The Underserved Population Of Readers
You’re going to go right now and read Kameron Hurley’s ‘We Have Always Fought:’ Challenging The ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative.'”
No, seriously, go read that right now. It is one of the finest essays I’ve read in a long time on challenging the expectations of women inside (and to some degree outside) of fiction.
It’s smart. It’s self-deprecating. It doesn’t point fingers while still making a clear case for how we need to adjust our thinking and ask questions precisely when other people think we should be quietly accepting answers. It’s great. Have I said that enough? No, really. It’s great.
Whenever I read something like this — something ostensibly targeted at writers and storytellers — I like to try to break it down and say, okay, what’s the takeaway? What’s the practical path forward after reading something like that (assuming, that is, one wants to course correct). I have a bucket of ill-formed thoughts on the subject which is usually the finest time to get onto a blog and start barfing up half-digested thought-nuggets (sarcasm duly expressed), but hey, that’s what I do here sometimes. Sometimes it takes talking through an idea in a public space.
So, that said, this is a warning: this post will contain none of the elegance or wit (or talk of llamas) put forth by Kameron in that wonderful essay. Her essay should win her an award for something. This post will win me nothing except maaaaaybe the quizzical stares of those who pass by my Plexiglas enclosure.
I used to work at the public library. Libraries are of course where the books live but that’s only a part of what they do and one of the things they do is a very important function called: serving the underserved population. (Note: underserved, not undeserved.) I specifically worked with a department whose goal was to find the folks the library Just Plain Wasn’t Talking To and then Talk To Them. Are we helping blind people? We’re helping children, but are we helping seniors? What about African-Americans? Or people trapped in low-income brackets? And so on.
This is largely antithetical to the way Capitalist Anything works, because unless you’re willing to excel within a very specific niche, aiming your services toward an underserved part of the population isn’t the way to a dragon’s hoard of gold coins. But that’s why public services are great (and why it’s a tragedy that library budgets are having their throats slashed in favor of Congress ordering more tanks for a military that expressly doesn’t want them). Public services ideally aim to serve all portions of the public: not just, say, rich white jizzballs who think such services are non-essential because they don’t use them.
All this is a bit circuitous, I’ll admit, but my point is that libraries being eager to serve the under- or not-at-all-served is a huge thing. Huge!
And I think that’s the practical takeaway from Kameron’s essay —
Writers could do more to serve the underserved.
We’re not talking to our entire audience.
Maybe we think we are. But one of the ways, I think, we serve the underserved and speak to the unspoken is to take those conventions and expectations Kameron talks about and purposefully challenge them in the pages of our work. This is true of how we present characters who are women, or who are gay and lesbian and transgender, or African-Americans and Africans and Asian-Americans and Asians and —
— well, basically, everybody who isn’t a fairly comfortable white dude.
Whether you believe in so-called “white male privilege” or not, it’s still pretty easy to take a quick look around the halls of pop culture and see that for every Katniss Everdeen there’s a fucking army of Luke Skywalkers and Neos and John McClanes and Smoldering Glittery Vampire Douchewangs. For every Black Widow and Nick Fury you get an Iron Man, a Thor, a Hawkeye, a Hulk, a Captain America. (And, okay, a Maria Hill. Cobie Smulders!)
White dudes are everywhere.
We’re like robins during spring.
Did you see Maureen Johnson’s Coverflip? Where she asked her fans and followers to reimagine the covers of books by flipping the author’s gender? It’s a helluva thing to see.
Point is, white dudes got it pretty sweet. Particularly middle-class-and-up white dudes.
And so it behooves us as authors of all shapes and designations and genital configurations (oh and I’m talking to you, too, publishers, if you’ll listen) to look deep into the hearts of our stories and to see if we’re leaning on lazy archetypes, stereotypes, conventions, historical myths or outright buckets of bullshit. I’m not saying that every book has to be some lectern-pounding exercise in social justice but damn, a little bit of social justice can’t hurt. Why can’t we talk to those we don’t normally talk to? Why can’t we serve the underserved and challenge the expectations of what has come before us? Ask questions instead of assuming answers. Why can’t we write books where we have complex and atypical female characters? Gay characters? Does your gay character have a keen fashion sense? Is your female character a mother figure or a rape victim? Is your African-American character a gangbanger? Is that Muslim character a cleric or worse, a terrorist? That’s not to say you can’t have these characters be complex and interesting — but take a long look and you might start to see some lazy, damaging, damning patterns.
I’ve often relied on that kind of thing myself. I do it without thinking. A too-easy crutch, a crummy shortcut — a confirmation of what seems like the status quo but is really just a muddy trench in which we’ve all mired our boots. We can all try to do better. I can do better.
And that’s the takeaway: do better.
Speak to those you haven’t yet spoken to.
Serve the underserved readers.