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August 2014

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real magic can never be made by offering up someone else's liver.

Please read this linked post before proceeding. This post has been closed to new comments.

As this is an open letter, I believe it deserves an open response:

You're right.

You're pretty much right categorically and without exception, and I'm sorry to have mislead you for a moment into believing I think anything different. I will say that the book of mine you threw across the room is, in part, actually intended to address the point you make about it, but I obviously failed for you as a reader in doing so, and I'm sorry.

That racism serves a story is never an excuse, especially if the racism is unexamined. There's a fine line to walk, of course, because it's also racist to make people of color sacrosanct in fiction. The only long-term solution I am aware of is saturation: getting enough characters of color out there that each one stops being special by virtue of their color.

When I said that sometimes it helps to write as if somebody "happens to have" a particular background, what I meant was not that anything else is the default. I meant that the character needs to be a person first, rather than being a stereotype or a token. A person, in other words, not an archetype or a stereotype or a role. 

It's a hard thing to talk about, to explain, and we've seen enough evidence already this week that the same words can sound very different to different people.

My intention really is not to earn brownie points. It is, hopefully, to do something about your pain and lack, and my own pain and lack, and the pain and lack of my friends and family and random strangers on the street.

If I check in with friends to see if I'm making mistakes, it's because I would rather be part of the solution than part of the problem, and obviously I'm not doing it well enough yet.

ETA: Think VERY CAREFULLY before you comment on this post. And make damned sure you are being both polite and respectful of others when you do. Or I will close comments.

Oz has spoken.


deepad's essay, here, is also excellent.



(I do wish people would stop assuming I'm straight.)

Comments

That's always been my reaction to this argument. I'm a white male, and this suggests that I'm not allowed to write anything but white males. No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, if I write a non-white character someone will think I'm being racist - that I'm feeding the culture of racism.

I realized about a year ago that one of my characters was black. It wasn't a decision I made - she just was, it was beyond my control. And I immediately started trying to justify reasons to force her to be white because I didn't want anyone reading her and thinking I'd intentionally made her black and picking apart her flaws as an example of how racist I was (as opposed to her having flaws because she's human, just like her white partner in the book). It was at that point that I decided to ignore that argument and similar accusations and write the characters as they are. There is nothing I can do to prevent people from perceiving racism if they want to - short of never writing a non-white character, which I'm not willing to do.
THIS.

You've basically stated exactly how I feel.
If we notice and call attention to the treatment of characters as not-fully-human because of their demographics, we are apparently discouraging writers from writing. But if we don't we are denying our own humanity. That seems an unnecessarily difficult choice.
I'm a little bit confused.

How can Willow's post, or any other post, force you to do or not do something?

People who I think are horrible hacks (for their portrayals of women, for example) are still getting published every day, even though I have written more than one rant, or open letter, or anything directed at them and their publisher.

I can continue to do so at length, as can every other person who thinks that these things are true.

We're not going to anyone's house, ripping the keyboards out of their hands, and breaking their fingers.

I'd love them to stop, because I'd love to stop having to hunt all over hell's half acre for strong female characters and just get to pick up a book that automatically has them (bonus points if there's no rape & revenge involved).

Whatever you write, you will be criticised for. You cannot please everyone, ever. You can only decide what it is you're willing to take heat for, and what it is you're not.

Other people will decide differently than you will.

Honestly, Willow is critiquing. If one doesn't want to be critiqued, don't publish.

If you think the criticism is warranted, keep working on your stuff.

It's obvious to me that Ms Bear thinks that this is criticism she will engage with, that she thinks is important, that she thinks is worth taking into account and considering. She's going to keep working on her stuff.

She's not saying that you have to.
I never said they could force me to do anything. What I said is that the argument Willow puts forth makes me, a white male, feel that she thinks I should never even try to write a non-white character, and that I should expect to be criticized of racism if I do.

At no point did I say I intended to stop accepting criticism. That would be like writer suicide - constructive criticism is the single best way for a writer to improve, in any aspect. What I said was that I decided to no longer allow such arguments to influence my decision: "I decided to ignore that argument and similar accusations and write the characters as they are." That doesn't mean I wouldn't read such criticism, and if the point is made effectively and persuasively, I'll consider it during future writing.

My point was this: that there is no intended such racism in anything I write. If someone wants to point out to me that something I write could be perceived as perpetuating institutional racism, that's fine, and I'll consider whether I agree with their views. But there's a big difference between saying something like that and saying that a writer is a racist because of it.

Maybe that's not what Willow meant, but that's what it sounded like to me: all her references served only to make me feel she was comparing matociquala's to the worst stereotyping, dehumanizing crap out there; calling her "clueless and ill worded and more than a touch thoughtless" with no personal experience of her to base that on. And writing "Your ability to think about things, sometimes, does not erase my pain or lack" dumps all the responsibility of institutionalized racism on matociquala's shoulders. From my perspective, it pushes for admitting intended racism instead of unintentional cultural (subconscious) racism. There is a BIG difference.

If someone wrote that about my writing, would I read it? Of course. Would I consider it? Absolutely. Would it alter how I approached writing in the future? Yes and no. Yes in that it would make me further consider whether I was allowing cultural racism to creep into my writing - no in that I would ignore the implied intentional racism.

And before anyone tears into me for saying that there was no accusation of intentional racism in Willow's post: as described above, that is how I perceived it. Just as she's entitled to her perception of matociquala's writing, I am entitled to my perception of her post.
Thank you.
I realized about a year ago that one of my characters was black. It wasn't a decision I made - she just was, it was beyond my control. And I immediately started trying to justify reasons to force her to be white because I didn't want anyone reading her and thinking I'd intentionally made her black and picking apart her flaws as an example of how racist I was...

What about those readers who would see your character and say, "hooray, a Black woman who's a human being, not a one-dimensional prop for the 'real' charaacters!" and would delight in her faults as part of her humanity, as long as they *were* part of her humanity and not a compendium of stereotypes of Black women?

I don't know if I've read your book, but I do know I've read other books with other such characters, and had that happy reaction. I can't promise you that no one will ever criticise your writing, but I can tell you that there are readers out here who might well be delighted by your characters of color, not for being perfect, but for being people.
Well, that's part of why I went on to say "It was at that point that I decided to ignore that argument and similar accusations and write the characters as they are."

I expounded a bit more above in this comment. Short version: I agree with you. In truth, that's why I write - because I want people to be moved and inspired by what I write. But honestly, I don't think I've ever written a character with that sort of inspiration in mind; like I said, I write the characters as they are (which I often have little control over). In fact, if I did sit down and say "Okay, I'm going to write a strong, inspirational female hero," I'd be concerned that it would come across as contrived. I guess my real hope is that when I do write, people perceive my characters as inspirational - something else I don't really have control over. I can write them as carefully as possible, but the writing is only half of the equation.

And of course I don't want to never be criticized at all... that's the quickest way for a writer to stagnate and never grow. I happily accept constructive criticism. I just object to criticism of me based on my writing.

(Oh, and you've definitely never read that book, because it's not finished yet. I'm merging it with the planned sequel into one gargantuan title, long story.)
The way I'm reading your comment is that you're afraid not of failing to write a black character well, not that you'd have to do research or that you might not be up to the task -- but, instead, that people would unjustly accuse you of doing it badly even if it isn't so.

Why would you assume that? Is that what you're getting out of this sort of discussion -- not that people are pointing out places where authors have failed to write PoC characters well, but that they're running around making unfounded accusations? It's like saying "I can't write about spaceships; people will accuse me of knowing nothing of physics!" Which ... doesn't add up. Are there lots of SF fans that go around attacking well-written, well-researched SF and accusing it of scientific errors that aren't really there? Not that I've noticed. When they point something out, it's because it's factually wrong or sloppily researched or just badly done. Why, then, would you assume that people are making unfounded accusations of poor writing on characterization/sociology issues -- rather than pointing out legitimate instances of sloppy and stereotyped writing?

It's just like anything else that you write -- if you are willing to put in the effort to do it right, if you research it well, and ask when there's something you don't know, and do your best to write it the very best that you can, then the worst you have to worry about is someone pointing out, legitimately, that you've gotten something wrong.

And if you actually are writing a black character in a way that's stereotyped and hurtful, if you're causing your readers pain, wouldn't you want someone to point it out to you?

Edited at 2009-01-15 04:15 am (UTC)
First of all, as I've said twice already in responses: Of course I'd want it pointed out to me. Please read my above responses to other comments, I don't want to repeat myself again.

"The way I'm reading your comment is that you're afraid ... that people would unjustly accuse you of doing it badly even if it isn't so."

That's... not exactly right. I mean I'm sure that probably happens occasionally, but that's not really a fear of mine. If someone accused me of something like that without a solid argument to back it up, I'd just ignore it - I've got thick skin, I can handle it.

I'm trying to figure out a way to phrase it that I haven't already tried.

When I read Willow's post, it was obvious that she was angry/frustrated at the cultural/institutional racism that creeps into books and film and tv (and the larger problems those represent). But in comparing matociquala's writing to the worst of those examples; by calling her "clueless and ill worded and more than a touch thoughtless"; by dismissing any effort she actually did make with this:

"Your ability to think about things, sometimes, does not erase my pain or lack. And only thinking of how things come across, sometimes, is not enough to make me like you. In fact, I don't think there's anything that could make me like you, other than you somehow earning my respect. And that's never going to happen if you keep checking in with me (metaphorical me, the larger culture and audience of PoC me) to see how you're going. Cause then it looks like so much brownie points, so much patting yourself on the back, so much excuses and dissembling; so much pride."

...Willow stopped criticizing the writing and began criticizing the writer - unfairly. matociquala was not trying to be racist when she wrote Blood & Iron. Anything in there that could be perceived as racist is not there because it can be perceived that way. And while calling it into question is great, making condescending and personal attacks against someone who didn't even know they'd done it is not great, is not productive, and will not help bring about the changes necessary to end the problem - if anything will make things worse.

In truth, I'm not even really concerned about this as it pertains to me. I know how I feel about it, and if someone ever wrote something like that about my writing, I would read it for any actually useful feedback and then probably only respond to any specific points I thought actually had some merit - including specific examples of things I wrote that could be perceived as racist, but not including direct or indirect accusations of me being racist.

My concern is that people don't differentiate between bringing unintentional things to light (and racism is just one example), and accusing the writer of being racist/sexist/homophobic/ willfully ignorant because it's easier than addressing how the particular example relates to the bigger problem.

This may not make complete sense; it's after midnight here and I'm damn tired. Please bear that in mind when responding, and if soethign didn't make sense tell me and I'll try to clarify.
I apologize for making you feel as if you're needing to repeat yourself. I guess the problem that I'm having is that you seem to be putting words into Willow's mouth that she didn't use, and then going on from there to generalize that if you write about PoC characters, you will also come in for the kind of criticism that you're attributing to Avalon's Willow. ("No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, if I write a non-white character someone will think I'm being racist.")

But she's not saying that. The whole quote that you took of hers begins, "I'm not calling you a monster. I'm not calling you a racist. But I am calling you clueless and ill worded and more than a touch thoughtless...."

And, a little earlier in her post:

"Have you noticed yet that I'm listing? That I can list? That it's not impractical for me to list? And in my listing there's heartache and anger and depression and disgust?"

It's not that she's trotting out these examples to castigate matociquala, to imply that Bear's a horrible person and a hack writer. Her other examples are there to point out that this is the umpty-gazillionth example she's encountered of a particular, insulting stereotype, and it hurts her. If she wasn't able to read through to the end of the book, it's because she's already seen this story a hundred times and it always has the same depressing, gut-twisting ending, so why go ahead and push through just on the remote chance that Bear, a writer she doesn't know, has given this heartbreaking, hope-destroying narrative a different ending this time? It seems to me that you're dismissing the pain and hurt and anger that she expressed in her post, and accusing her of making an accusation against matociquala ("...accusing the writer of being racist/sexist/homophobic/ willfully ignorant") that requires reading her post through a fairly specific lens.

matociquala was not trying to be racist when she wrote Blood & Iron.

But ... that matters how in this context? I'm not trying to put down matociquala, either as a person or as a writer. I've read several of her books and really liked them; I don't know her as a person at all, except through her LJ, but I've generally been impressed with how she's handling this discussion. But that is not really at all pertinent to Avalon's Willow's post, which was about the way that Bear's book hurt her, dismissed her; the way it brought up a very old, very deep wound. The important thing is not the intent, but the result; worrying about intent is a luxury reserved for the perpetrator of an injury, not the victim. If you run over my dog with your car, it doesn't matter if you did it on purpose or if you lost control on a patch of ice; my dog is just as dead either way, and knowing that you didn't mean to do it doesn't make my pain less.

My concern is that people don't differentiate between bringing unintentional things to light (and racism is just one example), and accusing the writer of being racist/sexist/homophobic/ willfully ignorant because it's easier than addressing how the particular example relates to the bigger problem.

And my point is that Avalon's Willow does exactly that -- if she makes any accusation towards the writer rather than the work, it's that the writer is thoughtless, not racist or ignorant or anything else -- but you're not giving her credit for that, or for pointing out racism in the media; instead, you're taking her to task for making an accusation that she never made, and calling her remarks "condescending" and "personal" when, for the most part, all her comments were focused on her own reactions, her own anger and disappointment and hurt and the way that she feels towards Bear because of that book. The implication in your original comment ("There is nothing I can do to prevent people from perceiving racism if they want to...") is that her pain is invalid, that it matters less than Bear's intentions, that the offense she feels is imaginary.
Yes. This.