The #OwnVoices Conundrum

An incident that happened on my Twitter timeline recently got me thinking about disclosures and how that relates to publishing as a whole. First, though, Let’s back up.

I spotted a lot of other Disabled writers talking about this eyebrow raising book announcement. I, being extremely curious, read it, and immediately didn’t have any interest in buying the book at all or even reading the book.

The reason I was so disinterested was because the article led me to believe the author of this upcoming book wasn’t actually Disabled. The tone of the announcement throughout had a very strong inspiration porn vibe. I shrugged, vowed to never read The World Between Us, then fired off an angry tweet at publishing.

I got a reply I wasn’t expecting.

@wweirdwriter Yes, the article is bad, but the author is chronically ill, she just chooses to not be super vocal about it.

I chose to delete my initial tweet because I was hearing that the author was receiving harassment from the Disabled community and wanted to minimize desires to partake in a self-righteous frenzy.

I didn’t tweet or email the author about representation because, ultimately, they are just one author and focusing on them wouldn’t solve inspiration porn or OwnVoices problems or any systemic problem in publishing. Even so, though, it got me thinking about my reaction and a very similar incident.

For years, readers used the guise of criticism to unhealthily speculate about popular YA author Becky Albertalli’s sexuality and personal love life. A lot of these happened on Twitter and Goodreads and are not worth linking to. I would, however, like to take her coming out incident and try to examine it differently.

Even though healthy conversations about OwnVoices work existed about Becky, the creepy vitriol was so extensive that she came out as bi in a defensive essay.

Those two incidents involve different identities but are very similar in one aspect. Publishing.

Unfortunately, publishing is out to make money. In a capitalist world, money and consolidation are the driving forces of, well, everything. Publishing is no exception because authors need to put food on the table. This desire to put food on the table forces certain authors to hide their unique identities, or water down their identities, in order to make their brand as appealing as possible to the widest audience that may not embrace diversity authentically.

There could be several reasons someone may not embrace diversity separate from open hatred. People may be afraid to try something new because the default has always been to champion straight, white, non-disabled people. Our society doesn’t educate us on the intricacies of prejudice.

Because we don’t fully understand prejudice, big and small, and because we don’t embrace diversity, this creates a fear of diversity and then it causes people to default to what they know and have grown up with, The status quo.

When I first heard about the two incidents, I wondered why so many people defaulted to harassing the authors rather than working to change the status quo so people will be surrounded by differences and diversity. Unfortunately, the system is designed to make us attack people rather than bigger problems.

Publishing causes this problem daily by trying to make important subject matter told through a status quo lens. It’s like a never-ending game of tug of war. Publishing wants to have its cake and eat it too without making it easier for OwnVoices authors to tell their stories.

Because publishing is trying to tell stories through a status quo lens, problems erupt in droves. Repeating issue storylines because that’s the only point of view available to people. Stereotypes in plot, setting, characters, you name it. Aspects of lives are constantly glossed over or told inaccurately. Status quo authors have an easier time taking advantage of OwnVoices authors.

Since the current OwnVoices system is so problematic, this causes readers of those very communities that could be a supportive readership tired and frustrated because their lives are not being given care. Emotions boil up until, eventually, people lash out, hoping the loud noise will change something. Anything. Unfortunately, this causes many to lash out at easy targets rather than more important systemic problems.

This also creates another problem. It’s put diverse writers in a position of having to constantly justify their experiences and stories by displaying their diversity like a banner. Disabled writers have to be a Disabled writer, for example, without having the freedom to just be an author that’s proudly Disabled. Diverse authors can’t just be proud of who they are. They have to justify everything they write because OwnVoices work isn’t willingly embraced or normalized.

Every time I see a Disabled writers bibliography, I wonder if their disclosure was because they felt comfortable enough and secure in their career to disclose their disability freely. Unfortunately, publishing has made the publishing world so closed off that writers that do manage to break in are trying to fight one another to feed their families and not end up homeless. It breeds a never-ending race to be the expert, not an ally to a new author.

I love OwnVoices work and fully support OwnVoices authors wherever I can. I can’t help but become extremely frustrated that writers attack other writers, though, because there’s a bigger problem of gatekeeping and the status quo. Writers shouldn’t have to be forced to disclose their identity to tell an OwnVoices work. It should be assumed that diversity and differences will be embraced and openly celebrated in the publishing industry, instead.

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