There’s a comment that anyone who writes articles, columns, or even tweets about representation and inclusion will read eventually. If you write about queer people, if you write about people of colour (not that these groups are separate), or even if you write about women alone. This comment comes in many variations, but it usually comes from self-described straight white (cisgender, though they usually don’t add that part) men.
“But what about the quality?” is what this comment—in essence, over its many variations—boils down to. “When you talk about the books by all these (queer, non-white) people, are you really considering their QUALITY?”
Frequently, one’s interlocutor will frame this interjection as though it is a helpful one. He—sometimes, though more rarely, she—will worry that you are alienating your (presumably straight, white, cis, male) audience by an over-emphasis on representation; will chide that you’re focusing on diversity over the quality of the storytelling, characterisation, plot, ideas.
I’ve had more people than I can count deliver a variation on this theme.
It’s not helpful.
Let’s take the idea that all people judge on the same criteria of quality. They don’t. Past a certain level of prose and structural competence*, “quality” is a nebulous concept. Books speak to certain people, and don’t speak to others. Their success as a work of art is entirely subjective. As I write this, I am overwhelmingly aware of that fact: I’ve just finished, and been underwhelmed by, a novel by John Crowley. Though pretty at the prose level, it did not speak to me at all.
(*Which, to be fair, is not always found in the small press romance offerings where traditionally one has been most likely to find queer protagonists. As an aside: there is a whole other discussion to be had about that, and the pattern of pigeonholing queer books as romances, too.)
But there’s something that happens with people who’re used to being catered to. Men in particular, but white women (I speak as one) too. When things have usually been FOR you, it’s easy to forget that things being for OTHER PEOPLE TOO doesn’t take anything away from you.
But I want to circle back to the question of quality, the subjectivity of it. There’s an implication that’s plain in the question “But what about the quality?” when you ask it of inclusive books, queer books, books that centre people of colour. An implication, and an assumption.
The assumption that LBGTQ+ works (for example) are poorly written. And that these works are only under discussion because of the identity (identities) of their protagonists, or of their authors.
This is an implication that we frequently encounter with straight cis white men who have found their narrative centrality challenged. The implication that certain books are only discussed or valued because of politics and identity. Not because of their focus and their quality, but because of “identity politics” alone.
We have seen this before in, for example, discussions of recent award lists, particularly the nominations and wins of Ann Leckie and N.K. Jemisin.
It is a pernicious implication. It is also an insulting one. It conflates queerness (and/or non-whiteness) with… well, badness. It implies that works that feature (queer) protagonists (of colour) require special pleading. This implication, this assumption (which at times rises to automatic dismissal) is prejudice in action.
Are books by cis white heterosexual men only valued because of who wrote them? Because of who they’re about? Their politics, their worldview? Are they “quality”?
Are they routinely asked to justify themselves in the same way? Or are they generally assumed to be the default from which all else, instead, must justify its deviation?
I wrote a column in September about the utter shock of feeling catered to, of feeling seen, of feeling centred in books as a queer person. It was a shock that brought home to me that this is how straight white cis men can rely on feeling when they come to a narrative. After a lifetime like that, it must be disconcerting to experience narratives in which you are present but not central.
It must be alienating to come to narratives where you are an afterthought, or not there at all.
Sit with that for a minute. Just sit with it.
I’m not judging you. Not for having this experience, not for feeling these feelings. But sit with that for a minute, and then ask yourself: what are you really asking for, when you ask about “quality” according to your standards? What are you really trying to say?
Then tell me if you still want to say it.
Postscript: Let us also address in passing the frequent assumption that the white cisgender heterosexual man is a highly attractive audience. Sure, he’s likely to have disposable income, but women read significantly more than men, and according to at least one Pew Research Centre study, in the USA, college-educated black women read more than anyone else on a per-capita basis. I have no access to any data that would suggest that inclusion and representation are likely to alienate more people than they attract, among the people who comprise the majority of the Anglophone book-buying public. (If there have been any studies or surveys done on this issue, please bring them to my attention. It would be useful data.) White straight cis men are an audience, it’s true. But they’re not all the audience there is: they’re not even the biggest audience.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.