Friday, August 10, 2012

Why Author Identity Matters

'Writer's Block' photo (c) 2008, Vince Kusters - license:

There is an ongoing conversation in various venues about the identity of writers - specifically, marginalised writers and whether or not it truly matters whether a writeR is a POC, GBLT, disabled or holds another marginalisation. We know a whole lot of people are quick to ask who cares whether an author is POC, GBLT et al? Why is this relevant?

Well, we do, and it is relevant. It’s usually one of the first things we try to find out when coming across a new author.

We’ve spoken before about the gatekeepers that marginalised authors face. We’ve seen the drama in YA trying to exclude gay characters, we’ve seen the white washing that covers face if they presume to show a POC. This is one of the reasons we’re supportive of webisodes and self-publishing, because there are a lot of gatekeepers out there that make it hard for maginalised people to be traditionally published. With these gatekeepers, it is reasonable for marginalised people and their allies to try and turn the tide by deliberately going out of their way to support marginalised authors.

Even when marginalised authors do write about their own marginalisation and are published, it greatly increases the chance the book will be shelved as niche and considered undesirable for mainstream consumption. It becomes all the more important to buy the book, support the author and to say this book belongs on the shelves.

There’s also a matter of authenticity. And this doesn’t mean that privileged people can’t write marginalised characters. In fact, we don’t even think it’s hard for privileged people to write marginalised characters - but it’s a very common excuse not to do so. Which is a reason why we seek marginalised authors because so many privileged authors keep writing trope laden stereotypes that it has frequently reached a point where we wish these authors would erase us; erasure would be preferably to the offensive portrayals they create.

But even aside from that, there is power in a marginalised person telling their own story. There is a power in authenticity. It matters, in genres that are erased, where our own writers are so rare, to be able to pick up a book about us, by us. In so much of life our stories, the narratives of our lives, are either completely ignored or are framed and shaped by the oppressor. It is white people who we repeatedly see talking about race. It is straight people declaiming their opinions on GBLT people. It is the able bodied who speak on disability. Our lives are common property to be picked over and we are often not considered to be experts or experienced in our own lives.

We know this authenticity is valued, because we know there are a horrendous number of privileged writers appropriating marginalised identities in order to claim it. In the M/M genre we saw this with numerous authors who weren’t gay men, pretending to be gay men; but it’s hardly unique to the genre - People of Colour (The Education of Little Tree, anyone?) and disabled people have faced the same identity appropriation. By pretending to be marginalised, they deceive the community that is seeking this authenticity, the community that is seeking a shared experience, a shared culture or just a shared understanding.

With these people peddling fake authenticity, it becomes even more important for marginalised people to find actual marginalised authors - if nothing else but to actually make sure they are noticed among the fakes.

None of this says that privileged people shouldn’t writer marginalised bodies. They should - a damn site more often than they do! (And a damn site better as well). But that doesn’t mean that marginalised people and their allies don’t have compelling reasons to seek out marginalised authors writing about marginalised people.

There is, however, a flip side and this especially applies to television programmes. There is an idea that marginalised writers are the magic bullet. When we see another horrendous portrayal we often hear the cry “this show needs some POC/GBLT/disabled writers”. Which is true. Marginalised writers are far too few on the ground and, as we’ve said above, they bring an authenticity and an experience that a writer who hasn’t lived that marginalisation simply cannot bring

But it doesn’t mean it’s going to be perfect, doesn’t mean it’s going to sweep aside all the issues and doesn’t mean the portrayal still isn’t going to be fraught - as we have seen with repeated marginalised writers on shows that still produce erasure, tokenism and awful stereotypes.

Some of that is, no doubt, internalised oppression which can afflict any marginalised person. But a lot is simply because they don’t write in a vacuum. The writer of a TV series has to negotiate their fellow writers, their actors, the director, the producer and, above all, the network with their ideas of brand name, worries about advertisers and target demographic. Look, I don’t care if all the writers, the director, the actors and everyone within a 10 mile radius of filming a show is gay, I don’t care if they’re all so very gay that rainbows spontaneously appear continually in their presence, if they’re writing a series for Disney? There’s not going to be a GBLT portrayal, no way, no how.

These writers don’t exist in a vacuum. They are limited by the people they work with and the people they work for. They are limited by a consuming public that tends to lose it at minority characterisations that dare to exist (look at the people still whining about True Blood being “too gay”) to step outside of very narrow, trope laden roles. There is always a push to make a TV series (and even a book, because agents and publishers are certainly not blameless here) more “marketable”, more “mainstream” which are definite code-words for “more privileged” - more aimed at straight, cisgender, able bodied, white men.

In short, while we do desperately want and need more marginalised people out there, writing, being part of the creation of our media, we cannot expect it to be the magic bullet. It is one piece in an overall cultural overhaul, just one push in a movement for greater inclusion on screen and in the pages of our books. By deciding that a marginalised writer will be able to, on their own, miraculously fix everything, we put an incredible burden and duty on marginalised writers to produce perfect portrayals, while denying the pressures they face. They are required to be champions and are harshly criticised when they do not - or cannot -  meet the standards we hope for; and this is on top of the higher level of criticism minority writers often face. Writers who are openly known to be marginalised are more often to be called out by name when their shows are criticised; it is no longer a problem the show displays, it is the personal fault of the writer.