Yesterday, I saw a tweet pop up from my outstanding agent, Amy Boggs, asking if anyone had a post about how to respond when people call out bigoted and/or problematic things in your book.
I read the responses tweeted back to her before tweeting my own response: Listen.
I sort of figured that was it, but thought about it all night and into today (while I’m supposed to be working!), and I think a more nuanced answer is required.
Luckily, I haven’t faced this directly yet, though I’m more than willing to admit that there are definitely problematic elements in my books and short stories that I probably should have been called out for. But when it comes to these elements, I think there are two kinds: intentional and unintentional.
When I was writing my short story Better for the GRIM anthology of reimagined Grimm’s fairy tales, I wrote a scene where sexual violence is inflicted upon my female narrator. I’ve read a few reviews commenting about how they felt it was gratuitous or unnecessary or exploitative. And I couldn’t disagree with them because that’s they way they felt. I’m loathe to tell anyone that how they feel is wrong. I was turned off by a very popular book that had (I felt) both misogynistic and homophobic undertones. I seemed to be one of the few people who felt that way, but that didn’t negate or invalidate my feelings. The same is true for those who disagree with my use of sexual violence in my story.
If readers feel that what I wrote is wrong or exploitative or gratuitous, I won’t argue with them. I stand by the narrative decision I made because it was the best decision I could have made at the time with the tools and experience I had. Time and practice (I hope) have made me a better writer, and it’s entirely possible that if I were to write the same story today, I could accomplish my goal without using sexual violence against the narrator, but I can’t change what I wrote. I have to accept the choices I made and live with whatever repercussions arise from that decision.
What I will do is listen. Really listen. I won’t attempt to justify it, I won’t argue about it. I’ll simply listen. Because nothing I say about what I wrote after the fact changes anything. I will be judged by what I put on the page. But by listening to what readers have to say, I hope I can become a better writer.
The unintentionally problematic issues are a somewhat different story. I’m not shy about trying to write diverse characters. I live in a diverse world, and I feel that not writing about diverse characters is dishonest. But I’m writing about them from a distinctly white, male point of view. I’m pretty confident when I write gay characters because, being gay, I have a better understanding of what it is to be a gay teen. But that doesn’t mean I can’t still mess it up.
It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I realized all drag queens weren’t effeminate men who wanted to be women. I was simply uneducated. I’d known a couple of drag queens superficially, but I hadn’t gotten to know them. It wasn’t until I worked with a guy at Starbucks who performed in drag shows that I finally understood how wrong my perceptions were. He was the antithesis of what I expected a drag queen to be. In fact, I didn’t even believe he was a drag queen until I saw him perform. Knowing him shattered my preconceived notions of how drag queens looked and acted. On stage, Adonis was a fierce Beyonce. Off stage he was a masculine-acting young man who identified as bisexual and didn’t secretly want to be a woman, as I had erroneously believed all drag queens did.
So if I can mess up LGBTQIA characters, it’s absolutely possible (and probable) that I have or will write problematic scenes involving characters of other races or religions, characters with disabilities or characters of other diverse backgrounds. But when I’m inevitably called out on it, I still feel that the best thing I can do is to listen. Because while my mistake may have been unintentional, I’m still responsible for it. Arguing, trying to justify my errors, plugging my ears and ignoring the problems, does a disservice to readers. I could apologize, but I think the best way to show readers that I’ve heard them and understood their criticisms is to work hard not to make those same mistakes (though that only means I’ll probably make different mistakes…because I’m often a dummy). It’s my job to writer better, to do better, to be better.
Even if I feel justified in the decision I made, such as the example of sexual assault in Better, having respect for readers means listening to their concerns and criticisms. It means acknowledging that I have made mistakes, that I will make mistakes, but that I will try to be better.
Of course, listening is difficult. The first response to criticism is to defend your work. It’s often my first response. When I get editorial letters from my agent or editor, I have to force myself to sit on them for a few days before responding to give my stupid brain a chance to cool down. But I don’t think there’s anything worthwhile to be gained from arguing with someone who points out problematic and/or bigoted aspects of my work. By doing so, by trying to explain or justify those choices viewed as problematic, all I’m really doing is telling them that I’m not listening, and that’s a mistake.
When my father or one of my brothers makes a homophobic joke or comment and then tries to justify it when I call them out on it, what they’re really saying is that they don’t hear me. They don’t hear me telling them that what they’ve said is hurtful, which is all I really want. I don’t want an apology, all I want to know is that they heard me.
So…yeah. Listen. I think that’s the best advice I can give and the best advice I can follow.