So I saw this screenshot on Twitter from an interview with Melissa Febos and it made me think a lot about what a lot of writers grapple with, especially writers that haven’t been publishing for very long. You can read it below.
There is a fundamental difference between not wanting to accidentally include something that is racist or -phobic (aka being a conscientious writer) and constantly worrying about what someone might say about your work. The former is being responsible. The latter is setting yourself up for failure.
Someone will always interpret your work in the worst way possible. Someone who doesn’t like you or started off your work on a bad foot will read it wrong. They will purposefully skew things and misinterpret them, just as they would something you said online or in real life. It is an inevitability. I’ve had reviews of my books where the reader thought I was referencing something I had never heard of or media I’ve never actually interacted with/watched. It’s going to happen, but the best thing to do is say, “This book isn’t for you.”
My book isn’t for that reader. My writing, my characters, my genres, my inner voice isn’t meant for that reader.
There’s a push online for universality of work. That things should be sanitized for everyone’s palates. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t be “offensive.” Offensive doesn’t even mean racist or -phobic in this sense. It’s just don’t upset other people, which is, frankly, ridiculous. My mere existence as a nonbinary, queer, neurodivergent person upsets some people. Should I stop? Should I sanitize myself to placate others?
In the same vein, we can’t neutralize fiction to avoid things that could upset people simply because you don’t want to see a bad review or have someone be rude to you on Twitter. We put up trigger or content warnings as a heads-up to keep from ruining someone’s day. That’s enough. You’ve given people warning. They have time to opt out before they get too deep or brace themselves knowing it’s coming. If they continue on or don’t read the warning, that is on them.
I used to get upset when I would get homophobic reviews on my books. I still do when I see my second book get returned on Amazon. That means someone read book 1, totally missed the heavy pro-queer message and got upset when book 2 focused on a gay couple. Those people aren’t my readers. A part of me relishes that they were offended. Good. Be mad. I did my job.
After eight books, I know who I write for. I write for other queer people who want to see themselves in stories set in the past, to know that they could have had a happy ending. That the world can be messy and cruel but there will be people who love and support you. You just have to find them or carve a place for yourself regardless of what others think. I write for the people who want that, and I market my books while highlighting those things.
New/young writers, I am begging you to write for yourself first and write for the people who would love your books second. Do not be under the illusion that everyone will love your books or that you need to write for the largest swathe of people possible. Yes, that will help with marketability, but is it fulfilling? Are you happy writing stories for people who wouldn’t appreciate you as a person? People who would read your book and enjoy it but not support you as a person are not your audience, or at least, I don’t think they are. I will happily take money from cis straight people who enjoy my work, but I’m not writing for them.
Being an author or creative in general means making yourself vulnerable. You’re flaying yourself open in your art for people to see the bits of you beneath the surface: the dreamer, the darkness, the sadness, the hope, the traumas we’ve maybe not spoken of aloud but permeate our work. Locking those things away to avoid scrutiny will leave your work flat. You can’t present yourself as the perfect person or your work as the paragon of goodness and still make something worth reading. People are messy. Characters are messy and should be. As creatives, I think we often need to have a long hard look at purity culture and remember that it upholds white supremacy and its values. Would you rather have someone misinterpret your characters in bad faith or uphold white supremacist values by sanitizing yourself and your work?
The answer feels pretty clear cut to me. Any time someone tells you to take things that aren’t truly offensive (aka not ableist, racist, -phobic) out of your book/work, ask yourself why? What standard is this upholding? If it has anything to do with goodness or purity, I’d think long and hard before changing it.