Writing Wednesday: Reception

Writing WednesdayI’ve been fascinated by all the talk about what happened at RWA this year. So many people with so many strong feelings about so many things. Whenever you get a big group of writers (almost always synonymous with thinkers…almost) together, there are bound to be many of these. While I followed the discussion on diversity in romance pretty closely, the thing that stood out to me the most were all the strong feelings expressed about Kate Breslin’s double RITA nominated debut book For Such A Time. Whether writers and reviewers were expressing their outrage that a romance between a Nazi officer and a Jewish woman was nominated twice for one of the industry’s top honors (and many, many other prestigious awards besides the RITA), or arguing for more religions beside Christianity to be represented in the inspirational category of the RITA, it was clear people felt very strongly about this book, and by extension, this author and her publisher.

I don’t want to get into the specifics of any of that. I can debate the advisability of her hero and heroine choices, the agency of the heroine, the probability of it all happening with the best of them. I can say whether or not I feel that the fact that there’s a Christian slant to the story of a Jewish woman is displacing her identity or whether it’s authentic all day. But my current list of things to get all up in arms about (and my timeline) are full of too many other atrocities to give this the sensitivity and attention it would require, and it has next to nothing to do with writing. The reason I brought up the whole debate in the first place is to talk about something that all writers can relate to: reception.

When I read some of the reviews, letters to RWA and criticism of For Such A Time, my first thought was for Kate Breslin. I looked up her website and Facebook to see how she was coping with this onslaught of negative reviews and criticisms of a book she spent years trying to write. I can’t imagine my debut being nominated for every prestigious award in inspirational romance. Can you imagine the joy, the elation? Then to be hit with such severe backlash from your peers in the industry. Wow.

So I want to talk about that thing that most of us as writers usually don’t talk about. While we are happy to prognosticate and speculate on every other part of the publication process that we have no control over, the most I hear about reception is coping strategies. I see retweets of the best reviews from the most prestigious reviewers. One of the indie groups I am in on Facebook has members who share their funniest one star Amazon reviews. But what do you do when your industry is bestowing honors on you but your peers are calling for your book to be shunned?

I’ve always thought of romance writers as this warm and open community, but many others are coming out and sharing how it hasn’t been so welcoming of them (see: diversity in romance discussion referenced above). While some are calling for more inclusion, others are calling for certain kinds of stories to snubbed. The problem with any talk of inclusion, especially forcible inclusion, tries to neglect the fact that this is just as much coercion as exclusion. Mandating that a certain number of diverse books be included on lists of books that were judged and voted on by a large number of individuals, for example,  may force other deserving books off the list to maintain the quota. Championing the publication of diverse books is a horse of a different color. If there are readers there should be books But I’m getting off track. Right. Reception.

As a writer with a book under consideration with an editor, I’m now having nightmares about what the possible reception could be if the book made it to print. I tackle an issue I have no personal experience with and try to portray it well, but I don’t know how actual women dealing with it will receive the book. In another story, the hero is responsible for the death of someone related to the heroine. I wrestled back and forth with having it turn out to be someone else’s fault or somehow absolving him of guilt to make it easier for a reader to accept him and them as a couple, but that wasn’t true to the story. I imagine that Ms. Breslin may have struggled with the proper context and framework for her story as well. As a writer, I understand that you have to be true to the story and write without as much thought to the reception.

So how do you balance both of these considerations? How do you deal with backlash or poor reception, particularly from writing peers/readers you admire? How should we critique work we find offensive (or should we critique it at all?)

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The Help & the Assigning of Authority in Literature

I haven’t yet been able to read The Help, nor have I seen the movie, but I’ve definitely seen and heard the backlash from everyone from bloggers to the Black Women Historians. What people say most often, alongside the inaccuracy of what the consequences of these women telling their stories seems to be, is that here is this white woman telling our story…as if she could ever know what it was like. How dare she?

This topic is a touchy one for most writers, I would imagine, as it speaks to our rights as writers: who gave us the authority to write about people who belong to cultures and races other than our own? Can I ever write a story with all white characters as an African-American, historical stories that portray racist characters or characters who I would never interact with? What about rich people or people in extreme poverty? Where can I get permission to write about an experience that is not my own?

This issue of who has the right to tell a story of a shared past is part of my one literary novel attempt, the Southern Gothic Novel.  I wanted to write about the power of voice and who has authority to tell history, and should they have that right. I write about people who, on the surface, aren’t likke me: some are white, some are affluent African-Americans, some are addicts. But I choose to focus on things I believe are universal to all of us.

I don’t know if Kathryn S. did her research thoroughly, or if she wanted to be historically accurate. I don’t know if she expected this backlash at all. I know she had a story she wanted to tell and kept trying to sell rejection after rejection. I hear the book is well written. Just because many of the characters are African¡American and depicted in a time of segregation doesn’t mean I should have been the one to tell the story. Just because a white character publishes the thoughts of Black women doesn’t mean she stole their voice.

As an English Literature degree holder, I’ve read pieces by both women and African-Americans in which an introduction by a reputable white male had to be inserted to vouch for their veracity, that the author actually wrote it, and that the author has the authority to tell the story. I heard how Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography may have been changed to suit white publishers. There’s no doubt that as women and African-Americans, our voices have been stolen, regulated and co-opted throughout history. However, as a writer and an African-American woman who knows this legacy, I can’t authorize or take part in an effort to strip anyone of their right to try to write and explore the world from a different perspective, especially one that doesn’t seem to be demeaning or disrespectful.

I’m interested to hear all of your perspectives on this issue of voice, authority, and writing across the racial divide. Leave me your thoughts.