WNY expat weirded out by the PNW, Piano Technician & Owner of Andante Piano Works, Book Nerd & occasional contributor to the Clear Eyes, Full Shelves book blog, tortured Buffalo Bills fan & Portland Trail Blazers enthusiast.
Sometimes I read reviews of books* in which people criticize a book for having moments that feel explainy or educational around tough topics such as race, sexuality, politics. I agree that reading dialogue about these issues can sometimes feel didactic or after-school-special-like, but at the same time, these conversations happen in real life.
For example, in the past people have said things to me like, “Are you a lesbian?” And I’ve said, “Yes, yes I am.” (They probably didn’t get that Melissa Etheridge reference.) Or they’ll say, “How do you feel about the word ‘queer’?” (This seems to happen a lot lately.) And I’ll launch into a description of the history of the word ‘queer’ and explain how I don’t feel bothered by it but some people do, and I’ll probably have to explain the whole LGBTQ acronym, etc.
Also common: “Where are you from?” And I’ll say, “I grew up in Colorado but I was born in China,” because I’m trying to forestall the “But I mean originally?” part of the dialogue. And then we’ll go into a discussion about whether I spoke English at home and potentially other 101-ish things about immigration and race and American identity.
This stuff happens in real life. It’s hard to put it in a book without sounding fake or like “I have a lesson to teach you,” but … it’s reality.
In case you couldn’t tell, I’m trying to figure out how to write this kind of dialogue in a realistic but non-didactic sounding way. The problem is, I can’t predict which kind of reader is going to read it. The kind who has had these conversations before in their own lives and thus knows they happen, or the kind who thinks they only happen in after-school specials. It’s difficult to reach both readers.
* I’m not talking about reviews of my own books, honest, because I don’t read those.
I wrote the above yesterday, and then I thought of an additional clarification. A couple of people commented that it’s important to stay in the voice of the character, and … well, yes. Dialogue should certainly be written in the voices of the characters speaking the dialogue. That’s actually not what I’m getting at.
I’m getting at the fact that even when these kinds of interactions are written in character, some readers will check out of the narrative and think, “This is not realistic.” Some readers always balk at straightforward grappling with race and sexuality and would always prefer that these issues are elided or only mentioned obliquely. To be honest, I fear that this is a result of privilege. People who have never had to have these kinds of uncomfortable conversations in real life are probably less likely to believe they happen. They may also misinterpret awkward behavior for being out of character.
Yes, this happens all the time. And everytime it happens to me I feel like I have to explain myself and my culture. It feels stilted and awkward when I have to do it. So it makes sense that it might feel explainy in a book or article or show, etc. But this is what happens every day across America. It’s part of our life.
As someone who’s had these conversations in real life, I myself don’t feel entirely “in character” when I’m having them. That’s because the person who’s asking me these questions — someone who is unfamiliar with certain aspects of my identity — is seeing me as those labels (“Asian American” or “lesbian”), not as who I am (Malinda). I’m not forced to explain these things when I’m in comfortable situations with friends who know me well, where I can be fully “myself.” I only have to explain these things when I’m being asked to represent some superficial traits about myself to strangers. Yeah, it’s awkward.
“Character,” of course, isn’t one static thing. A character has many facets, and they show different sides of themselves in different situations. In an uncomfortable situation, they may be awkward, formal, or distant, and that can translate to the reader as being out of character. So when writing these kinds of situations, the question is how to convey this apparent out-of-characterness in a way that is clearly deliberate to the reader (whoever that reader is, whatever their experience with this stuff in real life) and not didactic. It’s a challenge for sure.
I’m not a writer, unless you count recreational book blogging, but as a reader and Korean-American, born and raised in the US, I really appreciate when authors find a way to incorporate these interactions into their books when writing Asian characters. It IS realistic, and it DOES happen on a REGULAR BASIS, to me and every other Asian person I have ever known.Perhaps it makes non-Asian people uncomfortable learning of this reality or seeing it in books. Perhaps they would rather read books that placate them and books that reinforce the white middle class default that the media constantly foists upon everyone. Perhaps they would rather not acknowledge it, but IT DOES EXIST and I so appreciate authors who are unwilling to gloss over such issues.
I really have a problem with how this article and Ashley Wagner herself conflate the sexism female athletes have to deal with and the issues people have with her Olympic team selection. They are not the same and I really resent her trying to turn public sympathy in her direction in this manner.
One time in college I turned in an essay and my professor underlined a sentence I’d written and told me it wasn’t the appropriate register for a university essay and I have crazy respect for her so I tailored my papers for the rest of the semester but this isn’t a university essay so I’ll start off with
The authors you think are so “big” that they have become celebrities— they’re real people. They have real lives and real pain, just like you do. Please remember this when you interact with authors either in real life or online.
When authors see a nasty review, they cry real tears. They remember…
It’s just so wonderful that there are posts like this teaching me how to be the correct kind of reader. I love seeing a gamut of negative assumptions made about me as a reader with the use of the generalized “you.” And I truly enjoy supporting authors by spending A LOT of time and money on their books only to hear an author lump all readers together and hammer them collectively in a very condescending & presumptuous post. Why, it’s like this author thinks her readers are a faceless mob rather than real people.
Our new podcast episode is up on Clear Eyes, Full Shelves!
It is always extremely surreal when an author whose work I have admired from afar for so long knows I exist. And then says nice things about me. I am a huge fan of elizabethwrites and I listened to the last part of this podcast wondering if it was a dream or if they meant this other Courtney Summers who plays basketball who sometimes ends up in my Google alerts because really?! Did that happen?! It meant so much.
I love the Clear Eyes, Full Shelves podcast and if you are a fan of YA, books, author interviews, passionate and insightful commentary and fun discussions—the latest installment is no exception—you need to subscribe to it now. Sarah and Laura are an amazing part of the YA community. And so is Elizabeth Scott. If you haven’t read one of her books, don’t talk to me til you have because her work is fantastic. I fangirl all these women so much. So there.
That is all.
Awwwwww. WE LOVE YOU, COURTNEY! Thank you so much for the kind words and support.
…you bring something no one else can to a book when you read it. You bring you. And the author might not like it—I admit, I’ve read reviews and felt my eyes sting-but you know what? I’m not you. What you bring when you read is yours.