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Tag: Representation

Brian and the cover of “Almost Perfect.”

Almost Perfect Except . . .

By Brian Katcher

Brian Katcher is a writer whom one of our usual bloggers, Jan S. Gephardt, met at the science fiction convention Archon 44 (He’s also spotlighted in Jan’s Authors of Archon 44 post). He told this story during a panel discussion in which they both participated. She asked him to share it with our audience, because it demonstrates an issue we also face. The Weird Blog and Artdog Adventures support diversity and representation. As a pair of older, middle-class white women Jan and G. at Weird Sisters Publishing understand an author can confront many challenges when they try to promote inclusivity and multicultural representation in their fiction “while white and straight.”

The Almost Perfect Story

Almost Perfect is the story of Logan, a cisgender boy, who recently had a bad breakup with his girlfriend. He then meets Sage, a new girl in his school, he thinks he’s met the person who’s going to help him move on. When he discovers she’s transgender, however, he is forced to rethink their entire relationship. Can they still be friends? Can they be…more? Almost Perfect won the 2011 Stonewall Book Award for Children’s Literature.

This book started out as a short story. I was looking to write a boy meets girl story that hadn’t been done a thousand times, and I hit upon the idea of writing about a heterosexual boy and a transgender girl. How would a relationship like that work? When I showed a draft to my writers’ group, they told me that I couldn’t do that in 80 pages. To make it into a novel or not to bother.

Brian Katcher received the 2011 Stonewall Book Award for Children's Literature.
In 2011 Brian accepted the Stonewall Book Award for Children’s Literature, for his book Almost Perfect. (Credits below).

Research and Early Responses

Well, transgenderism wasn’t a subject I’d given a lot of thought to, so I turned to the internet for research. I went to forums for transgender people and said that I was writing a book and needed information, both specific and general. Boy, did I get some great responses. And the more I heard, the more I wanted to tell this story. The overwhelming theme I got from older transgender people was the idea of having absolutely no one they could share this with, no one whom they could confine in, and having no idea where to turn or what to do.

I was overwhelmed with the response to the book. The ALA awarded me the Stonewall, I think because I was probably the second YA author to write about a trans character (After Julie Anne Peters’s Luna). Fan mail poured in. I heard from countless transgender people who thanked me for finally telling their story, and praising my research.

Covers for the books “Almost Perfect” and “Luna.”
Two of the earliest books about transgender youth written for young adults, both Almost Perfect and Luna broke new literary ground. (credits below).

Delayed Reaction

However, after a year or so, I started to get blowback. Sure, some of it came from transphobes (The Florida Tea Party tried to get it removed from school libraries), but most of it was from the LGBTQ community. Some of it was taking me to task for poor turns of phrase (I said ‘transgendered’ instead of the preferred ‘transgender’, or having Sage come out to Logan by saying ‘I’m a boy’).

Others didn’t feel that as a cisgender man, it was my place to tell a story like this. But the most overarching criticism was that the story was depressing. Sage is repeatedly used by Logan, assaulted by another man, and ultimately moves away, still trying to live the life she needs to. Why couldn’t she have a happy ending? Why would she fall for a jerk like Logan? Was I trying to say that transgender people are destined to be unhappy and will never find true love?

A snapshot of Brian Katcher near a body of water.
Here’s a more casual photo of Brian. (Brian Katcher).

Brian’s Self-Critique

While I did do my research beforehand, I really should have gotten some sensitivity readers to look at the finished product. There’s no excuse for that omission. While I feel I wrote Almost Perfect with the intention of educating people about how difficult it can be to be transgender, I failed in several respects.

Still, I’ve never once had a reviewer say they didn’t like Sage. More than one person told me the book gave them the courage to come out. And there are at least two women who chose ‘Sage’ as their new middle name. This is my book that gets the most requests for a sequel. Well, it’s the only book that gets requests for a sequel.

Covers for Brian Katcher’s books “Playing with Matches,” “Almost Perfect,” “Everyone Dies in the End,” “Deacon Locke Went to Prom,” and “The Improbable theory of Ana & Zak.” Also Brian’s picture.
If you read Jan’s post Authors of Amazon 44, you might remember this profile image. (Amazon; Brian’s website).

Pitfalls and the Creative Process

When you’re a boring old white straight guy like me, you get into a kind of Catch-22 situation. You don’t want to write yet another book about white, straight people, but is it your place to tell someone else’s story? My advice is to get sensitivity readers, both at the front and the back of the creative process. And be sure to thank them afterwards. If you feel good writing about people like yourself, no problem. And if you’d like to expand who you write about, the world needs diverse books.

But above all, be true to your own creative process. Find a character you and your readers can fall in love with. Remember, you’re never going to please everyone. But when those one star reviews come in, make sure they’re because of your hackneyed writing and unoriginal plots, and not because you misrepresented someone’s culture. And if someone has a problems with how you present someone, listen.

Brian and the cover of “Almost Perfect.”
Here are Brian and the cover of his book Almost Perfect. (Credits below).

IMAGES

Many thanks to Brian Katcher for the photo of him accepting his Stonewall Award, the cover image for Almost Perfect, and his author photo. Learn more about Brian at his website. Read his book reviews (and support the review website if you wish), at For Every Young Adult.

Many thanks to Books Bird for the Stonewall Award image, and to Amazon for the Luna cover image.

A high viewpoint looks down on the formidable gates of a stronghold, where a small, armored figure has pushed the gates partway open.

“We can’t market this”

“We can’t market this” is a reason for rejection that I’ve heard for decades. It says “your book/story doesn’t fit into our pre-made boxes.”

Innovation is sometimes the stuff of new bestsellers, although I’d argue that a book’s worth isn’t always or only revealed by its sales figures. But it admittedly is much harder to sell square pegs when your marketing is solely designed to appeal to round holes.

Gatekeepers

An image, reminiscent of the gated entrance to a millionaire’s estate, forms the words, “The Gate Keepers.”
Image from “Cold Call Coach” website.

The literary world is famously full of multiply-rejected books that later became bestsellers considered classics. But you also might note that their authors, once they finally were published, overwhelmingly tended to be White, and predominantly (though not exclusively) male. This begs the question of who, outside of this privileged subset, can write risky things that eventually are allowed to succeed to their potential.

Whenever we talk about access to markets (and to marketing dollars), we must talk about gatekeepers. In the US today, we’re still having that conversation, because our gatekeepers remain overwhelmingly white, and predominantly male.

It shows up in the bestseller lists. It shows up in the ethnic makeup of mainline publishers, and famously in the Oscars, and the projects that get the largest budgets.

Family stories

The idea for this post began during a recent conversation I had with G. S. Norwood. She wrote a collection of novels during the 1990s that racked up persistent rejections. The editors to whom she submitted them generally thought they were great stories, well written, and with wonderful characters—“but we can’t market this.”

This was a period when the hottest (and by far the biggest) market was in romances. G.’s novels tried to be romances, but in one way or another they didn’t conform to the expectations of the market. She’s now reviewing them, and revising as she sees the need. We’re preparing to offer them as contemporary women’s fiction, the niche where I’ve always thought they belonged.

We have another family story related to this topic of gatekeepers and markets. One of Warren C. Norwood’s last novels, a story deeply rooted in Chaos Theory, apparently confused the editors to whom he pitched it. They might be science fiction editors by title, but they also were recent graduates of Vassar and Brown. Their intellectual roots sank deeper into English literature than into the mathematical modeling of dynamical systems.

This is a photo of the author Warren C. Norwood.
Photo of Warren C. Norwood courtesy of G. S. Norwood.

A couple of decades later, another nerdy novel, The Martian, started out as a blog, then became a self-published ebook, and eventually went on to far more fame and movie rights than it might have had, if there’d been more gatekeepers in play.

Contrast the story of American Dirt, which still persists on Amazon Top-100 lists, despite its inauthenticity.

Self-serving excuses

“We can’t market this” is the classic excuse of the misogynist, the racist, the classist, the formula-slave, the gatekeeper who has outlived his/her usefulness.

It’s the excuse that has dictated decades—no, centuries—of whitewashing. I remember back when the complaint was that “female protagonists don’t sell.” “Black/Latin/Asian/LGBTQAI+ protagonists won’t sell.” “You can’t put a black/Latin/Asian in a central position on the cover because it won’t sell.” This, of course, is all hogwash.

But it banishes women, and all persons of color, from leading roles, cover imagery, and headliner status. Oh, and purely coincidentally of course, it preserves male, White, dominant-culture privilege. I mean, really. Can white dudes help it, if they wrote all the truly great literature, and painted all the great art, while everybody else just couldn’t measure up?

Yeah, right.

This is the mindset that left Artemesia Gentileschi “undiscovered” by the wider public until recently. It’s the kind of erasure that goaded Mary Ann Evans, AKA George Elliot, to use a male pen name. And it’s the mindset that inspired Borders Books (remember them?) to put the African-American romance books way back at the back of the store, far removed from the White romances. Those got more central display.

Myths and prejudices

The myth persists (despite plenty of examples to the contrary) that Black, Asian, or Latin main characters, starring actors, and even book cover characters, don’t sell as well as those featuring White people (Just don’t try to convince Black Panther of that).

The 1971 mass market paperback of Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” was released in 6 different colors of cover. This photo shows them. They were white, green, pink, orange, blue, and yellow.
Photo courtesy of “Fonts in Use” blog, via Goodreads and Amazon.

It reminds me of the “green book covers don’t sell” myth, purportedly based on sales of Future Shock, a pop-psychology phenomenon of the early 1970s (yes, I really am older than dirt). The publishers billed it as “a study of mass bewilderment in the face of accelerating change.” I remember people talking about it more as “that book about how we have too many choices.”

It was published in covers of six different colors in 1971 (woah, man, so meta). According to some study somewhere, the green cover sold less well, so it became a “thing” for a while that green covers don’t sell. But then life moved on. Eventually people figured out that beautiful and dynamic green covers actually sell just fine. Who could have seen that coming?

Gatekeepers and Awards

We already mentioned #OscarsSoWhite. An Academy Award has long been considered a pinnacle of achievement (and bankability) within the movie industry. Any theatrical professional locked out of the chance to receive one is automatically barred from the top echelon on the profession.

The Edgar Awards

Literary awards have followed a similar trajectory, because they also purport to be about quality. Prejudices persist, and sometimes that doubles up on the gatekeepers. One case in point: the Edgar Awards. These are the most prestigious awards in mystery writing, but the gatekeeping is notably strict. According to the rules:

“All works submitted for consideration must meet the requirements for Active Status membership as described in the membership guidelines. At this time, self-published work is not eligible for Edgar Award consideration.”

The requirements for Active Status membership in Mystery Writers of America reinforce a narrow list of publishers considered “good enough” to warrant membership. It also places would-be MWA members (and potential Edgar nominees) at the mercy of whatever the gatekeepers think is appropriate.

Does that guarantee higher quality? Maybe. Does it enforce a certain homogeneity? That’s much more likely.

The RITA Awards

The Romance Writers of America have far more inclusive membership requirements, but that hasn’t kept them out of trouble. Controversy over the non-inclusivity of their RITA Awards nearly tore the organization apart last year. (The RITAs are no longer being awarded).

The illustration shows a RITA Award statuette on its side with its head broken off at the shoulders.
Image courtesy of Vox. No illustrator credited.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Recognitions

The Nebula Awards of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (and SFWA membership requirements) are much more open to a variety of backgrounds.

But science fiction’s even-more-famous Hugo Awards fended off a different kind of gatekeeping attempt. a few years ago. The self-styled “Sad Puppies” tried to hijack the Hugos, and thereby stifle more diverse voices. They presented themselves as a threat in 2015 and 2016, but ultimately failed. Turned out the Force—not to mention SF & F fandom—just wasn’t with them.

Nor was it with the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, after Jeanette Ng had her say about Campbell’s racism, misogyny, and imperialist sympathies. It’s now the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, embracing an inclusiveness Campbell himself would never have imagined or countenanced.

Beyond Gatekeepers

Traditional publishing and prestigious awards will always, by their nature, have gatekeepers. People whose inclinations and imaginations are limited by “we can’t market this” remain a fact of life. There also are only so many projects any publisher can fund.

I think Indie publishing (independent publishing) is today’s best answer for silenced voices and authors with smaller (but no less vibrant) niches. Other avenues may open in the future. But for now, here’s a venue where new niches can open and new voices seek out an audience.

A high viewpoint looks down on the formidable gates of a stronghold, where a small, armored figure has pushed the gates partway open.
Image by “WiseWizard” via Steam.

It’s very far from an easy path to success. Those gates are darned heavy. When you move away from having others market (or not market) your work, there’s suddenly a lot to learn. You may not hear “we can’t market this” from others, but not everything finds a market. Not everyone (in fact, not most “Indies”) can learn to thrive as entrepreneurs-of-necessity in the independent publishing world.

Can you market this?

Taken overall, self-published writers release a fair amount of dreck each year. Many haven’t done their due diligence, or haven’t learned their craft. Maybe they grew impatient with apprenticeship. Took critiques too personally, and stopped seeking them. Maybe they wearied of rejection after rejection, or couldn’t wait through the long turnaround-times of traditional publishing. Perhaps they published something simply to say they’re an author.

But a lot of writers do have great stories to tell, and strong writing skills. Some have previously been published traditionally. But all, for any of a range of reasons, found the experience unsatisfactory.

It’s possible the gatekeepers didn’t value their visions and their voices. Maybe they were pigeonholed as “just a midlist writer,” and therefore not worth promoting much. Perhaps they heard, “too niche,” or “too far off-genre” just a few too many times.

Or perhaps they heard, “We can’t market this” too often, as my sister did. These days, that doesn’t have to be the final verdict. Independent publishing enables writers to test that “can’t market” analysis for themselves. Maybe it’ll turn out they can market “this,” after all.

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to the “Cold Call Coach” website, for the visualization of gatekeeping, and to the “Fonts in Use” blog, via Goodreads and Amazon, for the image of all the 1971 Future Shock covers. G.S. Norwood provided the “Pensive Warren C. Norwood” photo (thanks!). We’re grateful to Vox for the illustration of the broken RITA Award, and the informative article that came with it. And finally, many thanks to the artist “WiseWizard” via Steam, for that evocative image of opening formidable gates.

Representation Matters

Representation and social transformation

The Artdog Quotes of the Week

How does representation play a role in social transformation? Last week’s Monday post explored stereotypes and the power of portrayal. Now let’s tackle social transformation.

Make no mistake. Society is always transforming. Social change happens, whether we want it to or not. And individually we can’t control how it changes. 

This quote from Ellen DeGeneres says, "Whenever people act like gay image in the media will influence kids to be gay, I want to remind them that gay children grew up with only straight people on television."
No, the creators of content can’t change basic facts of human existence. But we can affect how people think about those facts, for well or ill. (This quote-image featuring Ellen DeGeneres is courtesy of FCKH8 on Twitter).

One person’s efforts rarely provide a huge pivot point, unless that one person speaks for thousands, and society was ripe for the change. Case in point: #MeTooThat one was way overdue!

What kind of future do you want?

We can’t control the changes. But we can affect how things change. 

What kind of future do you want? As creative people, we make art that comments on how things are and how things could be. If you think a more broadly representative world would be more fair and interesting, reflect that in your art.

Subverting the stereotypes

If you think harmful stereotypes should be questioned, treat them like the clichés they are. Turn them inside out. Subvert them. Transform them into something fresh and unexpected and better

This quote from Rosie Perez reads, "I started calling people on their stuff. I'd say, 'listen, things have to change. How come I keep getting 50 million offers to play the crack ho?' And I challenged them on it, and initially, oh my God, the negative response was horrific."
It can take guts to “call people on their stuff” and challenge stereotypes. But artistic integrity demands it. (This quote-image from Rosie Perez is courtesy of The Huffington Post).

That’s just basic sound practice–but you’re also making a statement by the way you make the transformation. 

Please note that this approach requires awareness. Creative people fall into tropesclichés and stereotyped thinking when they don’t recognize them for what they are. We all have unconscious biases. But we owe it to ourselves, our work, and our fans to learn about them and challenge them.

Representation and social transformation

Wider and more diverse representation is essential to the social transformations that I would love to see come about. I have my own ways to portray that, particularly in the stories I write. 

This quote from Gina Rodriguez says, "I became an actor to change the way I grew up. The way I grew up, I never saw myself on the screen. I have two older sisters. One's an investment banker. The other one is a doctor, and I never saw us being played as investment bankers. And I realized how limiting that was for me. I would look at the screen and think, 'Well, there's no way I can do it, because I'm not there.'"
Artists need to seize the power of portrayal. (This quote-image from Gina Rodriguez is courtesy of The Huffington Post).

There are as many possible approaches as there are artists. Some, such as those in the Solarpunk movement, seek to portray the benefits of positive future change. 

Writers, artists, filmmakers and others with a more dystopic bent often dramatize how badly things can go wrong. Perhaps as a cautionary tale. Or because they’re pessimists. Or because conflict is inherent in a dystopic plotline.

Everyone takes an individual path, because each of us has our own unique voice. We must let the world hear our visions, presented from our own perspectives, in our own voices.

What values do you seek to embrace? What negative outcomes do you hope we avoid? 

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to  FCKH8 on Twitter and The Huffington Post for the quote-images in this post.

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