The Problem With #ownvoices
Most people would agree that marginalized voices need to be heard more often in the publishing world. We want a diverse cast of characters in novels, and we want a matching diverse cast of authors to write them.
If only it was that easy.
There’s a catch-22 when it comes to #ownvoices novels. The idea behind the movement is that agents/publishers want marginalized people’s stories told by the people from the marginalized groups. Stories about Asians should be told by Asians. Stories about LGBTQ people should be told by members of the LGBTQ community. Stories about Autism should be told by people with Autism. The stories should be told by the “own voices” of people who have lived out these experiences.
On the surface, I agree with this 100%. I myself identify as an #ownvoices author. I have bipolar disorder, and my protagonist does as well. I want more people to know what that experience is like, and I would love to break some of the stigma surrounding what it means to live with this disease (spoiler alert: we’re not all serial killers! A lot of us are deliciously boring!). Let me use my own experience as an example for the problem with #ownvoices:
According to the National Institute on Mental Health, 2.6% of Americans have bipolar disorder.
Out of that 2.6%, I have no way of knowing how many of them are writers. Let’s go with a wildly high guess and pretend 50% of them are. That would mean 1.3% of the population would even care to write about their experience as a person struggling with bipolar disorder. Now, again looking at a wildly high guess, let’s pretend that 50% of that group actually completes a novel with a bipolar protagonist. That’s 0.65%. That would mean, optimistically, I have around a half a percent of the American population that would even be able to even pitch an #ownvoices book about bipolar disorder, let alone one that is good enough to get picked up by an agent and sold to a publishing house. That’s not going to leave many books getting published about bipolar disorder.
I agree that #ownvoices is a best-case scenario. For example, if I’m learning about the Vietnam War, it would be great to have a soldier who was there come and tell me about it. That would be a riveting story, and it would certainly be an accurate portrayal of that soldier’s experience. However, if no Vietnam War veteran is around to tell me the story – stick with me here – I believe that their stories still deserve to be told. They should be told in history books. They should be told in historical fiction novels written by people who did extensive research. Their stories should still be out there.
While I am an #ownvoices author, I have not yet been successful in selling my book. I would love if someone more talented than me was willing to take the time to thoroughly research this disorder and write a book that could reflect the experience. They could get people with bipolar disorder to do read-throughs and help modify places that may not seem authentic. Any writer should do extensive research before taking on any voice, whether historical or contemporary. Sensitivity beta reads are very common, and they are important.
We shouldn’t be shaming people who truly research and try to represent these underrepresented voices; we should be applauding them and helping them tell our stories as accurately as possible.
I want people with bipolar disorder to be able to pick up a book and say, “Hey, I recognize that. I’ve been through that. I don’t feel as alone anymore.” If the author of that story has bipolar disorder, great. If not, at least the story was still told. At least the marginalized character got her voice out there, regardless of who created her.
No one, #ownvoices or not, can fully encapsulate the experience of a group as a whole.
I can never say “All mentally ill people have this story.” They don’t. They each have their own. It’s the same way with any other marginalized group. In order to see as many of these stories as possible, I want a plethora diverse characters to come to life. I would love if the ones breathing life into them could be people who share their same backgrounds. But, like an adopted child in a family who has no genetic connection to him, I also want these marginalized characters to be represented when their authors don’t share their same backgrounds. I want these books on shelves, and there aren’t enough of us marginalized authors putting good enough books out there right now. We’re trying. In the meantime, I’d love for people to come along side us and boost the signals we’re trying to present. If we’re all only allowed to write from our own experiences, I fear the diversity we’re seeking will take a very (and maybe impossibly) long time to be accomplished. #ownvoices books are phenomenal, but I fear they are not enough.