Quite a few people are in an uproar about something happening in the m/m writing world over the past little while.
Must be Monday.
Gay for You? AGAIN?
I know, right?
Now, honestly, on the topic of Gay for You stories—and my general loathing thereof—I’ve really already said my piece. (For those of you playing the home game, it’s here.) But something I said a little there I’m going to say a bit more clearly now, and expand upon it a bit.
When the first reaction to criticism is “I don’t see that,” it seems to me the first question on the part of the author (or disagreeing reader) should be “Why don’t I see that?”
I’m willing to bet that very often the answer is “I haven’t lived that.”
Rather than a declaration of opposition to the criticism, and dismissing it out of hand, it’s worth parsing. Every writer has gotten edits or criticism they’ve chosen to ignore. But a good writer knows even those ignored edits or criticism have value, and might point out something worth clarifying or exploring more. If an author didn’t intend harm, but harm is perceived, there’s likely an opportunity to clarify the message to reduce that accidental harm.
Now, there’s some confusion I’m seeing between criticism and someone telling an author what they can and cannot write, and I think there’s an inversion here at play in the way criticism is being perceived.
If a reader says, ‘You’ve written a character portraying a harmful stereotype,’ or ‘You’ve really misrepresented a culture here,’ or the like, they’re not saying, ‘You shouldn’t write this.’ They’re saying, ‘You didn’t do a good job writing this.’
See the difference?
Once You Know It? You Know It.
Now, to quote myself again (I know, I know, so gauche):
[W]hen those who belong to the group you’re writing about tell you in no uncertain terms that they feel harm by a message you’ve delivered, you can’t unknow that. If you keep doing it, you’ve chosen to do so. This works inclusively and exclusively. If you never have a character who isn’t white, or all the trans characters you write are always killed, or the person who uses a wheelchair is a prop to remind your main character her life could be worse, you’re propagating a problem. And you know it. And you’re choosing to do so.
And that’s totally within your right to do so as an author. No one will deny that. I certainly won’t. And I’ve heard authors bemoan that they’re just trying to write fun sexy romantic stories for their readers, and that we queer folk shouldn’t ruin their fun. But if an author chooses to put their reader’s fun over active harm their portrayal of queer characters does, then they’re going to get called out on it.
Don’t be surprised if people point it out, and don’t feel slighted if others don’t suggest your work because of it, or let others know the content included should be avoided by those who aren’t looking for one more reminder of how they’re not worth inclusion.
There’s the rub. Once the discussion has been had, if an author thereafter becomes a repeat offender, well… they’re a repeat offender. There’s no limitation on the number of times someone gets to say ‘This person’s representation in their fiction is kind of awful and harmful.’ There’s no, ‘Well, they’ve already been told once, so I should let it pass from now on.’
In fact, that’s the opposite of what’ll happen.
So, y’know, don’t be surprised, maybe?
Blurbs. They’re for Judging.
The third thing—and this one maybe surprises me a little less, but still—is the notion that you can’t judge a book by its blurb, and you shouldn’t judge the book by its blurb because it’s unfair and you haven’t read the story.
Okay. So. How can I put this?
That’s literally what the blurb is for.
I’m serious. Let’s draw a different parallel. I’m not at all a fan of gore. Like, I’m the anti-fan of gore. And I am so not down with zombies. In visual form, in written form, in audio form, doesn’t matter. No gore. No zombies. No gory zombies. There’s a reason I’m not often a reader of horror. It squicks me out, gets in my head, and I end up having bad dreams for days. (Yes, I just admitted that horror gives me nightmares, but whatever, I’m a grown adult and I can own my permeable subconscious.)
Recently, I listened to the audiobook of Leviathan Wakes. The blurb is this:
Humanity has colonized the solar system – Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond – but the stars are still out of our reach.
Jim Holden is XO of an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, the Scopuli, they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for – and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew. War is brewing in the system unless he can find out who left the ship and why.
Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to the Scopuli and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.
Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations – and the odds are against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.
This hit all the right notes for me, we bought the audiobook, started listening, and then, about thirty chapters in or so? Total gorefest. Like, (mild spoiler here), vomit-zombie gore. Nowhere in that description did I get the slightest notion that I’d be in for a gooey, gory, vomit-zombie story. Luckily, it didn’t last long, and we finished the book. I’m still not sure how I felt about the book as a whole thanks to that, but I’d definitely warn other weak-stomached low-threshold-for-zombie folk I know about the book.
Here’s the thing: if the review had made mention of the gorefest, or even mentioned the word zombie? I would have chosen not to read it. That’s just as much a function of a blurb as the stuff that made me want to try it out: to let me know if a book isn’t something I’ll enjoy.
The blurb is one way a reader chooses to read—or not read—a book.
So, when I hear ‘you’re judging a book by the blurb!’ as though it’s a bad thing, that’s why I scratch my head. Of course readers are. That’s the whole point. The judgement of whether or not a reader wants to read the book can come very much from a blurb. Or reviews. Or discussions of the book.
And if the blurb makes it clear the story is a Gay-for-you plot—something a reader already knows they dislike, something they’ve already made very clear isn’t just something they dislike but something they actively believe can and does do damage via bi-erasure when handled in particular ways—then it’s perfectly cool for a reader to say, ‘No. This book? I do not want to read this book. Another book that erases bisexual and pansexual identities is so not going to get my time.’
They’re allowed to say that out loud. They’re allowed to share that opinion. They’re allowed to point it out to other readers who might not realize the undertones, damage, erasure or what-have-you will likely be in play in said book.
The author? The author can write whatever they want. And readers? The readers can read whatever they want—and they can not read what they don’t want to read. Readers—especially readers who are members of a living, breathing culture the writer is representing—get to speak about what the portrayal does, how it affects them, and if it is damaging. The author doesn’t get to say they’re wrong. Other readers can say it doesn’t bother them, but, like I mentioned above, those other readers can’t un-know the effect this writing can have.
So, just to be clear, this is a perfectly valid series of events:
- Author writes a gay-for-you book that erases bi and pan folk.
- Readers, including queer folk and especially bi and pan folk, point out how that erases them, and the damage done with portrayals in gay-for-you stories.
- Author responds to accusations. Poorly, or well; with an apology, or not. Or, doesn’t respond, or rails against the criticism. Either way, it’s fairly certain the criticism has been heard.
- Another book comes out. The blurb makes it clear this is a gay-for-you story, and refers to characters in gay-for-you terms, and describes the book as more of the same.
- Readers, including queer folk and especially bi and pan folk, choose not to read the book, and are loud about how yet again they’ve been erased.
- Rinse and repeat.
At no point there does the author have to stop writing books that erase bi folk. At no point there does the reader have to back off.
But the author? They sure as hell don’t have the moral high ground. A group of living, breathing people has said, ‘Hey, this does harm.’ Maybe the author didn’t mean to. But if we’re hitting the next book, and the next book, and the next book?
It’s a choice.
Choices have consequences.