Reading Bad Books in the Name of Representation

There is no inherent problem writing about a social/religious/relational/political issue in literature or—as I like to call it—activist fiction. Quite the opposite. I am a big believer in the power of art to influence society. Without the freedom of artists to call attention to issues big and small, there go most of history’s great revolutions.

That being said, there is a HUGE problem with BAD activist fiction and most of it is.

I’ve seen this happen in LGBTQ fiction, Christian fiction, and others.

I once encountered a story about a person becoming a Christian, but it was wholly bereft of character development and conflict. (FOR EXAMPLE: Christianity doesn’t magically cure mental illness. It does make the mental illness more manageable and has literally kept me alive, but no insta-cures!) Even when there was ABSOLUTELY NOTHING inaccurate in the theology presented, I can definitively say it was a horrible piece.

In another case, I read two lesbian romances in a writing workshop that were just as atrocious. One was about a woman who has an affair with an employee and the other was about a girl finally getting a commitment out of her girlfriend, both by the same author, both with the same problems.

The plots and climaxes were no where to be found, the other characters’ reactions to the couples’ relationships made NO SENSE, and plus some other little details just didn’t…add up.

And don’t get me started on all the women’s rights monologues that take up whole pages of certain Young Adult Fantasy novels. I mean, if you want to write feminist essays, write feminist essays, but don’t try to play them off as dialogue tossed in at random.

Why does this happen?

From what I’ve seen, people decide they want to write in an underrepresented niche, but don’t learn how to write first. They then surround themselves with people as passionate about the issue as they are which, while great, means these people are going to be a lot less likely to notice or point out problems. I’m also convinced that people supportive of the issue in general are less likely to point out problems because they don’t want to appear adversarial.

It gets to the point where people will focus on the representation and NOTHING ELSE when discussing certain books because, let’s face it, that’s the only redeemable quality. 

I am a feminist reader who wants to see more diversity in my books and also more Christianity, but you can be sure that the moment I see “feminist,” “Christian” or “diverse” in the blurb, I usually forego. Of course there are exceptions, but I’ve been burned too many times. I’m convinced half the time publishers are just filling diversity quotas.

I’ve read too many crappy stories in the name of representation.

I understand it takes time for genres and writers to find themselves and their voices, but life is too short to waste on bad books. Maybe in 5-10 years things will be better. The lesson for all the writers out there is to definitely use your writer-ly powers for good, but also learn story mechanics. PLEASE.

And, just as importantly, seek help from brutal (and I mean BRUTAL) editors.

Be sure to work on your craft as well as your cause.

But I assure you it can be done. To prove it, let me say good Christian fictiongood diverse fiction, and good feminist fiction do exist. Sometimes all at once. I have found these and more examples and they are amazing. You, see? It is possible!

2 Comments

  1. I think it’s important that writers focus on causes that are close to their heart, rather than just looking at what might be marketable.. at least that holds true if they want to write something of quality. By sharing your experiences here, you are advancing the dialogue, and I thank you for that.

    1. I definitely agree writers should write FROM the heart, not FOR the market, but I definitely agree that diversity is needed and would love to see more of it. (Written well, obviously.)

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