The Danger of Focusing on Author Authority

I work in the children’s and young adult book world and have been deeply involved in it for all of my adult life (since college, where I got an English Literature degree specializing in children’s books). It is unsurprising then that I have a lot of thoughts on the various ways that children’s and YA books are marketed, reviewed, and otherwise seen throughout the wider world.

Lately, there’s been a huge movement in especially YA to prioritize and almost fetishize books about basically any minority identity that were written by a person identifying as that specific identity. For example, books about Muslim teens by Muslim authors, books about transgender kids by transgender authors, etc. This movement is often shorthanded as OwnVoices.

On the face of it, I have no problem with this idea. Of course people of disadvantaged populations should write about their experiences. People of all populations should. The more voices we have, the richer our literary landscape will be. Stories are important and should come from all sources.

But the movement tends to be pretty critical, often downright cruel, to anyone writing outside of their experience. A black woman can write about black girls, but should an Asian woman? What about a heterosexual man writing about gay teens? They haven’t lived those experiences, but does that mean they shouldn’t be allowed to create a story about them?

It seems like a problem to me that so many seem to want books to only be written by those who have lived all of the experiences within the story. Or at least, all of the main character’s experiences. John Green has never been a teenage girl with Cancer, yet he painted a beautiful and complex picture of that experience with The Fault in Our Stars. Wendy Mass wrote a beautiful and insightful book about a girl with synesthesia in A Mango-Shaped Space, but does not have the condition herself. Both have woven fascinating stories that many with the conditions they describe say feel authentic, but neither has experienced it.

I would love to see more books about all kinds of identities written by all kinds of people. Maybe writing about the Latino experience would help non-Latinos connect better to it. Having more LGBTQ+ characters in literature by people who don’t specifically identify on that spectrum would create more great stories, and certainly be beneficial to writers of group casts. David Levithan is one of my favorite YA romance writers and he has written both gay and straight romances. Which is he? No clue, but even bisexual people aren’t both in terms of experience, so he clearly can’t match all of his characters. Yet the gay teens and the heterosexual ones are equally real feeling and the romances are equally dreamy and romantic.

I guess what I am saying is that it worries me that we’re focusing so much on the supposed credibility that OwnVoices offers. I can’t write for all white women – my experience is not universal even within that identity. So what makes us think that anyone else can for any other identity? I certainly don’t relate to nearly all of the characters I have encountered who share my identity categories! And sometimes I do relate strongly to characters who have very different heritages and identities from me. And why can’t, and shouldn’t, we stretch our understanding of the world by imagining stories outside of our identities? Isn’t that a *good* thing? Isn’t literature supposed to give us a window into other experiences as well?

Basically, I guess my point is that I want good stories with respectful portrayals of all kinds of people and I don’t honestly care who writes them. Someone can write a character with a shared identity badly as easily as a character who is different, and someone can write one well who is different. Just because someone is black, for example, doesn’t mean they will automatically write a black character well. We are no more guaranteed to get experiences of people who share an identity with us right than we are anyone else. Living it doesn’t mean telling it well automatically. And I know enough people who don’t respect themselves to know that even a respectful portrayal isn’t guaranteed.

It seems to me that the fetishization of OwnVoices is a growing concern as more and more books get “canceled” before they have even been published because someone (usually on Twitter) who feels like the author gets something wrong about a specific identity gets upset and screams, summoning a veritable pitchfork-wielding social media mob until the book gets pulled from publication.

One last major concern – I don’t think it’s fair to ask someone to “prove” their credibility by identifying themselves. Maybe they have a good reason to not want to share something personal, even if they wrote a story that came from that experience. The world isn’t exactly understanding of all identities!

I want good stories and I don’t care where they come from, so I am bothered that we are putting an artificial credibility check to storytelling. Besides, if an author shared every quality with every character they wrote, their characters would tend to get boring and we’d see a lot of very dull worlds, even if all different ones. I want characters who are white and Asian and black and gay and straight and transgender and cis-everything all in the same book as friends – and I don’t think you need a cast of half a dozen authors to create that story believably, respectfully, and interestingly!

For more on this topic, I recommend the article about How the OwnVoices Movement is Changing YA Literature at Refinery 29. It’s also worth looking at the related issues of “Cancel Culture”, which I found best analyzed in this video on Canceling by ContraPoints on YouTube.

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