This will come as no surprise to you, but…you can’t say anything anymore without someone taking offense. You say something, or you say nothing…either way, there will be those who take you to task for it. So here’s the truth: do what you think is right.
I read a review of TIN MEN this morning that was less than positive. The reviewer made some valid points, but also complained about the absence of certain pieces of information that are very clearly there in the book. That makes it tough, because the accurate criticisms are overshadowed by the inaccurate or outright foolish comments.
Yes, you’re right, I shouldn’t be reading the reviews in the first place. No, I don’t always read them. When I do, though, I find they cover a broad spectrum. There are the contemplative reviews, the (positive and negative) bluster reviews (best book ever/worst piece of crap ever), the genuinely-love-sharing-thoughts-on-books reviews, the skimmed-it-just-so-I-can-sneer-at-it reviews, the pontification reviews…whew. You get the picture. If you ever read review sites, you know what I’m talking about. Ninety percent of them are perfectly fine, even thoughtful and helpful. But there are the others…
In any case…I’m not perfect. I did shit as a kid, up through my teens, of which I’m deeply ashamed. I wasn’t a skinhead or anything, but I told my share of the wrong jokes, said and did things without thinking about them.
As an adult, I’ve been on a learning curve. I’d hope every thinking person is on that same learning curve. I had some help along the way. My parents were divorced and I was raised by my mother without a lot of input from my father. I’ve always gotten along better with women than with men, which led to me writing a lot of strong female protagonists at a time when it never occurred to me that this was unusual.
I included gay and bisexual characters in my books from my first novel, which I started writing in 1988 or 89, as a senior in college. I’d grown up with a great relationship with my older sister, who is gay. She and her wife were one of the first same sex couples to be married in the country. (We live in Massachusetts.) Through other friends and relations, I saw the struggles of LGBT people as well as the pain and confusion of one particular friend whose psyche was torn apart by living in a world where people didn’t yet understand that both gender and sexuality exist on a spectrum.
I told and retold those ugly jokes partway into high school. I’d always had people of color in my life, family friends and close friends of mine, but somehow I never connected them to the people I knew and loved. I’d be lying if I said there was some moment of epiphany–there wasn’t. Somehow I just woke up, grew uncomfortable, and then grew angry with myself and others.
My first novel is about a male private detective who just happens to be a vampire. That was key for me, from page one. The “just happens to be” part. I wrote the female protagonist the same way, but she’s not a vampire. She’s an ordinary professional woman who just happens to be bisexual. In 88/89, that didn’t seem unusual to me. The only hint I had that it might be was when one of the authors kind enough to blurb that novel, Of Saints and Shadows, told me that he wouldn’t have dared to write that character. Only later did I realize that he was talking about backlash. From people who were offended that I’d included a bisexual character who was normal. From people who were offended because I’d included a bisexual character who didn’t conform to their own view of how a bisexual character ought to behave. This sort of thing frustrates the hell out of me, and it’s constant, all these years later. There is always going to be backlash.
We live in the age of outrage, and people will always find a reason to burn. I’d say “no matter how good your intentions,” but usually intentions have nothing to do with it for me. I populate my work with a variety of characters because that’s the world. It just is. And yet…
I’ve said I never made a conscious effort to do certain things, and maybe that was misleading, because some choices are conscious. TIN MEN is ambiguously protagonisted. Yes, I just invented the phrase. It kind of sucks, but anyway…it opens with Danny Kelso and you meet Kate Wade through his eyes, true enough. But you could make the argument that Kate is the real protagonist of the novel, that her arc is more dramatic, just as central, more interesting. That the mirroring of her experience with that of seventeen year old Alexa Day makes this story really about her.
Kate is beautiful. She’s black. She has no legs. Piloting a robot soldier, legs aren’t a requirement.
The reviewer I mentioned sneered at my establishing her beauty. To which I say…it’s third person, but an intimate limited third person POV that rotates from character to character. Danny thinks she’s beautiful. And yes, my female characters notice whether or not my male characters are attractive. They only work inside robots, they aren’t robots themselves. If you tell me you don’t notice whether people are attractive, you’re lying.
That didn’t bother me so much, really. I mean, I can roll my eyes at that. It didn’t make me angry.
If you read the title of the blog, you already know what made me angry. “Why Do You Have to Say She’s Black?”
I have to say she’s black because most of my readers will otherwise assume she’s white, and I want them to envision a world where the most formidable character, the most competent, the one they’ll all follow (including the guy you assume is the protagonist), is a black woman with no legs.
I have to say she’s black (just a couple of times, not enough to belabor the point but enough so you can see her in your head, particularly since most of the novel she’s inside a robot) because if they ever make the movie, I want to create an environment where it would be difficult for studio executives to cast a white actress.
By the way, there are a lot of women in this book. Of the three female characters you could call “main characters,” two of them are black. The book also has characters who just happen to be of varied religions, sexual preferences, ethnicities, and skin tones. I don’t spend a lot of time on these elements and I don’t pretend to intimately understand the experience of being something and someone I am not. Instead, I just try to present people.
Why? Why not just have them all be without gender, sexuality, ethnicity, spirituality, or race?
Because once you do that, your characters aren’t inhabiting robots–they are robots.
Why does a white, straight, middle-aged guy care about representation in fiction?
Why do I have to say she’s black?
Because there are people who don’t want her to be.