Cultural stories in the mass market

Sunita from Dear Author mentioned a few of my books in her editorial post “POC romance and the authenticity question” and I started to reply, but in typical Jeannie fashion, it started to become an essay, so I thought it best to put my thoughts down here so not to bore the readers with a TLDR answer.

As you know, I think a lot about what it takes to write in a niche setting while trying to succeed in the mass market. Here are some thoughts I’ve compiled:

I want to add a theory that I’ve been pondering — I do bring my culture into my POV when I write — it’s actually very hard not to. I wonder if depictions from more mainstream viewpoints, to use a blunt instrument here — the white male perspective — are simply more easily consumed by the reading public. Because this is the perspective people are used to consuming. For example, would GGK’s Under Heaven be much better received than a Chinese author’s works in the US mass market? Neil Gaiman announced that he’s working on a project based on a Chinese legend and I’m sure that will be well received. Now, those are powerhouses and it’s impossible to separate out their clout, fame and skill from a possibly more palatable perspective. Perhaps pure skill makes their works accessible. I loved GGK’s Under Heaven, BTW.

If we take the example of Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer where no attempt for Japanese cultural accuracy was made, it appears that appropriated cardboard representations (he proudly admits to basing his worldbuilding off of manga and anime and little attempt at research into Japanese culture, so I feel justified to say that)  were very well-received and widely adopted, perhaps more so than a culturally accurate depiction.  Of course, he was creating a steampunk fantasy and can argue he never meant it to be realistic — but that goes to my point. The stereotype is easier to consume than a fleshed out depiction.

This question may never be answered due to the process of 1) creation 2) public acceptance being shrouded in so many variables, but it’s an interesting thought, right? Theory 1:  The mainstream voice, the dominant voice, is still the one readers are used to hearing.  Theory 2: The stereotypes and the cardboard representations are more easily accepted by people who have limited exposure to the culture (there is cognitive science research to back this idea) Theory 3:  This is felt more keenly in mass market genre fiction where books are aiming for wide, common denominator appeal. (i.e. in literary or other markets, where readers are seeking the unique, unusual, unexpected, it may not be as much of a factor)

That may not leave us in a happy place when we think of POC authors with “authentic” voices writing cultural stories at least for the mass market, but I think this is something authors should know they might be up against. It doesn’t change much — just write your heart. Write your heart out. But it may be a fight.

18 Comments

  1. Terri Brisbin
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 11:32:07

    Jeannie –

    I think it’s more about the known-and-accepted stereotypes – and I think writers who create stories about most any ‘loved’ historical time or location face the same kind of thing — my example would be one word – KILT!

    But, yes, you, as a writer with an authentic knowledge and perspective of the culture you write about, face the challenge of it not being the ‘norm’. I’m afraid that mass market IS about pleasing the masses and meeting their expectations and so stories that aren’t written to the ‘mass expectation’ about any time or place will not go over as well. Hence the ‘niche’ market….

    And I think Jennifer Weiner got into a whole discussion and an internet war about white-male-writers being favored over everything else in the publishing and especially in the reviewing world. They don’t seem to be held to the same standards….

  2. cindy
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 11:35:09

    i am such a fan of your books, jeannie!
    and great post! i think that often,
    the more well know novels in asian settings
    are what the general reader in US (or west)
    *think* an Asian setting is like. not so
    much authenticity. as i said, it is usually
    very ASIAN versus simply Asian.

  3. Rita
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 11:54:05

    Well said.

  4. Shawntelle Madison
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 12:41:59

    Great post! Thought-provoking.

  5. Melissa Blue
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 12:56:18

    Complicated question with even more complicated answers. So, let’s try to make this short and just look at the theories.

    Theory 1: The mainstream voice, the dominant voice, is still the one readers are used to hearing.

    This is complicated because I think there’s a built in trust. You know what you’re getting. You were raised on tropes, the archetypes, etc. It’s shorthand. It is the majority view even though when you look at the statistic the majority is slowly but surely becoming the minority. At least in the U.S. Deep pockets have managed to keep this theory, a theory.

    Theory 2: The stereotypes and the cardboard representations are more easily accepted by people who have limited exposure to the culture (there is cognitive science research to back this idea)

    I often feel this is a chicken or the egg kind of thing. If you’re only exposed to culture by what you see in a very limited view of other folks who have never experience any real culture…Pretty much you end up in an endless cycle. You start to assume any Brit is obsessed with tea and scones. They never drink coffee ever. Or, African Americans, all of them, listen to rap music. It becomes the shorthand and turns into the problem in theory one.

    So, when you are exposed to middle class African Americans who prefer jazz or classical music, it doesn’t read/feel like an authentic experience. Where’s the Jay Z?

    And I honestly feel like this is the bigger problem, for me at least, because when people pick up a novel with POC characters they are, in some way, expecting that Other experience. So you’re (universal) are waging a war of yes there needs to be a different, better depiction of other cultures vs. in the scheme of things Other isn’t all that different from the “majority.”

    Theory 3: This is felt more keenly in mass market genre fiction where books are aiming for wide, common denominator appeal. (i.e. in literary or other markets, where readers are seeking the unique, unusual, unexpected, it may not be as much of a factor)

    Yup. Yup. And like I said in my part of theory two is its own set of complications. I’m African American. I’m from California though. So I say dude and like and consume way too much Mexican cuisine. Even I, being AA, would have to do some serious research if I want to write a character born and bred in New Orleans. In short, (yeah I know) what’s authentic isn’t a singular view point or experience. I guess I’m more willing to say there’s a way to flub up historical facts, or just be outright racist when writing a paint by numbers stereotype than it is to say this story/character was authentic.

  6. Eileen Dreyer
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 15:35:50

    A friend of mine once said that there are two ways to make news. Perpetuate the stereotype or break it. The problem was fewer people would respond to the breaking of it, because it took more intellectual work and empathy. I think the same can hold true here. I love your books for the specific reason that I do have to work harder, because even though I thought I knew the culture, I knew the cliche.And the culture is so much more rich, complex and compelling. But not everyone wants to work at their entertainment. So they revert to the cliche (in an entirely different culture, it’s like 12 Years a Slave. It is true. It was written by the man involved. And in this case is a hard movie to watch, because we must put ourselves in that man’s place. Much easier to watch Gone with the Wind)

  7. Alexx Miller
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 15:48:01

    Great Post, Thought provoking. Never thought about it in that way.

  8. Piper
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 16:16:29

    Great Post!

    It’s interesting that some people pick up fiction to read to be immersed into new viewpoints and insights, but when they get that, they are surprised or shocked or maybe think it’s not authentic–as Melissa was saying. For example, I’ve faced this resistance as an African American author of historical romances when my characters don’t talk as they are expected to. The whole experience of code switching is new to an audience and my work might be more harshly critiqued when characters don’t live up to the preconceived notions people are comfortable with.

    As always Jeannie, you are correct, and I so appreciate you taking the time out to point out what people think of as obvious, but is not.

  9. Bria Quinlan
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 16:20:56

    My turn to write an essay.

    I’m probably the last person who should be giving my thoughts here since Jeannie and I rip each others books to shreds I mean, lovingly read and respond to one another’s work… But I’m going to anyway.

    I have always felt (and I think that Jeannie would agree) that one of my jobs as her friend who doesn’t have a deep background in Asian history or culture (beyond a love of foreign films and a love of friends my friends) is to be a YEILD sign…never a STOP sign.

    Jeannie and I have discussed along the way different ways of using names and history and settings and gender issues and politics and what types of things are common knowledge and what aren’t and love scenes…well, we just talk about that last one because we want to.

    We once even discussed if I’d been reading her so long that maybe my own understandings were getting deep enough I might overlook things that I should spot (the answer was, no. I’m just not that good yet.)

    Personally, I think it’s Theory Four: An anxiety about reading something that might be outside your understanding. The thing is, people read romance to relax and escape. When they see something too different, it’s easy to assume they won’t be able to do one or both of those. BUT, everyone I’ve met who has read Jeannie has commented on the beauty of her stories & writing AND it’s accessibility.

    I think that most of them would agree with me when I say that I have NEVER thought her final products were inaccessible to any reader.

    It is a constant sadness to me that Jeannie’s books are not hitting best seller lists. They’re rich and beautifully written. The settings and history have never been a hindrance in my enjoyment of them. They have only add a richness of text that picturing something new can bring.

  10. Jeannie Lin
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 16:57:56

    Thank you all for your thoughtful comments! I will have more time to respond intelligently once children are abed in….5 hours. Starting stopwatch now.

    Bria: The answer about why these stories do not get read, including mine, is very simple and speaks to your Theory 4: The cover.

    No matter how beautiful, breathtaking, dramatic, eye-catching the cover is, it’s not what romance readers are looking for. And so the game ends there. Way before authenticity. Way before sex and love and heartwarming good feeling. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200 dollars.

    But even having those covers out there, even if no one picked up the books, is still a step. It’s a BIG step.

  11. Melissa Cutler
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 18:16:32

    I read the Dear Author essay, then jumped over here because this is such a great, smart, civil discussion.

    I think a lot about race, cultural diversity, oppressive and empowering female representations, and sexual orientation diversity in media. Case in point, when my kids and I were walking out of the cartoon movie Airplanes, my 8 year old son said, “There weren’t very many girls in that movie, mommy. They didn’t have starring roles. That’s bad.” So yeah, we talk about it in my house A LOT. I’m trying to teach my kids about equality and diversity, and how beautifully complicated the world and the people in it are–and that media representations don’t often get it right. I don’t like all white, all male casts in TV shows, books or movies. As an romance author, I attempt to write what I want to see in the world, which means I make a point of at least once in every novel having two female characters have an entire discussion that’s NOT ABOUT MEN.

    I’m also a white American. I’m keenly aware of the lack of people of color and culturally diverse characters in romance novels, but I’m also keenly aware that there is much debate about whether I, as a white American, should be writing characters who are people of color or from different cultures. Heck, I’m not sure how I feel about my qualifications to write a female main character who is a person of color–or if it’s a wise business move. I’m so glad Jeannie brought up the business angle about writing stories that contain cultural diversity. I write mass market fiction. I support my family with my income, so I’m constantly aware of my books’ dual identities as art and as a commercial product. With every book, I must make the judgment call about writing 1) what am I inspired to 2) what am I comfortable doing 3) and what I think will sell best (in other words, what my reader base wants to read)

    I can think of so much more to say on this topic, from the process of deciding to researching the hero of my upcoming western romance who’s a cowboy and also Jewish, to my frustration about why it’s more marketable to write a hero who’s a person of color or from a minority culture than it is the female protagonist in a romance novel. *sigh* Sounds like I need to write an essay of my own for my blog.

    Thank you for inspiring me to think about these points today, Jeannie. Great essay!

  12. Jeannie Lin
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 18:23:04

    Melissa – My thoughts are that any other author, white or of any color or creed who wishes to write about an experience outside their own — is to do it and not even worry if it’s “wrong” (mainly because there is no right). It’s impossible for one author to create a sub-genre by themselves. And depictions, ANY depictions add to the experience. From my theories above, even cliched, stereotypical depictions add to public exposure. For instance, I want big name white authors to write books in Tang Dynasty China. Nothing would make me happier. :)

  13. Melissa Blue
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 20:43:28

    Yeah. I should have made my conclusion stronger in that long post.

    “My thoughts are that any other author, white or of any color or creed who wishes to write about an experience outside their own — is to do it and not even worry if it’s “wrong” (mainly because there is no right).”

    This. Exactly. 100 times. To me, if you craft your character with whatever their background involves, whatever corner of culture you decide to pull from, then you aren’t doing it wrong. Can you do shoddy research? Yup. Can you cross the line into stereotype (which is just bad characterization, right?)? Yup. Seriously, just be mindful like you would with any character. To me that rings truer than having every word, reaction and thought vetted because you’re scared to piss someone off. Because the truth of the matter is not writing about other cultures, being scared to write them is no better than letting those stereotypes be the “majority.” Those stereotypes become the voice of a culture because it’s the only one out there.

  14. Vanessa Riley
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 01:28:11

    Great post. I am a firm believer each writer has to find his/her voice and to be true to that voice, even if it crosses cultural barriers, even if it may make some uncomfortable. I am a southern baptist AA, and my voice is set in 1800′s Regency England. I worried about acceptance, even about what shade of author promo picts to use for my debut novel, so I understand Melissa’s dilemma. Then I realised my own thoughts were the problem. No one cared as long as the story was compelling. Well, I did receive a few, “And these are European Characters?,” at my first writer’s conference, but that’s pretty much stopped.

    Research, write, and sway with your words. Don’t forget, in most mass-market romance books all the text is the same color, no matter the genre or race of the characters or authors.

  15. Jeannie Lin
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 09:25:10

    Vanessa – I believe we met at RT! I came up to you to compliment you on your lovely Regency dress. I think it was you.

    My critique partner has the same issue as you. Just because she’s an African American woman, some people expect that’s what she should write. I don’t think I’m limited to telling Asian stories so I certainly don’t feel I’m any more authentic than a non-Asian author writing stories in China.

  16. Evangeline Holland
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 19:21:01

    @Melissa Blue: “when people pick up a novel with POC characters they are, in some way, expecting that Other experience. So you’re (universal) are waging a war of yes there needs to be a different, better depiction of other cultures vs. in the scheme of things Other isn’t all that different from the “majority.””

    YES!

    When I began writing I never even knew about the minefield that was race/ethnicity in the industry. The first novel I ever wrote was about a biracial American woman arriving in Regency England with her upper-class family (a bit of self-insertion…LOL). It wasn’t until I joined writers groups and began reading book blogs that I realized how white the industry was–and how extremely tough it would be to write non-white characters. Granted, I write white characters because of the particular milieu I favor, but I didn’t realize how invasive and pervasive the concept of white=default was in my mind until I began adding POC to my Edwardian historicals. It also smacked me in the face this past weekend when I started plotting a series set around a black town in California.

    My initial excitement about the characters and the concept quickly eroded once I started worrying over how others would perceive the books. How would I deal with racism? What about describing my characters? If a character was half-white, or had blue eyes, or any other “non-black” physical element, could that come across as injecting an element that would allay fears of “Otherness” and play up “exotic” stereotypes? What about language? Piper’s comment about code-switching was spot on. Or better yet, would I get dinged for showing the nuances of race and racism in the 1900s, because it didn’t fit within preconceived notions of life 100 years ago (Melissa Blue’s comment, redux)?

    Then there’s also the issue of sex, LOL. I might be wrong, but I’ve long had a theory that sexual stereotypes of characters of color are the dicey area that either makes romance readers resistant or hesitant, or enthused to read about a protagonist or protagonists of color. Since a large part of the romance genre is focused around sex, physical attraction, and personal fantasy, it doesn’t seem odd that particular types of POC (stereotypes), or even which protag is the POC, would be more desired over others (Melissa Cutler’s observation).

    But I sigh and laugh at myself because my concern should be focused on writing a book that entertains me and fulfills the story I want to tell. Fie on everyone else. ;)

    Thanks for the blog post, Jeannie.

  17. Linkspam, 12/6/13 Edition — Radish Reviews
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 09:25:29

    [...] Cultural stories in the mass market [...]

  18. Emily Jane
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 12:50:52

    I have been thinking about this a lot as a white reader and a married to POC with mixed kids writer.

    And I think I’ve come to this: I’m afraid to read more romances by POC because I’m afraid of what I’ll find. I’m scared that the people that look like me will always be the bad guys (as we probably should) in historicals, and in contemporaries, as a white woman married to a black man, I’m afraid to find attitudes about white women stealing all–or all but the hero of that book–the good men. And I’m also afraid of reading books where everyone is brown but I can’t find any of the culture I’ve spent the last 9 years of my life learning and loving.

    I’m not saying any of those fears are *right* but like Jeannie says, it’s certainly easier to spend my money on books that I feel fairly confident will bring me 100% happy feelings. Especially since at least at this life stage–fourth kid coming in March; oldest is 5–I am just a mess of hormones that exacerbate all my feelings–good or bad. I started reading romance in the first place after a reading a literary fiction book about a mixed family that ended with the black husband leaving his white wife for a dark skinned younger black woman and the mixed daughter leaving for Brazil. After that I was 100% ready for happy endings. So yeah, ignorance about content definitely plays a part for me.

    But then as a writer, I can’t imagine writing stories that would leave out people that look like my family. So it’s all very confusing, and I’d love wisdom and book recommendations.

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