This article, written by Cheré Coen, is from the October 2023 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
In January 2020, the novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins hit bookstores after months of positive reviews and being selected to Oprah’s Book Club. Then Latinx critics called out the book detailing a Mexican bookseller crossing the U.S. border to escape a drug cartel as perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Cummins is not Mexican, although claims Puerto Rican heritage, and critics repeated what they had been saying all along, that authentic marginalized voices don’t get published, but white authors writing about them do.
“Never in nearly two decades of writing about immigrants have I come across someone who resembles Cummins’ heroine,” wrote Los Angeles Times writer Esmeralda Bermudez in her commentary. “American Dirt is what happens when Latinos are shut out of the book industry.”
Other critics joined in and the book tour was cancelled a week after the book’s release. It amplified a movement—with critics on both sides—to assure authentic voices in literature.
“Looking back now, it’s clear that the American Dirt debacle of January 2020 was a harbinger, the moment when the publishing world lost its confidence and ceded moral authority to the worst impulses of its detractors,” wrote Pamela Paul in The New York Times. “Books that would once have been greenlit are now passed over; sensitivity readers are employed on a regular basis; self-censorship is rampant.”
What constitutes authentic voice in literature? We asked Eris Young, a sensitivity reader and a queer, transgender writer of speculative fiction and nonfiction, to weigh in.
You must have watched the discussions of the past few years where books and authors were called out as not being authentic in their writing. What is your take on that?
Eris Young: The way I figure it, authors can write about whatever they want (no one is going to tell a multimillion bestseller author that they “can” or “can’t” write something), but authors have a responsibility to be thinking critically about what they are writing, and why they want to tell the stories they are telling. This is called doing your due diligence, and in my opinion any author with a modicum of self-respect should want to be both responsible and accurate with their subject matter. On the other side, authors should also be prepared, as culture-makers with huge social influence operating in a public sphere, to have their choices scrutinized, especially by the people with a personal stake in what the author is writing about.
You’re a “sensitivity reader.” Can you tell us what that entails?
EY: Nowadays I tend to use the term “authenticity reader,” as sensitivity reader can sometimes put people’s backs up, and I also think “authenticity” is a slightly more accurate descriptor of the work. But it’s all different words for the same thing: a kind of consulting.
My SR or AR work tends to focus on queer and transgender representation, mostly in fiction because that is (most of) what I read and write. I also offer AR services relating to characters with ADHD.
When an author or a publisher contacts me in this capacity, I will usually ask them to first describe the story or project and what specifically they’d be looking for from me in terms of feedback. I’ve looked at entire books or just a single POV of a queer character in a novel with a larger cast of characters.
When I read, I look for things that feel implausible or unrealistic to me given my own lived experiences and my work in the community. I try to think first about how the material will come across to its audience, so I’m giving the author my thoughts as a queer and trans reader first and a researcher/writer/activist second. I pay attention to the plot and characterization details on the page, but also to the way the narrative as a whole treats that character: for example, is the queer character killed off first? Is the trans character only ever portrayed as miserable and insecure? Do the queer characters have any interiority, or are they just used as props or set dressing?
The advice I give an author is almost never “don’t do this” or “cut that.” Usually the feedback I am giving is to point out places where a cis(gender) or straight author has inadvertently reproduced a stereotype or a harmful trope, and to suggest a way to treat their queer or trans character—and by extension their queer or trans readers—with a little more compassion or nuance.
Does authentic voice only refer to different cultures or also different backgrounds?
EY: In my view, it can refer to all sorts of things, even beyond a person’s lived experience. I don’t see AR work as a “new thing” necessarily, but instead see it as a natural progression of the kinds of research decent authors have been doing since writing fiction became a profession, which is to learn about something in order to be able to portray it in your writing accurately.
The thing that I think has changed in recent years is that authors themselves have started to see “a specific group of peoples’ lived experience” as something that merits being researched and written about responsibly. There’s a robust tradition of, for example, Western writers viewing marginalized or colonized peoples’ lives as free real estate to play around in, without regard for those people as human beings. So, while I wouldn’t necessarily contact an SR to tell me if the physics in my sci-fi story was accurate, I would ask a physicist, and I consider this type of work to be different shades of the same thing.
The saying is “write what you know” but I’ve heard female romance authors say that they’re not men and that’s half the novel. Does authentic voice depend on the audience?
EY: I think it does depend on audience. A writer whose audience are almost exclusively (for example) straight white older men will probably get away with writing a queer person or a woman less-than-authentically. The fact that American Dirt became a bestseller anyways demonstrates this.
I think what it comes down to is that it’s an honor system, and that there is a difference between a straight woman writing a straight man’s POV and a straight woman writing two gay men. The difference has to do with the stakes involved: no one is going to be harmed if the straight man isn’t “written accurately,” but if the gay men are written in a lazy way that perpetuates harmful stereotypes in the minds of straight readers, then that has the potential to do harm in the real world by coloring how that reader thinks of and therefore treats gay men.
Do you think the bigger picture here is publishing those marginalized authors the publishing industry has ignored?
EY: I think what is going to happen over the next few decades is that we are going to see historical trends reversing or being mitigated, and those authors whose voices have been ignored will be published more and more. That is what a truly more equal industry will look like, and I think that uplifting marginalized people and removing the barriers that stand in the way of us making a living as writers should be the “end goal” of any diversity work or changes made to the industry. However, it’s also not reasonable to expect that every author will be writing characters with their exact intersections of identity. Marginalized authors themselves also use authenticity readers!
Do you think the publishing world advanced in the last few years to publish more marginalized voices?
EY: While I think marginalized people, and young people at lower levels in the books business, are very much aware and concerned with the way the industry allows certain voices to be heard and not others, the power-holders in the industry, the people with money, are still not very concerned with who is telling those stories. Though, this may be changing. I keep getting contacted to do work for major publishers. Generally speaking, I do think we are seeing change but it is bottom-up and therefore slow-moving.
You write speculative fiction and nonfiction books on human sexuality (They/Them/Their and Ace Voices), are you seeing an increase in books from and about the LGBTQ+ community?
EY: Absolutely, yes. There are entire publishers, for example, the brilliant Cipher Press based in the UK, who are devoted to publishing books by and about LGBTQ+ people. My own publisher, Jessica Kingsley, has an entire catalog devoted to gender diversity.
What advice would you give writers?
EY: Try to look at your own assumptions and the biases you might have received from the world around you; it’s not your fault if there is an area you aren’t an expert in or a type of lived experience you don’t have, but it is your responsibility to educate yourself and think critically about your subject matter, especially when the stakes are high.
If you are working with an SR, try to remember that their feedback can only strengthen your work. Remember the SR is responding to what you have written and not to you as a person, and they want to help your work be the best it can be.
Cheré Coen is a travel journalist who writes romances and mysteries under the pen name Cherie Claire. Her latest—in addition to working through a master’s in creative writing—is the Viola Valentine paranormal mystery series.