Writer Wednesday: The Pros & Cons of #Ownvoices
Good morning authors and welcome to the middle of the week. Now, every month, I sit down and I plan out content for the blog, so it was fortuitous that just last week, We Need Diverse Books released a statement on the #ownvoices tag that has gained popularity, and notoriety in the past couple years. Today, we are going to touch on some of the pros and cons that has come out of #ownvoices and what We Need Diverse Books is using moving forward.
A Stronger Platform
The #ownvoices tag and subsequent pitch parties that centered around it provided a platform for marginalized voices that hadn't properly existed before. Publishing has had long, LONG, standing issues with inclusion and diversity. The problematic divide is not new, and despite ongoing awareness of it, the gap is still wide. While there has been a wonderful buzz around the diverse books that have been published in the past couple years, just as many slipped under the radar. All these diverse releases represented a fraction of the books big publishing pushed out that year, and for all the press, NYT spots that spoke to a readership hungry for change, the diversity numbers are still crawling along. However, there has been a rise in diverse fiction, thanks in part to a push from #ownvoices.
This is a double edged sword, but we shall get to that later. #Ownvoices provided authors a level of authenticity to their storytelling, that the characters in their fiction were part of their story. That they know what they talking about in the area of representation. In an industry where the voices of marginalized people have spent decades filtered through the lens of the white perspective, authenticity was something desperately needed. Readers wanted to see themselves in the stories they read, not from the perspective of the outsider, but the insider, someone just like them who understand the deeper intricacies of marginalization.
Connecting Agents to Authors
This ties in with a stronger platform, but what #ownvoices provided was a direct line for agents seeking to represent marginalized authors. Querying is trial by fire, and pitch parties often boil down to shouting into a hurricane. Having any sort of leg up to make your voice heard was vital if the publishing landscape had any hope of changing. Giving marginalized authors that extra toe in the door led to many authors being signed through #ownvoices.
This one is a lot. There was, I think, a purposefully vague quality to #ownvoices that should have served as a level of protection to the authors using it. However the same voices the tag were meant to elevate were now taken to task about authenticity, if they had any business writing the story they did, often boxed into a monolith experience of culture representation. #Ownvoices was weaponized against authors, whether it was forcing authors to come out within the queer community in environments that weren't always safe for them, or forcing them to disclose a history as a SA survivor, or revealing their invisible chronic illness, the #ownvoices credibility factor was literally pried out of them. Authors were forced out of their comfort zones, exposed, and torn into by an internet culture that could quickly spiral out of control.
Identity isn’t as simple or straightforward as checking a box.- JC Hines
Identity is a complex structure, and #ownvoices extended to marginalized communities that 'passed' for the norm, whatever that qualifies within their community. Straight passing, white passing, able bodied passing, identity policing was now being used to discredit the voice of authors within marginalized communities. Or worse, it was used as a tick box method.
There is an unacknowledged and highly problematic issue within industry and that is the idea of quotas. This refers to the idea that a house has bought such and such number of books from marginalized authors and therefore, the slots are filled. I've said on this blog, more than once, that race and culture are not monoliths and forcing a small group of authors into such a box is the very opposite of helpful. The very idea that a publishing house might have a quota on the number of queer or BIPOC they publish is awful and more than a little horrifying, considering this industry has been cannibalizing itself for the past decade. If #ownvoices are to make any sort of leeway in the industry, this concept shouldn't exist, but....when stories are being turned away because they are 'too similar', does it come down to the story, or the identity behind it? The idea of quotas persists because there is more than a grain of truth to them.
Dictating the Stories Authors Can Tell
This ties a bit into identity policing, but authors writing in the marginalized community are finding themselves squeezed into a box, when the beauty of fiction is we are allowed to the tell the stories that inspire us. Not all the stories we tell should force us to impart the pain of our experiences. There should be room for joy, for a spectrum of stories and heroes. That authors are being made to feel this way defeats the purpose behind #ownvoices in the first place.
We Need Diverse Books on Retiring #ownvoices
The statement from We Need Diverse Books has already stirred a lot of conversation. What We Need Diverse Books is doing is rather than using the catch all term of #ownvoices, they are pushing forward more specific identity terms for those voices. Which is fine, but really doesn't address any of the issues and abuses that have risen within the community behind this hash tag. So where do we go from here? Can we fix something that has become twisted within its own good intentions? There are never any easy solutions with these topics, but it will be interesting to see how #ownvoices is treated and used going forward from here and, hopefully, the conversations it sparks will be put to good use.