In case you missed it, this past weekend We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) announced that they would no longer be using the term #OwnVoices to refer to books or authors. Read their announcement post here. Instead, they will “use specific descriptions that authors use for themselves and their characters whenever possible.” Is this a useful distinction, or will the problems with #OwnVoices continue even if the term is no longer used?
There have been many discussions and articles over the years discussing the merits and problems of using the term #OwnVoices to describe books and other media. While the original intention of the movement to highlight books by authors who share the lived experiences and diverse identities of their main characters was a good one, the vagueness of the term has become increasingly complicated.
As the push for diverse books has increased over the years, #OwnVoices has become a marketing tool for publishers and booksellers. That fact alone is not necessarily problematic – I get it, publishing is a business, but the vagueness of the term is a major issue. What counts as #OwnVoices? Who is “qualified” to tell a story? Should authors be obligated to disclose which parts of their story are fiction?
What counts as #OwnVoices?
#OwnVoices has become a catchall phrase to encompass any type of diverse identity shared by the author and their main character. That being said, authors and (well-written) characters are multi-faceted humans with many intersecting identities that contribute to their experiences. When books are marketed as #OwnVoices, they don’t often specify which parts of the character’s identity fall under the blanket categorization of #OwnVoices, often ignoring the complexities of intersectionality.
For example, if a Japanese-American author wrote a book featuring a main character of the same racial identity it would likely be marketed as #OwnVoices. Simple enough right? But let’s go further and consider, what if that Japanese-American main character was also bisexual and disabled? Does labeling the book #OwnVoices mean that the author shares not only their main character’s ethnic background, but their sexuality and disability? Not necessarily. If the author doesn’t share these intersecting identities, can this book be accurately called #OwnVoices? If they don’t lay claim to being an #OwnVoices writer for all aspects of their character’s identity, how do we know those diverse experiences are accurately represented?
In this area, WNDB’s movement toward specific descriptions are much more informative for readers who keep track of these things. However, it leads to the issue of author’s right to privacy when it comes to their personal lives and their identity.
Who is “qualified” to tell a diverse story?
There has been a lot of outrage over cultural appropriation in the bookish community lately. In some cases, readers are rightfully calling out problematic authors, while in other instances, the outrage is mostly noise from people who want to appear “woke” and feel that it is their duty to act as diversity gatekeepers. At its heart, the #OwnVoices movement was meant to address this issues, but it has led to readers, critics, and even authors themselves questioning whether they are “enough” of an identity to be allowed to write about it.
Should authors be obligated to reveal aspects of their identity?
Short answer to this question: No
Another major problem with #OwnVoices is that it leads to readers digging into the author’s identity in ways that are sometimes pretty damn creepy. Other than race, most aspects of an author’s identity are largely invisible without deeper investigation, and even that is not always obvious. Assuming an author’s race and gender based upon their appearance or name is a slippery slope, but expecting an author to disclose every aspect of their racial, gender, or sexual identity is deeply problematic. I for one feel uncomfortable digging with #OwnVoices reading challenges in regards to queer authors because it involves searching for information about the author’s sexuality or gender identity.
The commercialization of #OwnVoices and the gatekeeping that happens with the term poses issues of pressuring authors to reveal aspects of their identity that they, for whatever reason, might not feel safe or comfortable sharing. This is something WNDB addressed as one of the reasons they are moving away from using the term.
So, should we stop referring to books as #OwnVoices?
Although I agree with WNDB’s reasoning behind the decision to move away from the term #OwnVoices and instead use specific descriptions provided by authors, I don’t think that the solution is that simple. Nor do I think that the term #OwnVoices is inherently bad. I feel like the issue of specificity could be addressed by clearly noting which aspects of the book are #OwnVoices. Obviously, this isn’t perfect, but it’s more succinct than writing out every single identity of the author and main character separately.
Also, not using the term #OwnVoices does not solve any of the other issues associated with the term. People will still attempt to gatekeep and judge whether an author is “enough” of an identity, diversity will still be leveraged as a marketing strategy, and authors could still feel pressured to disclose aspects of their identity that they would rather keep private.
Still, I think that by taking a clear and public stance on the issues with the term #OwnVoices, We Need Diverse Books has created an opportunity to for larger discussions on diversity in publishing. I only hope that the rest of the book community takes the time to have those discussions and find solutions otherwise people will just find a new term to replace it.
What are your thoughts on the term #OwnVoices? Do you think WNDB’s decision to stop using the term will make a difference?