All of us Eight Ladies are white ladies.
I think as white writers, it’s difficult for us to understand what it’s like when a largely mono-cultural writer tries to jam in a character from a different culture in order to spice up a book, or attempt to be inclusive.
We can get a tiny taste of it in the Bollywood movie, Bride and Prejudice (2004). I love this movie and have seen it more than once, so I’m not complaining. I’d rec this movie to almost anyone because the writing is fabulous, the cinematography is gorgeous, and if you were moving in society in the 90s and early 2000s, there are universal themes that will resonate with you. (Heck, let’s not be so limited. Being based on Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, Pride and Prejudice, means many of the themes cross cultures and time. Time-tested and highly adaptable.)
However, among the deep characterization and fun interactions, there’s a white guy who reads like he’s a piece of cardboard. He’s a bit whiny and a bit shallow . . . and maybe he’s the white guy a lot of people from India see. He’s somewhat believable, but he’s the only white person in the whole production, and he’s not exactly the hero type.
And when you think about it, that’s really unfortunate because he’s Will Darcy . . . you know, Fitzwilliam-fucking-Darcy. The hero.
But only when you stop and think about it, because the rest of the show is heartwarming, and magical and full of subplots that (like Austen’s original book) portray characters in depth – good and bad.
One problem is that in romance, we often treat the hero as the Prize. Not always, but in quickly written novels, he can be just the cocky, heart-of-gold hot prize that the heroine gets for becoming her true self. Romance is written mostly by women, mostly for women, and sometimes I don’t mind the objectification of men as long as I get a satisfying story of triumph for the heroine.
If you are trying to pump out four books a year so you can pay the rent and feed your children, it might be understandable (from the Doylistic viewpoint, or as an author) that one might skimp on hero characterization and a few other things. Especially if this is only the author’s first (or third or fifth) book. But . . . that’s a discussion for another day.
I bring it up though, because a writer just embarking on their career might not have the time or money or networking to hire all the people necessary for making a great book. Or the time to educate themselves quickly AND write a great book (or even a mediocre book, for that matter).
And what if a story with a problematic character makes it through an established, mainstream process? For example, Pathe and Miramax film distributors. Or Berkley Romance? THEY have multicultural staff that have been professionally trained to advise writers. If even they can face scathing criticism, how can a shoestring organization (a self-published author and her posse of beta readers) avoid being humiliated if they make a mistake?
I’m sitting here on the sympathy fence. On the one hand, I feel for writers who want to do the right thing, but become famous for being really clumsy and awkward instead.
On the other hand, being a minority and being exposed almost constantly to monocultural materials that can only relate to my culture in very narrow stereotypes is frustrating. I am a white woman in Japan, and I don’t watch or read much in Japanese. I need at least two trusted recommendations before I’ll spend time on it. I know I’m missing some really great things, but on the other hand, I’m also missing some really crappy things as well.
I see on Twitter that this is also a strategy for some authors of color living in a predominately white country. In one Goodreads review, a reader said that they couldn’t finish the sample of a certain book. “Unless I see a tidal wave of Black reviewers endorsing this book, I’m not going any further.” (For what it’s worth, the book has a 4.1 star rating on Goodreads at this writing.)
And, it’s not a bad strategy. Writers have to write for themselves. Readers have to read for themselves, too. And in this age of self-publishing, we need influential self-published reviewers who can guide us to the best of the best, so critics have to critique for their own tastes, too.