“Well, what CAN I write?”

I often hear that question in all book community circles. in replies of tweets or in Youtube and Instagram comments sections. I’ve heard it during panels at conventions, talks, and interviews.

Publishing is changing. The Young Adult community is growing and becoming more vocal, including the voices of marginalized groups such as POC and LGBTQ groups. Publishing thrives on readership and what people want to read. There’s a rise in vampire romance readership? More vampire romance novels gets printed. This is more or less the same in any publishing departments, but Young Adult communities in particular are thriving on the need for change. But, in all forms of it, there are some that don’t really understand the change; they may find it hostile or angry or even radical.

But questions like these, questions from white writers posed to POC readers and writers are important in our understanding or what it means to write diversely and how important it is.

I’m a white writer. As in, I’m white and a writer. Those two things do not usually correlate, but the more we talk about race and privilege, the more I and many others can see how these two things do affect one another. As a white person, I am more likely to identify and relate to a white character, maybe on a more subconscious level. I don’t exactly exclaim “Huh, she’s white. I like her.” I also see people like me in fiction; in movies, television and of course, in books. As a writer, I may find it automatic to write about white people (though definitely what I aim for). And hey, a white person writing about white people is fine, normal in fact.

But as publishing progresses, as writing and reading change, it is obvious that an all-white cast of characters, especially coming from a white person, is unrealistic. The world is not white people, it never was, but now that people are listening, now that POC writers are finally getting a chance to publish their work, it’s more important than ever for white writers to not get stuck in the old ways, to not see their worlds as all white people, to understand that white stories are not the only stories.

However, there is a difference between writing diversely and writing the stories that are not yours.

Ownvoices emerged as we began to celebrate the stories of gay teens by gay writers, about black teens and their struggles with racism written by black writers. Ownvoices was and still is a rejection of white stories being the only story. And yet, many white writers will have a POC protagonist with racist portrayals and dangerous depictions.

You see Twitter threads and blog posts and articles, explaining why an all-white cast won’t do, and how white writers writing ‘outside their lane’ won’t do too. And it’s where this question comes from ‘Well, what CAN I write?’, but this question is redundant.

Writers, ultimately, can write whatever they want. But it does not mean they are free from criticism. If you are getting annoyed that you cannot write an all-white cast but also cannot write a poorly researched, problematic depiction of a black, gay, disabled, mentally ill etc. protagonist, then should you really be writing at all?

I don’t think anyone has ‘the answer’ to what you can and cannot write. You’re going to mess up, and you’re going to have criticism. It’s normal and should be welcomed. Only you can decide what to write, but I think it’s important to understand that if you write a story about POC, as a white writer, you’re going to be picked to get published over a POC writer with a story about POC.

And is that right?

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‘I’m Going To Read It Anyway & See What I Think’

As a blogger, I read book reviews almost daily. Whether it be here on WordPress, Tumblr, Instagram, or Goodreads, I use them as a guide to find out whether a book I’m thinking of reading is really worth it. Granted, you don’t have to use them, and I’ve often dived into a book without knowing what it’s about or what people have said about it (it’s one of my favourite things to do), but hey, reviews are useful!

As a book blogger, I also write them, and while I don’t write reviews of books that I just stopped reading after a short while for no particular reason, I do write reviews of books that I did not like and also include, if necessary, warnings about scenes or chapters that some may find triggering and/or upsetting. I want my reviews to, if positive, entice readers into picking up the book and sharing the joy that I felt. But I review the books that I did not enjoy to make aware to my readers and others who are browsing the reviews on goodreads of why I don’t think said book is worth your time.

However, at the end of the day, I cannot decide for you whether or not you read a book; my opinion may contribute to that decision, but reading tastes are reading tastes and my opinion will not be the same as yours. And that’s ok!

Whether or not a reviewer likes the book or not is very different to a reviewer stating the problematic issues in a book.

Vocal debates on this topic have been surfacing around once a month about these two definitions and how they’ve been overlapping. While the same issues happen with disabled bloggers, LGBT+ bloggers and Muslim bloggers, it’s specifically POC bloggers who are constantly being harassed online for their reviews of books that they have stated have racist content and therefore should be at least called out on to make others aware.

The problem does not lie in bloggers making readers aware of racist content, what is worrying are the many (white) people who respond to these criticisms with ‘I’m going to read it anyway and see what I think’.

In my scenario, where I give a book two stars because I didn’t enjoy it, that’s where a statement like that would be ok. Books are subjective, and ‘the writing style is poor’ is an opinion that another reader may not share. However, when POC review a book and say it’s racist, a white person cannot then decide to ‘see what they think’, because here are your two outcomes:

Outcome 1: You read the book and agree yes, it is racist. You have therefore ignored the claim of a person who actually experiences said racism in real life in favour of yours, as if there’s does not mean anything unless you’ve waved in on it.

Outcome 2: You read the book and disagree, it is not racist. You have therefore ignored the claim of a person who actually experiences said racism in real life in favour of yours, as if you can decide what does and does not clarify as racism.

I think the crux of the matter is people don’t like it when they are told not to read a book. Of course, when someone tells you not to do something, you kind of wanna do it, right? But here’s the thing, racism is not an opinion. That book, whether you read it or not, dislike it or not, has racist content. So, you cannot ‘read it and see what you think’. And when these bloggers/reviewers are asking you not to support these books, they are not trying to restrict your reading, they are trying to let publishers know that books like these cannot slide, that they are problematic and should not be getting published in the first place. Institutional racism is deep and ingrained and small justices can make large waves. Read the books if you want, but keep aware, and support the voices who are hurt by racist, homophobic, and ableist content.

You see a person stepping on another person’s foot without realising. They walk away. The person whose foot has been stepped on is hurt and rubbing their foot. They come up to you. “Did you see that? That really hurt.” Would you then question if that actually hurt them? Or would you have to find out for yourself and step on their foot too?

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Your Fave Is Problematic, What Happens Now?

This is not a new topic.

This is not something that has started happening suddenly. You just didn’t hear it, either because there wasn’t a platform that could let people be heard so quickly or so easily, or because those voices are the voices of people who are ignored and oppressed.

That’s right, a book you love, a book that may even be your absolute fave, has been called out as problematic.

So no book is perfect. I know, I know. But the sooner that is said, the better. The whole reason this discourse exists is because of that sentence; it is physically impossible to find a book that no matter who reads it, everyone will love it. Because it doesn’t exist.

With that in mind, let’s give this blog post a bit of context:

The online book community is a big one, especially on Twitter, where we are constantly in discussion about everything and anything, which is fantastic. But one thing that continually has the community divided is the calling out of problematic content, either already published or about to be published. Like I said, this is not something new; problematic books have been called out for years, but it’s a little more recent that it’s been done using Twitter threads by bloggers and other authors.

An example of universally accepted calling outs are Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey (and I’m lumping them together because a) one is a product of the other, and b) they both fall victim to the same criticism). These two series are well criticized for being misogynistic, perpetuating rape culture, glorifying abusive relationships, and romanticizing abusers. People got defensive, and instead of actually listening, they shouted.

This reaction is natural, but also does nothing to help the matter.

More recently, and on a smaller scale (to a certain extent), minority voices in the online book community have started calling out problematic books on Twitter. Examples include Sarah J Maas’ books, soon-to-be-released The Continent, and in the last few weeks, Nevernight. I wanted to write this blog post because before, I felt I could not speak about this subject from a personal point of view; but now that one of my favourite books of 2016, Nevernight, has been called out, I feel like I can talk about this in a way that will hopefully speak to others who have been in a similar situation and even perhaps dealt with it in the wrong way.

Because ooh boy, does it get dealt with in the wrong way.

So I read Nevernight around mid-July as an ARC. I loved it, and bought a shiny new hardback version when it came out. I raved about it in almost every bookish chat I joined on Twitter, and gave it a glowing review on Goodreads. Cut to a few months later, after seeing multiple call outs about other books that I neither care about or haven’t read, I see Nevernight be add to the pile people like to call ‘do not touch with a barge pole’.

Shit, I thought, and began reading every single thread and consistently monitoring Jay Kristoff’s Tweets like a hawk. Why? Why is this happening to a book I love?

In all seriousness, this is probably going to happen to a book you love.

So, while I’m bisexual and female, I still have a lot of privilege; I’m white, cis, able-bodied, and middle class. But let’s focus on white. As a white person, I have not been subject to racism. I have seen racism, most definitely, but I have never experienced it personally. And so it’s harder for me to notice implicit racism in the books I read because white people can very easily ignore racism, and they do, because that’s what society has taught us to do; everybody is a little bit racist, to quote Avenue Q.

So when I read Nevernight, I did not see racist depictions of any kind. But just because I did not see them, does not mean they’re not there, and this is why the online book community is causing so much drama.

Anjulie, a fellow book blogger, has a very insightful and educational blog post on her experiences with Nevernight and how, as a WOC, she read the book and saw these depictions, and better explains it all than me.

Now, this has happened, and people are calling my favourite book ‘trash’ and tweeting ‘yeah, this is coming right off my TBR pile’, what the Hell is going on? And what can I do?

The reality? Nothing.

Me reading Nevernight is in the past. Me falling in love with Nevernight has already happened. On the one hand, I could stand up and say ‘Yeah this book sucks’, but there are tweets and reviews and instagrams of me saying I love it, and so me saying I think this book sucks would be a fat lie. To me, it does not suck, but at the same time, I cannot ignore what people are saying about it. I can’t disregard how hurtful these depictions are to people just because I like the book. What, if you’re in this position, you should be asking yourself is not what should you do, but what shouldn’t you do.

First off, please, do not defend the book. This is not the same as disagreeing with a review where someone has said the book is shit, this is you, a person not affected by the problematic content, denying a person who is affected by the problematic content a voice. At this point, in a world where minorities are still oppressed through even craftier ways such as casual racism, we need these voices to call us out! And if you are a person who cares more about the book than the fight for equality within literature, then we’ve got a real problem on our hands. You also do not need to defend the author; a lot of people rushed to Jay Kristoff’s aid to harass the teenagers who were hurt by the depictions in his book. Jay Kristoff is a grown ass man and handled the situation fairly well, and you tweeting ‘They’re just cry-babies’ just makes you look like a cry baby.

You also need to not ignore these criticisms, just like you wouldn’t if you were considering reading the book. Nevernight has been slated for having the ‘savage’ depiction which, when based off of actual indigenous or native cultures, can be really damaging and racist. I am not about to ignore these criticisms; I want to know why I didn’t pick up on it before, and also I want to listen to the people who are speaking about it, because it is them who understand better than I do, and it is them who have to deal with this shit day in day out.

This doesn’t mean I have to toss my copy of Nevernight in the trash. But this also doesn’t mean I have to persuade people to ‘read the book then form an opinion’.

The best thing, at this point, is for me to understand that Nevernight is problematic, and to support the voices that are saying so by hoping that Jay Kristoff can do better. Because that’s all you can hope for; I don’t want Jay Kristoff to stop writing books, nobody wants to say to an author ‘You need to stop writing’, and so when problematic content crops up, all you can say is do better, please, because this should not be happening in 2016, in a community that prides itself on being diverse and inclusive.

Maybe an example with a much wider scope is Sarah J Maas…yeah, all of her books. SJM has a massive following, but almost all of her characters are white (with the POC characters appearing in one book at a time and dying at the end), as well as having skewed portrayals of healthy relationships and weird carbon copies of male characters that have ‘animalistic’ traits that force them to be dickheads. Despite mass uproar about this, people still try and defend their fave by calling POC jealous of SJM’s success, as well as voting for a SJM in every goddamn category in the Goodreads Awards. But you know what? You can still enjoy SJM while still calling for better, you can still hope that SJM sees the criticisms of her book and how they affect her readers (‘I want a boyfriend like so-so’), while reading every single one of her books, and the only way to do that is to make sure that the criticisms are heard loud and clear, instead of seeing the people who are genuinely affected by SJM’s lack of racial diversity as the enemy.

So what happens now?

The book you love is problematic, but that does not mean you are not allowed to like it anymore. Sure, the way you feel about it might automatically change, but this is pretty healthy. There are many people who still read/watch content that know how problematic it can be and have an awareness of the things it needs to improve on, but can still say they enjoyed the content as a whole. Coming up soon, I have a post where Nevernight is listed as one of my favourite books of 2016, because it is, but instead of pretending the criticisms never happened, I will explain them and hope people will take them into account before reading. Will this mean less people will pick it up? Probably. Are some people going to see the criticisms and call Nevernight a ‘dumpster fire’, hell yeah they are! This is the internet. But you can still listen to the people who are deeply affected by this on going racial stereotype that just does not seem to stop. It is far worse to flat out ignore what has been said than to acknowledge that sometimes even your faves don’t get it right.

But hey, there will always be better books. As long as you find them and read them and love them. There will always be books that get it right, that deserve to have the exposure.

Only you can decide if you like a book or not, the rest is just influence. I wrote posts on why liking things isn’t a bad thing and why disliking things isn’t a bad thing either. But completely disregarding problematic content is blind faith, and is part of the problem of why there is a lack of diversity within books.

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Author Intention vs Reader Interpretation

So Twitter can sometimes be a bit of a witch hunt, can’t it?

It really depends on which side you’re on; a lot of people will get unnecessarily harassed, but there’s also the case of calling out people who say silly stuff. You could say ‘problematic’, which is what it is, but it’s got to the point where the word is meaningless now.

This topic has been one that spans decades. I even did a few classes on authorship and the ‘death of the author’ because of the opinions on how subjective a text can be when it’s brought out into the world.

As a writer, you get to know that when a story of yours is published, either through traditional publishing, self-publishing, or even just putting up stuff on your blog, it’s going to be interpreted in a different way to you. Know how I know that? Because that human who reads your novel is not the same as you; there are so many factors that makes a human so unique that their view and interpretation of the same things will be vastly different to yours.

A lot of writers, especially incredibly successful authors who may not have a strong connection to their readers (e.g. lack of social media presence, very few signings/event appearances, anonymous writer) seem to have a struggle processing this. There seems to be this discontent with readers interpreting something different to how you, the author, intended it to be. Now of course, you own these characters and this story (which has also been debated, but we won’t get into that) and so you are able to write these characters and this story in any way you see fit. I’ve touched upon this in my post on having a responsibility to represent in your writing, where I explain you shouldn’t be forced to write something you don’t want to, but as a person in power (in that sphere), you should be more open to creating an environment of inclusion and understanding (plus, having characters from minorities isn’t the hardest thing in the world).

However, you should not be bullied into writing something you don’t want to. You’re the writer, if your story is about a group of straight white men, then that’s what it’s about.

But reader interpretation is all about imagination, experience, and relationship. The reader, as a completely separate human from you, will read this text from a different perspective. Interpretation is completely different to canon, and you just have to accept that. You cannot force readers to see your novel how you see it. The majority of the time, your readers will have a very close interpretation to your intention, because that’s how books work. There is a general consensus on the story’s canon; for example, that plot definitely happened because the book is the evidence, or if it says ‘this character has red hair’, then the reader is probably going to picture a person with red hair.

Sometimes, author’s intention and reader’s interpretation can be blurred and also dealt with in a ‘silly’ (problematic) way. And here you’ll find the inspiration for this blog post:

A few days a go, S.E. Hinton, author of the classic and everyone’s set school text, The Outsiders, was asked whether or not two characters had romantic feelings for each other.

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The answer is no, which she does state. That really should have been the end of it. Johnny and Dally are interpreted by so many as having romantic feelings that she’s probably heard this a lot; this theory is not news to her. The problem is that she then goes on to have a little dig at the person, clearly annoyed that people have this interpretation for no real reason than it is not in line with her author intention:

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S.E. Hinton goes to the point of insulting her readers, calling lgbt romance a ‘weird fantasy’ and even pulling out the ‘I have gay friends’ card.

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Oh dear, oh dear.

Things have spiraled out of control. Not only has the author alienated a large part of her audience (who love her book BECAUSE of their interpretation), but she’s also just shown a part of herself that probably wasn’t a good idea to air to the public, especially when you rely on other’s opinion on your book because hey, that’s how you get paid.

Many people on Twitter took to S.E. Hinton’s side and said ‘hang on, they’re her characters, she’s allowed to write them however she wanted’ and yes, this is absolutely right. However, you cannot control a reader’s interpretation. Johnny and Dally, just like Sirius and Lupin, Spock and Kirk, and Dean and Castiel, are not gay and do not have romantic feelings for each other in the text. That is canon, that is what the authors/scriptwriters have said. However, you as a reader can think whatever the Hell you want about those characters. If you consider two characters in media to be in love then why should anyone stop you? These are characters for you to enjoy, it’s why they’ve been written, and just because the story’s canon may disagree with you in that case, does not mean you’re not allowed to think or interpret the text differently. You are not taking over the story or demanding ownership, you are merely enjoying the story in your own way.

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Hell, this is what English Literature courses are all about! I spent a whole term during my A-Levels discussing the homoeroticism in Brideshead Revisited and I came to the conclusion that these two men definitely had a lot of sex. If Evelyn Waugh rose from the dead and tweeted that wasn’t his intention, I don’t think English Literature would come to a screaming halt and re-work the whole curriculum, I think they’d just consider his intention to be another interpretation.

What do you think? Are you a writer and have strong thoughts about how you want readers to see your story? Do you like to take Word of God as gospel and like to stay strict to an author’s interpretation?

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Monthly Favourites: April

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I’m still not great at these opening titles. Hell, I don’t think I’ll ever be. But this month was filled with spectacular online interaction that I hope won’t ever stop. Of really using the internet for it’s full potential, and for writing and reading like nothing I’ve ever done. This is April.

BOOKS
Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

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I mention this book in so many of my blog posts because it’s just THAT GOOD. A British university student, Alice Oseman is well on her way to having a list of publications full of five stars. She writes realistic, stressed out teenagers who deal with school, parents, and the future. Radio Silence, if you haven’t heard me natter on about it before, is a novel about Frances Janvier, a girl with straight A’s who doesn’t know what she truly wants. She meets Aled Last, a quiet older boy who’s drowning in a sea of pressure and other people’s plans for him. Radio Silence is a great portrayal of boy/girl platonic friendships, and how school is not the be all end all. My review for it is long and right here. 

MOVIES
Deadpool (2015) Dir. Tim Miller

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I finally watched a movie, everyone. Round of applause to the girl who finally put her book down for two hours and didn’t watch Youtube videos.

Deadpool is a movie I’ve been really looking forward to, despite not seeing it until April. It turns out, not many family members want to see an 18 rated film with you. I’m not surprised, and I struggled to find people to see it with who hadn’t already, so when I finally got to watching it was in the comfort of my lonesome, with no embarrassing side glances at the person sat next to me.

I loved it, but my only criticism is that is was way too short. But still, beautifully done, and by beautiful, I mean great close up shots of Ryan Reynolds ass. I’m so glad he worked had to get it done properly (the movie, not his ass); Deadpool swears, breaks the fourth wall, has lots of sex, and loves gratuitous violence, and it would be a shame to leave that out of a movie that was about him. How they’re going to slot him into a Marvel movie, I have no idea.

TELEVISION
American Crime Story: The People v O.J Simpson

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During the trial of O.J Simpson, I was 1-2 years old. I have no recollection of the internationally broadcast trial, and was still in the dark about most things even today. I’ve heard passing jokes on comedy shows, but that’s about it. Therefore, when I got down to watching The People v O.J Simpson I was actually shocked at the outcome and the ramifications both sides had for their motivations. A gripping insight into the mind of society on such an important and sensitive topic.

INTERNET
Twitter Hashtag Chats

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Since starting this blog, I have become completely immersed in the internet book community, and one thing that I’ve found incredibly engaging and down right fucking fun are Twitter chats, hosted and taken part by book bloggers alike. You find new friends, new blogs, and some stellar book recommendations. Some great ones that I take part in, all in which are hosted by British bloggers and so are at times suitable for people in the GMT/BST timezone, are:

  • #UKYACHAT: Hosted by @lucythereader on Fridays at 8pm GMT/BST
  • #SUNDAYYA: Hosted by @_sectumsemprah every other Sunday at 6pm GMT/BST
  • #STORYCRAFTER: Hosted by @writerology on Sundays at 8pm GMT/BST
  • #FEMINISMINYA: Hosted by @helloiammariam on Tuesdays at 7:30pm GMT/BST
  • #FAIRYCHAT: Hosted by @fairyloot every 2nd Saturday of the month.

I try and attend each chat every week, #storycrafter being the easiest because I’m NEVER busy on Sunday evening, and #feminisminya the most difficult because I’m ALWAYS busy on a Tuesday night.

If there’s any twitter chats that you attend that would be great for bloggers in other timezones, share them in the comments!

YOUTUBE
Kingsley – ItsKingsleyBitch

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When the internet gets crazy, all you need is a good laugh, and that’s what Kingsley is here for. Hilarious in his expressions and reactions, there is nothing like commenting on people’s ridiculousness as they reply to celebrity’s photos with vulgar and explicit content. Thirsty Thursday, a weekly segment on Kingsley’s channel, sees viewers send in ‘thirsty’ comments they’ve seen on social media and basically call them out.

And the shit they say is hilarious.

I’m not going to embed a video on my post because the videos are so explicit it’s hilarious. So, if you’re over 18, I’d click the link to his channel up there and prepare to wet yourself from laughter.

MUSIC
Fall Out Boy

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It seems that April is going to also be my most expensive month, with concert tickets going on sale left, right, and centre. One in particular that I’m excited about is Reading Festival, a three day music extravaganza that I’ve never been to. While there are some fantastic acts I’m eager to see, I bought the tickets because of this band.

Fall Out Boy have been in my life for the last ten years; always present, always in my ears. And now, I finally get to see them. I’ve been listening to the American Beauty/American Psycho album on repeat for the whole month, and I don’t intend to stop until August.

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