t read them.

      I’m so happy for you weather wise. I wilt like a piece of old lettuce in the heat. Enjoy your sweatering.

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      • Liz put it more clearly and in more detail than I did. Reading diverse writers is probably the hardest to do, so I prioritize it over reading diversely, but what I enjoy operates as a limit.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Great piece and comments on diversity. Diverse authors writing diverse books is much harder in reality than in concept. This is primarily because people can be protective and/or defensive about their experiences. They can be resistant to other people writing about it and counter with accusations of appropriation. As a result, people tend to stick to their “own kind,” not out of racism but out of fear of getting it wrong and causing offense.

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    • I have definitely heard this in the romance community. I sympathize with writers’ worries about getting it right and facing criticism if they don’t. That said, I think there are ways to minimize the potential of producing poor representations, like doing research, talking to people who are members of that social group, having the book edited and/or beta read by members of that social group, etc. Of course, as you say, there might still be critics, but that seems ok, because (1) the alternative is fewer POC protags, (2) the author could potentially learn from the criticism, and (3) criticism of that kind is an important part of book culture anyway.

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    • It’s from an influential 1971 paper on abortion by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson. She is making the case that even if the fetus is a person with a right to life, abortion may be justified in many cases. The violinist analogy is the first of several that is supposed to demonstrate this point. Here it is:

      “Let me ask you to imagine this. You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you–we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. “Tough luck. I agree. but now you’ve got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.” I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.”

      Enjoy!

      Liked by 2 people

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