So FYI: there are no writing police. There are readers. And if you want their time and money (and, like, actually care about people, but let’s try to play on your sense of career-preservation), you have to make an effort to not harm them with what you write.
That’s the short version. The long version is that as people (rightly) grow more vocal about the way they are portrayed in books, you’d better start caring more about what you put out in the world. If representation furthers stereotypes, that is actively harmful to groups as a whole. You probably should not harm people, I am pretty sure that’s Humaning 101. So what does a writer do when she wants to be accurate in what she writes? She hires an expert. In this case, they are often called “sensitivity readers”, but make no mistake, you are paying for expertise.
Now, I am addressing this post specifically to white women writers because a. I am one of you, so maybe you’ll listen to me, and b. I am continually fucking baffled by how this is such a difficult concept for us.
White women writers: you have read a book by a male writer who couldn’t write female characters. All of you have at some point in your life. Female characters with no nuance, who were either a virgin or a whore, who had no agency, no complexity, and existed solely as props. Or an entirely male cast with women completely erased from existence. Every. Single. Woman. Has. You read those books and you didn’t understand how that male writer could get it so wrong. You didn’t understand how he saw women that way. You saw how that portrayal echoed how women were seen outside of fiction as well, which threw so many more barriers in front of you. You silently seethed and said, “My god, if he’d just found a woman to read his fucking book that could’ve been corrected before it even got to the reader!”
Congratulations: you just wished that male writer had a sensitivity reader. Or an editor who had the sense to point out the misogyny or sexism in the book. Or that the male writer had actually spent time around women, listening to women, and attempted to understand their perspective.
If you have any area in your life where your experience is considered “other”, where you are marginalized or outside of the default perspective, you should understand this concept.
Here’s an example from my own experience: some years ago I read a well-praised book that had a bipolar secondary character that was wrong on just about every level I could think of. The writer got the medication wrong. She got the symptoms wrong. She treated this character–whose illness is a real thing that kills 15% of the people like me who have it–as a prop for the plot, victimized and brutally cast aside at the end.
There’s this notion that if something “offends” you, the problem is you, and you should get over it, but the problem is that it ignores what “offends” really means, and that is: harms. That book harmed me by furthering stereotypes and the stigmatization of my illness. It told non-bipolar readers that people like me are irrational, clingy, violent, and hurt others. Every bipolar person who read that book was reminded that it’s that much harder to speak up about their illness, to let friends and family know what it’s like for them, and encouraged them to see themselves as damaged, useless props in someone else’s story.
That writer could’ve reached out to people with the disorder and psychologists. Or even quietly read the blogs and forum posts of others to get a sense of what stereotypes are out there and avoid them. The editor could’ve said, “Maybe you should double check your research here.” But no one did, and that book made it into my hands, and I was sickened by it.
If you can understand that, if you can understand the frustration when you’ve read books by male writers with shit female characters, then it shouldn’t be a stretch for you to understand what people of colour, trans people, gay/lesbian and bisexual people, disabled people, fat people, are all saying. No one is policing anyone else’s writing. But when you write a book that misrepresents or entirely erases people (and yes, erase is just as political as inclusion), your readers–your audience, your customers, the people you expect to pay your bills–are going to speak up about that. And all anyone is asking for is for you to do your fucking research. (And if you think THIS is policing your writing? My god, try writing about guns and watch out when a gun nut reads your book.)
When you are writing outside your experience, and someone with that lived experience reads it, they are going to probably say things that make you uncomfortable, and you want to avoid that discomfort. I get that–most of us like to avoid discomfort. But that discomfort pales in comparison to actually being harmed. It also sucks when we get edits back and find out the plot jumped the shark, the grammar is an assault on the English language, and the main character’s name changes three times, but as writers who want to put out the best book possible, we swallow our pride and go to work fixing that stuff. You pay experts to help you see and fill in your blindspots–they’re not the fucking police, whether they’re a content editor, a Latin expert, or POC checking your rep of African Americans.
Do you want to be like that oblivious male writer who thinks he knows everything but actually wrote a shit book filled with shoddy characterization? No? Then do the things you wish he’d done to improve the representation of people like you in his book.
And maybe start by realizing you are not actually the victim here.
No one is going to arrest you because you wrote harmful stereotypes and lazy cliches about real people, however, there are consequences for it. That is not the same as policing you; it’s your audience exercising their rights to both have an opinion and express it as well as potentially not buy your book.
You have a hell of a lot of power as a writer. So what are you going to chose to do with it?