Diverse Stories and Literary Merit (sigh)

What interests me here, however, is when that mountain of self-doubt intersects with the little doubts fed to writers of diverse fiction. We write in a time when marginalised voices are growing louder and more distinct, where platforms for expressing one’s identity are larger and more robust than ever. But that doesn’t mean we’re never pigeonholed as “that pan dude who writes all that queer sci fi” or “that Zulu person who writes all that African fantasy.” Indeed, you might just be that writer, but there’s a tone to the way it’s said, an implication that your platform is your queerness or your person of colourtude, and thus, not quite your skill as a writer.

Someone really smart said this a couple of months ago and I’ve been thinking about it a lot, not just in leui of what’s happened in the past week re: the conversations that come up every year after Watty announcements, but really for years now. Almost every time the discussion of literary merit meets opinions on diverse fiction, there are questions that arise that focus on how much a writer (or a story’s) social identity impacts how it’s recieved. Mind, this is only ever done for stories that fall outside the default.

I don’t know, there’s a deep fascination with the role a writer’s “otherness” plays in their reception, to the exclusion of any conversation of craft or even just timing and blind luck. It’s not an out-of-bounds fascination, but considering how it’s only ever hyperfocused on certain writers, it does raise questions in me. Genuine questions, no one’s looking to dunk on anyone here. There’s also a strong focus on how this represents a shift that threatens writers of the default, as if they haven’t always and continue to dominate platforms of merit, and always without facing questions of how their defaultness impacts their reception.

I suppose that’s one of the privileges of the default, the benefit of the doubt. People assume your skills paid the bills. People also don’t question your visibility, and your majority continues to be normal. That’s… nothing new but, I don’t know, I suppose I look for a little more in a writer’s ability to introspect and extrapolate. With that said, structuring this with key questions helped with the last thread I created, so I’m gonna try that here out of interest (I repeat, no one’s baiting anyone):

  1. Do you believe, for whatever reason, that the rise of diverse stories negatively impacts writers who operate within the default? Why?

  2. How do you, personally, judge a story’s quality, and do you think a story can have merit even when it falls outside of your own criteria?

  3. (If you are a marginalised writer), do you have any concerns with the conversation of “identity vs merit”?

  4. And good lord by all means skip this one if you want: Do you believe the push for diverse stories is disingenuous and/or motivated by anything other than highlighting the very best stories from underrepresented communities?

Well, yes and no. No because wtf no of course not. It’s just a correction of what literature always should have been. Yes because it adds more competition, which quite honestly, the default can rarely keep up with.

I judge a story by how engaged I am. I do think it could have literary merit even if I specifically am not engaged, but a group of other people are.

I’m hard of hearing, so I’m not sure how much I really qualify as marginalized. In terms of everything else I’m in the majority of my genre in trad publishing.

I think merit should always be held up first, but I think it’s important to note merit isn’t determined by one person or group. So as long as it stays respectful, not really. (Again, I don’t know if I really qualify to answer this one, but I took a stab at it.)

I think it’s a push to give voices to underrepresented communities and lift up good works all in one.

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Personally, no, I don’t feel this. I feel that having diverse stories means that there are more things for those who operate within the default to read and take in - which in turn makes their own representations better. I think the more content that is created, and the more attention given to this content, the better as it will make readers (and thus writers) better at depicting things outside the default by having been exposed to another worldview.

Well, there’s style and voice, of course. Characterisation and plot. I am not going to read something with flat characters. I have to be honest and raise a hand here to say that I don’t regularly read non-queer works anymore. Even when I read novels with straight romances, they are often written by queer authors these days. For me, that was a conscious decision to both lift up voices within the community, but also because I like to read books with good queer rep - and I wasn’t finding much of that looking outside of the queer author community. That’s not to say that I don’t find it occasionally, and I definitely would read works outside it (and hey - my fave authors are Pratchett and Gaiman, and Good Omens is fantastic queer rep).

Yup. I am almost certainly pigeon-holed. I won a writing competition last year, and tons of people made a big deal about the fact that queer works (especially ‘BL’) were winning by miles. A lot of people attributed my success to the fact that I was writing gay romance, instead of to the fact that I was updating twice a day, wrote 50,000 words in that month for the contest and was writing a unique, fun and interesting story. So yeah. I’ve been on the wrong side of this one a few times. And maybe I don’t write good, but that should be based on critique of my writing itself, not what I write or who I am.

I have a thing with this one. I think that there are two camps - one is about lifting up OwnVoices authors and giving them their shot at evening the playing field… But I’ve also seen the other side of it too. The one where, sure, OwnVoices authors are getting published but getting treated differently to default authors writing the same stuff. Straight authors writing queer fiction, for example, who are more happy to do the tropes that sell, even if they’re harmful, over a queer authentic work that might have an issue with those tropes. Not gonna name names here, but it definitely is a thing that happens. It looks good for a company to say “Oh we have these marginalised authors in our library” without actually doing anything to promote them or to make sure that their novels succeed in comparison.

Yay to another thought provoking thread <3

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No, definitely not. However, I remember reading or hearing (and I’m going to go hunt for the source, my memory is failing me) about this idea that any shift toward equity within a system designed to benefit one group over others is going to feel like “loss” to the dominant group. Even when it’s actually a shift toward a more just system. Problem is that when these discussions come up, few people want to think of themselves as part of a “dominant group”.

Personally, I read for characters first and foremost, so I tend to put a lot of weight onto an author’s ability to create fleshed out, compelling characters that are driving the story. Then I look at plot, and often pacing because that’s a hard one to get right, and then I look at prose. I definitely value prose less than some other readers/writers, because I’m really here for the story. I love beautiful prose when I see it, but I can love a great story equally even if it doesn’t have stand-out writing.

I absolutely think that stories can have merit when they falls outside my criteria. I gravitate toward certain dynamics, tropes, styles and themes in stories. There are great stories that I don’t pick up because I don’t find their genre particularly interesting. Doesn’t mean they’re not fabulous, it just means I’m not the right reader for them.

Disingenuous, absolutely not. I think that Wattpad is looking at some of the gaps in traditional publishing and seeing that the way in which stories that might not make it through the biases of traditional publishing gateways can exist and gain popularity here, and that gives this site an edge. I think they’re actually a little bit ahead on that front, when compared to trad publishing.

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Yes, this. I mean some things just mean more to some people, or rather certain art is consumed through a different context that plays to strengths that others might not see.

I agree, but I admit I had a nervous chuckle at the end. If competition is tough for people that have historically been catered for, then one can only imagine what it’s like for those who’ve had to write in the margins.

Yup. You don’t have to have it validated by anyone else, either. Yup again.

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I think this is very true. Speaking for my beloved Fantasy genre, it’s like…oh yeah, the world is wider than Tolkein.

Yes. This conversation seems to be popping up all over the forums, and I don’t know why I didn’t connect it to the Watty’s before now.

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Yeah. I’m not referring to Wattpad here, but it’s the same across the internet it seems.

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Ha…

Ha.

There’s a thin line between the camps too, especially when so much of the work that goes into uplifting OwnVoices doesn’t have a long history to draw inspiration from. The innovators push, the pretenders falter… that’s probably the one pro. Those without the motivation to adapt to live up to their mission statements often get found out sooner rather than later.

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Betcha don’t know how this feels :wink:

I hope this turns out to be true, but right now I’m seeing a lot of brands getting rewarded for not pulling their weight as much as they should. Like corporations at Pride. It doesn’t matter if you rainbow brand, you have to follow through. But those outside the community don’t necessarily see how harmful it is, and are like “BUT ISN’T IT BETTER THAN NOTHING?!” or just support the initiatives unknowingly, without realising it’s bad rep. So there’s… a lot. It’s complicated. I can’t speak for issues with race, but from what I’ve seen - it’s even worse there.

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It’s not just here, it’s an industry wide thing (see: Sad Puppies and #racefail for fairly recent examples). It transcends writing too, basically anywhere where the discussion of identity and reward meet. But yeah WP is an interesting case study.

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Good point. I wasn’t thinking if that.

I know I don’t need the validation (so thanks for saying that :heart:) but at the same time, I don’t want to take away from anyone by weighing in as a marginalized group that isn’t relevant to the discussion. So thanks :heart::heart::heart:

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Oh yeah, people were vocal af about this year’s rainbow capitalism. As for supporting bad rep, that’s such a huge danger since it’s mostly perpetuated by people whose hearts are in the right place but haven’t taken the time to educate themselves on the stances they’re taking.

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When drilled down, every person is diverse in one way or another. As long as the WP or other people with purchasing power are open about what they are buying — and WP is open about preferring diverse stories — and people are not knocked down and vilified for wanting to be competitive and successful in the creative sphere, let the best book be bought/gain visibility etc.

Precisely. But I am moving the topic away from literary merit, so I’ll stop. But still, I think that it is definitely much harder to get your works considered to stand on their own when you’re marginalised, especially as it has become such a big thing to sell the author as well as the book these days.

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100% but the caveat would be that there are certain differences in identity that are seperated, elevated, and set up as the default, creating an imbalance in the entire dynamic.

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Oh for sure. When I was writing Nordic fantasy, people came with “this is so good” energy. When I started exploring African fantasy and its many forms, it switched to “oh yeah the powers that be will love this lol”, completely neglecting the fact that… we improve with each story?

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Whereas I look at your writing and am like: “I just want to write this good wtf”. Which I think is also part of the sour grapes effect in some cases. All authors who write well will get jealousy directed at them, but being from a marginalised group gives an easy scapegoat sometimes to say “It’s not their talent, it’s that they’re identity that they’re doing well.”

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I don’t know. I never argue with success.

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but it’s so much fun

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No, it is soul eroding. To paraphrase Sergei Voronov, only those lazy and talentless knock down others’ success.

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