Dear Abbie: An Open Letter

Posted: October 29, 2017 in Critical Hit
Tags: , , , , , , ,


The above opinion crossed my path today via this tumblr post. Other folks have already responded to it on Twitter and elsewhere, but I’m nonetheless moved to add my voice to that chorus.

“When did we start compromising real life for the sake of making our books “diverse”? The world is diverse, yes, but not every place is. For example, if I was writing a book that took place in my hometown IT WOULDN’T BE VERY DIVERSE. And that doesn’t make it bad/racist/sexist.”

Dear Abbie,

I don’t know where your hometown is, but when you wrote this paragraph, I imagine you were thinking of somewhere in America that’s predominantly white and Christian. While you’re correct in thinking that some places are indeed demographically whiter than others, you’re mistaking the absence of a particular type of diversity for the absence of any diversity. In this hypothetical white, Christian hometown, there will still be plenty of women. They might not have made themselves known to you, and they might not always be out, but there will still be queer people – not necessarily many, but we’ll be there. There will still be kids with ADHD, adults with diabetes, veterans with missing limbs or PTSD or both; there will still be adults over the age of 50, people of all ages with various types of depression, anxiety and mental illness; there will be cancer survivors, individuals who are are sight-impaired or need therapy animals, and all manner of other conditions. And, yes, even in this predominantly white-and-Christian setting, there will be people of colour, some of whom might have a different faith to you and some of whom might not, just as there will also be white folks who, whatever their performance of Christian cultural norms, will be agnostics or atheists in the privacy of their thoughts, or who believe fervently in God while still getting their palms or tarot or horoscopes read every fortnight. Diversity is always present, is the point; it’s just not always as clearly visible as a difference in clothes or skin colour.

I’m a fantasy writer, which means I spend a lot of time in settings of my own or others’ invention. Charitably, I’m going to assume you weren’t thinking of places like these, which can reasonably be or do anything the author wants them to be without reference to the modern world, when you complained about diversity “compromising real life,” as though diversity isn’t part of real life. You yourself have acknowledged this fact; but given that you still have a problem with it, I’m going to venture that the issue is really a failure of empathy and imagination on your part. Whether consciously or not, you’ve assumed that any setting which reminds you of your hometown – or rather, your reductive, distant view of it – must necessarily be like your hometown, and so you find diverse stories set in such places unrealistic. But that doesn’t mean they actually are: it just means you don’t know as much about what’s “normal” as you think you do.

You’re quite right to say that you, personally, will not encounter every type of person in your small corner of the world. But “small” is the operative word, here: wherever your hometown might be, the fact that it’s the basis of your personal experience doesn’t make it even vaguely representative of the world – or even America – at large.

You claim that you “love everyone” regardless of their background, and I’m sure you believe that about yourself. Here’s the thing, though: when you say you wish people would stop being “correct” and “just write books that actually… reflected the kind of thing we encounter in real life,” you’re making a big assumption about who that “we” is. There might be very few black people in your hometown, but if one of them were to write a novel based on their memories of growing up there, you likely wouldn’t recognise certain parts of their experience, not because it was “incorrect,” but because different people lead different lives. And when you claim that certain narratives are forced and unrealistic, not because the writing is badly executed, but because they don’t resemble the things you’ve encountered, that’s not an example of you loving everyone: that’s you assuming that experiences outside your own are uncomfortable, inapplicable and wrong.

Here’s something I know from my own life: when you grow up white in a predominantly white area, it’s easy to assume that everyone around you is kind of amorphously having the some sort of cultural experience. Unless someone actually sits you down in your childhood or early teens and explains how gender, class, race, religion, sexuality, disability and a whole host of other factors can radically alter your experience of the world, you’re unlikely to pick those things up on your own, because unless they relate to you personally, or to someone you care about who explains what it means, they won’t be on your radar. Even if you’re subjected to sexism, for instance, as women tend to be, it’s easy to internalise it as normal if nobody around you describes it as a negative, or if the type of femininity you’re being pushed to perform aligns with your native interests. Social barriers have a disconcerting tendency to be invisible until or unless you find yourself rammed up against them; and even then, if nobody else is outraged along with you, it’s easy to be gaslit into thinking you were mistaken.

See, the problem is that a lot of people treat Western culture as homogeneous-with-exceptions, as though Westerners of every background experience the same culture the same way unless it’s Cinco de Mayo or Chinese New Year – in which case, some people get to indulge in a little bit of extraneous personal heritage for just those two holidays, and then it’s all samey again. As such, this means that white people uncritically raised in this tradition of assumed homogeneity tend to view the decision to make a character something other than white or straight – and, often, male – as a purely cosmetic change, and therefore an unnecessary one. After all (they argue), if an Asian American and a white American teenager can experience America in roughly the same way, then why would you write about the Asian American as though it makes them different and special? Except, of course, that they’re usually not having the same experiences at all; and even if they plausibly are, the only reason to insist that the white character is a natural, apolitical default while the Asian character is forced and tokenistic is if you’re being racist.

When you grow up watching predominantly white, straight movies and reading predominantly white, straight books, it’s easy to find the transition to more diverse literature difficult. That sort of cultural conditioning can be tough to overcome, even for the people who need it most. It’s like hearing the Nutbush play and seeing people dance the Macarena – the dissonance between expectation and reality feels jarring and wrong, and if you want to follow along, you have to pay close attention instead of moving on autopilot as you usually would. But once you accept the limitations of your own experience – once you find a new rhythm – it’s like discovering a whole new genre of music to dance to; or genres, even.

Abbie, I don’t know you, and I’m doubtful you’ll ever read this. But on the offchance that you do, here’s the bottom line: an unfamiliar experience isn’t the same as an unrealistic perspective. The world is bigger than any one person, which is why we humans tell stories in the first place – to see more of the world and its possibilities than we could ever manage otherwise. And if you ever come across a story that’s so unfamiliar as to be unrelatable, before you pan it as bad outright, consider that it simply might not have been written for you. You’re no more the default audience for every book in the world than your hometown is a universal substitute for other, more diverse places, and just as you’re not obliged to like every story you read, not every story is obliged to cater to you.

Yours queerly,




  1. morgansd says:

    I comment only because we are typically erased: many non-veterans suffer from PTSD. Especially child abuse survivors, who are likely to have complex PTSD from lack of treatment for repeated traumas in childhood. You likely know people like me and have no idea they have PTSD, as we are usually reticent to talk about it. We are too often met with skepticism and by non-sufferers if we are not veterans, as too many people think PTSD can only occur during wartime. If you must focus on veterans, please at least consider language along the lines of “veterans and others with PTSD”. Thanks.

  2. lkeke35 says:

    Thank you for writing this! Obviously,Abby doesn’t understand that representation matters, nor does she understand why.

  3. Fred says:

    I’ve a lot to say on this issue, but right now I don’t have time. However …

    There is, IMHO, a clear difference between a SF/Fantasy story and a romance story with SF/Fantasy elements. It matters very little to me – I admit – if the main character in a story is straight or gay, but it does matter if the story is focused on their sexual activities rather than their mission. I don’t want to read a story that consists of nothing more than sexual encounters with a hint of plot, regardless of what sort of sexual encounters they are. If someone wants to write ‘Brokeback Mountain In SPACE’ they can do it, but it is not the sort of story I’d like to read.

    There is a place for stories about ‘young gay men coming out’ or ‘young black men growing up in a ‘racist’ society,’ but – again – they’re not the sort of stories I like to read for pleasure. I don’t care for romance novels, regardless of their characters – I don’t care to read about ‘man finds girl’ any more than I care to read ‘man finds man’ or ‘woman finds woman.’ And a story intensely focused on what is – to me – a tiny aspect of a character is one I probably won’t enjoy. I want stories about heroic deeds performed by characters, not implausible sexual acts performed by characters.

    This is, I think, something that is often forgotten. When I think about diversity in books, I think about the different genres. Bob likes SF, Lily likes Fantasy, Sherlock likes Detective, Jill likes Romance … that’s what I mean. I don’t really care if my fantasy characters are straight or gay, but I do care if they spend more time talking about gayness than actually being heroic.

    That’s my opinion, anyway.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Then maybe don’t read books that aren’t written for you.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Literally the fact that you personally dislike a thing doesn’t make it bad. It just means you can go read something else.

      • Fred says:

        Ummm…. yes?

      • Fred says:

        No, it doesn’t. And I didn’t say otherwise.

        What I think this whole debate is about, however, is something a little different. There is nothing inherently wrong with disliking [Romance With SF Aspects], any more than there is anything wrong with disliking [SF With Romance Aspects.] However, I refuse to be made to feel guilty – or that there is something inherently wrong with me – because I don’t like excessive sex (of whatever kind) in my books.

        That is, I feel, the crux of the whole issue. Liking a book is now a form of virtue signalling – and if you don’t like the book, you get attacked because the author is [insert minority group here] and you’re taken for a [bigot/racist/sexist/whatever] or because the main character is [insert minority group here] and you’re taken for a [ditto]. I like what I like – that doesn’t mean I’m going to demand a ban on books I don’t like.


    • I like my SFF stories to be about SFF – but if Captain Courageous can have a picture of her husband on the desk, then Admiral Awesome can have a picture of her wife. This is not ‘intrusion of people’s sex lives’ into SFF.

      If Ensign Energy is going to hit the girly houses on shore leave, then Enterprise can hit the boy houses on shore leave too – regardless of the gender of either ensign. This is balance, not intrusion.

    • Lenora Rose says:

      I’m not sure what this comment has to do with the OP?

      Unless you assume that including gay characters must mean including or focusing on their romance, and therefore the inclusion of more stuff not to your taste.

      As a counterpoint, I just wrote a high fantasy adventure novella whose main character is a lesbian widow. How her wife died is relevant to the plot, so her sexuality is, even though there is zero romance and even less sex. But if I said, “It’s a high fantasy with a lesbian main character” without all the caveats, would you wave it off as “but I don’t want romance and sex in my SF/F?

  4. […] An Open Letter on Diversity (via File 770) […]

  5. Ted says:

    Why do you assume Annie is a Christian? What does that have to do with her comment, anyway? Her point is that a lot of modern books/short stories seem to include diversity for the sake of diversity and not story. That seemed to be all she was saying.
    Do you incorrectly assume all Christians are white people that don’t notice anyone of any difference around them? That is certainly not accurate.

    • fozmeadows says:

      I assume because Annie is white, American, and describes herself as being from a small town with little diversity. Collectively, those datapoints very, very strongly suggest Christian.

  6. haukinen1 says:

    I have seen also black christians!!.

  7. […] Meadows on the argument that realism and diversity are separate […]

  8. smith says:

    If she meant well, she’d probably have also said something about diversity at the next level, above individual stories. For ex:

    – a story set on a submarine in the 1970s? Probably all-male instead of mixed-sex.
    – a story set in a Chinese small town in the 2000s? Probably mostly-Asian instead of more evenly diverse in race.
    – a story set on the Gallaudet campus in the 2030s? Probably a smaller percentage of blind people than in today’s real-life Washington DC as a whole.

    But put these all in the same library and the collection is a more diverse set of stuff to read than any one of them would be alone. Fair representation doesn’t have to mean everyone represented in the same piece of fiction at the same time.

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