A while ago, my friend of mine shared an interesting Tweet about how ARCs (advanced review copies) of an up-and-coming book about marginalized people seem to be going to readers who openly admit they don’t care about the subject, rather than real-life marginalized people who could relate to the subject matter and characters who represent the same traits. If this is happening, why?
One thing that happens whenever I put my foot in my mouth online or I express an unpopular opinion out there, is people immediately rush to educate me into seeing things their way, or how to express my points with more sensitivity.*
It wouldn’t surprise me if one of the intentions of a diverse writer is to educate ignorant readers about marginalized people, or simply people of another culture or group that is commonly misunderstood (doesn’t necessarily have to be a marginalized person). That could also be a reason for why an ARC distributor would put an ignorant/disinterested/unaffected person ahead of a real-life marginalized-person reader on an ARC waiting list.
But is that such a good thing? I don’t buy it. My friend doesn’t buy it either.
I actually don’t like reading “teaching” books very much. It’s like they have an underlying agenda that isn’t to tell a story purely for the sake of telling a story. (I’ve actually done this with my own stories, though, even if the main focus is to entertain.) That’s not inherently a bad thing, but nothing annoys me more than getting preached at. When I read a fiction book for fun, I want a story that’s entertaining first and foremost and I’d also like for it to be relatable in some way.
For example, the first Skullduggery Pleasant book by Derek Landy featured a highly entertaining, gripping storyline and its plucky female protagonist, Stephanie Edgeley really grew on me only a few pages in. In fact, I felt so much in common with Stephanie that when she was given the opportunity to choose a “superhero”-type costume (more like protective gear) in her favorite color, I was mildly shocked that she chose a different color than mine!
I don’t look for relatable characters in terms of religion or culture. Most secular, mainstream fiction doesn’t accurately represent religious Jews. We’re either portrayed as barely-affiliated people who eat matzah ball soup sometimes, or we’re a bunch of oppressive, sexist, narrow-minded, religious-extremists, or we’re shown kids who are struggle with their religious upbringing and can’t wait to throw it all off as soon as they move out. None of those options accurately represent my experiences, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way.
That said, I’d love to read some secular, mainstream fiction which accurately and positively represents a religious Jewish person. But I’d also love for other people to read such a story and form a positive impression of Jewish people that is different from, say, the Rashi’s Daughters series, American Girl’s Rebecca series (I have been wanting to rant about this one for a LONG time), Reza Aslan’s Believer (TV series), or The Marrying of Chani Kaufman.
There’s a need to present relatable characters to readers who may feel alone with regards to their cultural or religious or sexual identity, and steps are being taken to meet it. There’s also a need to present these characters positively to people who do not understand them. But which need should be met first?
My personal opinion is that the people the book is about should be getting access to these books first. Such a book will give them comfort that others like them are being represented positively in fiction. Or, if the book portrays them problematically, they can warn other marginalized readers and unaffected readers about this before unsuspecting, unaffected readers pick up the book and form flawed impressions about a whole group of people.
First and foremost, in my opinion, a fiction book needs to entertain. Its second priority is that it should be relatable in some way to a reader. Once it has met those requirements, then we can talk about using it to educate and inform.
*Although, on some occasions, it’s been people trying to intimidate me into sharing their opinion. I think that’s because they’re already resentful of others who have tried to intimidate them over ideological differences, so there’s naturally some pent-up negativity that comes out in the form of aggression, which usually renders their good intentions ineffective.