I’ve taken the month off from serious writing partly because it’s too hot to work. But I’ve also had a bad year of reading, with my book selections not working for me during most of the early year. Many books I struggled with for months, and others, I read only a few pages before dropping them with no desire to go back. But this month, I decided to catch up on my reading goals, and I’ve been reading five books at a time, taking one chapter from each book in turns. I’ve been told this takes great willpower, but I find that’s only true for books that don’t suck. It also makes bad books somewhat more bearable, giving me a 25% improved chance of finishing them.
I’m not really reading to study, but I end up noticing things that I don’t think your average reader does. One thing that I’ve brought up before is how the mainstream has effectively erased diversity. Of all the books I’ve read this year, only a handful of main characters weren’t white. Those that weren’t white were usually written by non-white authors. Of all the white authors I’ve read this year, male and female, only one attempted to write a black main character. (And did so rather well, I might add.) Which brings me to the rambly topic of writing formulas.
If a writer wants a successful book, the first thing they will do is write a white heterosexual main character. That character will be morally good, though most likely an alcoholic. (Because alcoholism is the only disease heroes are allowed to have without being seen as too flawed. Can’t have a coke-addicted cop, but a cop who hangs out in bars? A-okay.) That character will either meet a new member of the opposite sex to appease the romantic demographic and give the shippers something to hope in, or they will run into an old partner of the opposite sex and realize they’ve been denying their true feelings. (Satisfying the same shipper demo in the process.)
Successful mainstream books are a formula that allows for a lot of variant forms of expression. But once you’ve read 20 or so books from a wide swatch of genres, you see how often this same formula is used—in sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, horror, whatever—you begin to see how little room in this field there is for depictions of diversity. Writers slip a token black into a cast of all whites, and half the time, the black guy can’t help but be the recipient of lines like “Damn,” or “Sho ’nuff.” Writers slip a “safe gay” into a group, someone who will be funny, charming, only slightly gay, and who will never talk about or have sex in the course of the story. Can’t risk freaking out any straight readers with actual gayness.
Some white writers get why this is wrong, and a very few make wonderfully diverse casts with all kinds of ethnicities and social backgrounds blending together in their settings. But a lot of others write white. White casts, white bit characters, and no queer characters in sight to make anyone feel funny. It’s white washing, and it’s a constant value in the mainstream.
And what it says about the audience and the publishers is, they’re extremely close minded. White people who read avidly will actively choose to only read about other white people. Straight people will work to avoid stories with queer characters.
I’ve said this before, but if I decided to only read books about my people, I’d have a very small stack of books to work with, and most would be autobiographies. Of the fiction on hand, fully half with a trans character are making gross caricatures of us, further reinforcing ignorant beliefs held about us. This is a skimpy and depressing pile to work through.
But the thing is, I will read stories about a straight white male in any genre or setting. I’ll do the same for any straight white woman. But I also seek out books with bi relationships. (Most of which are white, though. See what I mean?) I look for gay and lesbian romances. Not so much to support my fellow artists in the queer spectrum, although I could say I’m doing that too. It’s just that I’d like to see stories that aren’t told from the formulaic default of straight, white, and cis.
And this is what I’m talking about when I say the mainstream erases diversity, and with it, tolerance to real world diversity too. People long to see their real world reflect their art, and that’s not a good idea, given how starkly black and white our fiction is. Might makes right, gory violence is better than graphic sex, and the best main characters are so white, they blend in with the walls.
I have to work to find other perspectives, because the mainstream offers me nothing of gay or bi protagonists. The mainstream does not push books with trans main characters, or with casts of color. The mainstream pushes the same one size fits all story. And yes, the writers who offer up their work within the formula are able to do amazing things with it. Yes, they have talent, and I’m not knocking the merit of their art. But even the most “out there” artist who stays within the safety lines of white and straight is playing it safe for the sake of collecting “the easy money.”
That’s a sick fucking joke in writing, because the easy money in writing isn’t so easy to get. Every book is a lottery ticket, and whether you play in the publishers’ lotto or go in the self-pub pool, there’s a very real risk your book won’t pick all the right numbers. And anyway, it’s not easy to predict what will catch fire. This summer’s runaway success is a former Twilight fan-fiction cleverly disguised as a series about what a middle-aged woman imagines a bondage romance must be like. And she’s making money hand over fist. Nobody could have saw that coming. It defies the formula. Kink isn’t supposed to sell! But, one got through the filters. And lots of people hate it because “It reads badly.” NO! Bad porn reads like bad porn? You don’t say? Surely to be successful, bad porn should read like Shakespeare!
Other writers may clutch their hair and moan about the success of E.L. James. But personally, I feel like it gives me hope. If people are willing to read about bondage, then they might be willing to read something more challenging than the default formula. That’s still a long way away from saying they’d like my stuff, I know, but there is in this success proof that the market isn’t as straight laced and puritanical as the mainstream values might lead one to believe.
This is why, as a writer, I feel I need to cover the full spectrum of humanity and write about people of all colors, ages, and orientations. I’ve written about a straight white guy, and a straight black guy. I’ve written an interracial gay romance. I’ve written an interspecies lesbian romance. Hell, I wrote an interspecies trans lesbian romance. TOP THAT. Ahem…my characters are all over the age range charts, from 8 to 218. They come from all walks of life, and they all look at the world in their own unique ways. Yet I still look over my past works with a critical eye that maybe they weren’t diverse enough.
Moving to the internet hasn’t weakened mainstream values, but it has given writers with alternative values the chance to branch off and create small pools of readers for their efforts. These artists are something like me, being tired of reading about straight folks, and so they write books they want to read. And these stories are not changing much. It’s the same underlying formula used in straight fiction. Many times a white queer author will be just as guilty of making a “color-blind” world as a straight white author would. I know that if I did not constantly think about the topic, my casts could easily turn just as monochrome.
These offspring pools of smaller success still tap into the mainstream values for their stories, which is how they draw in new readers. It’s the underlying formula people are responding to, and the tinkering to the main character will be glossed over, for the most part.
In this kind of market, experimental works have a much harder time because they don’t have any established base to rely on. The same could be said of poetry. People like fiction books to be a fast flow of words that don’t challenge the mind. They go in slick and easy to process, and they don’t make the reader strain for understanding of subtler meanings. Mainstream fiction insulates the reader from reality. It creates a world where good and evil can be measured in black and white. And while the hero may suffer some in the course of the conflict, the reader doesn’t worry, because the hero never dies. The formula says so.
Or getting even more technical, the world is relying predominately on one formula of:
Introduction of characters
Introduction of conflict
This is so constant, books that try to avoid a central conflict are drubbed for being “dull”. What, people ask, is the point of a story with no central conflict? What is the point of a book where nothing happens for 200 pages? Well there is no central conflict, but in many of these texts, the point lies in reading the situations and trying to infer what the author believes. Reading is an act of interpretation that’s uniquely individual. I can’t look at any book the same way you will. As a writer, I can tell you how I interpret my own work, but the moment you open my story, the words flow into your unique frame of reference. So maybe you will come out with an interpretation similar to what I wanted. Or maybe you will come up with something completely out of left field.
As a reader and a writer, I make a choice to seek out points of view that are different from mine. But I’m a writer, so I have a good excuse for needing to know more about people from all walks of life. It’s because I’m struggling for a sense of accurate diversity in my work. But readers, people, you have to make a choice about what you read. Do you really only want to pick up books with people exactly like you? If you’re a male reader, and you only read male writers, or only books with male main characters, isn’t that a little banal? To grow and develop as a person, one has to broaden their horizons and look around at other people who don’t live the same as you.
And it isn’t so hard to find fiction outside the mainstream on the internet. Anyone can invest a little time and come across more challenging fiction that’s still enjoyable and worthy of your time. Most of it will still rely on the conflict formula anyway, so there’s only a relatively small number of books that would challenge you with a “dull” scenario. And if you really don’t like a book, drop it. Hell, I would, and I don’t care if it’s classic literature or Mary Sue fan-fic. But, the thing is, I’m willing to give anyone a shot for my time. I don’t care if your book is part of a six figure deal, or if I’m the sixth reader of your online serial. I have an open mind, and I’m willing to see what you’ve got to offer.
“But that’s you, Zoe,” you say. “I’m just reading for pleasure, so what does it matter if I drift only to books with characters like me?”
Well, by only reading about white people, you reinforce mainstream cultural racism. You may not approve of racism personally, but by not seeking out and supporting diversity in fiction, you are financially supporting systemic racism in mainstream art. By the same token, you are actively supporting “the straight agenda,” ensuring that almost every work of modern fiction has a heteronormative romance angle, even if the story doesn’t need a romance angle. You may think that’s stupid, how so many stories tack on a romantic subplot. But it’s all part of the formula you support time and again. Which is why publishers keep demanding more of the same formula from their contracted authors. Because it’s an easy sell, relatively speaking.
And again, to grow and develop as a person, you should broaden your horizons and look for something to challenge you. Read a book about a gay couple, even if you aren’t gay. Pick up a book by an author who isn’t white. Seek out something from outside of your comfortable groove in the mainstream. Intentionally jump out of your groove sometimes, just to learn what else is out there. You’ll either toss a book in a few pages and move on, or you might risk learning something while you’re being entertained. That’s a double bonus, having fun while you learn.
There’s nothing wrong with buying from the mainstream. I’m not calling for a boycott, and my Goodreads list of read titles this year shows that I’m willing to read about straight white people along with all kinds of other folks. I’m asking you, my readers, to go over your reading selection from prior years and ask yourself honestly how many book pushed you out of your comfort zone by offering a point of view radically different from your own.
The thing to keep in mind is, I do that every time I read a mainstream book. To find a book that reflects anything remotely close to my values, I have to jump WAY outside the mainstream. I have an open enough mind to seek out stories about the other half. So I’m challenging my readers to try the same thing. Go out and find writing that challenges you. Find a new perspective to look at the world from, and give someone else a chance to tell their story. Sure, you might hate the book, and that’s the worst that can happen. But chances are even better you might come out of the experience with a broader mind, and very few people would consider that a bad thing.