For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been giving a lot of time to book proposals – for my own You Will Not Be Forgotten and for a client’s novel. While some of these documents focus on the books themselves – the synopsis, sample chapters, etc – a HUGE portion of them is dedicated to promotion, competition, and marketing. I don’t love this because I’d really rather focus on my work, but it is the reality of writing in the 21st century.
All of this work, though, has got me thinking about how we label ourselves as writers. For example, I could be a feminist writer, or a southern writer, or a Christian writer, but honestly, I LOATHE those labels because they limit me. When most people read those labels, they then expect the work to be explicitly about one of those things. But my writing isn’t about those things. While I certainly write from a worldview informed by those perspectives – thus, everything I write is Christian, feminist, and southern in some sense, I rarely talk about Jesus, I’m not studying southern culture, and I’m not arguing for women’s rights.
My book You Will Not Be Forgotten is about people who were enslaved on the plantation where I was raised and my journey of getting to know them. I don’t think Jesus comes up once, and I don’t directly address the plight of the enslaved women. The book is set in the south, but beyond addressing the institution of slavery, I don’t really discuss it is as southern phenomenon. Yet, my entire desire to write this book was driven by these aspects of my identity. As a Christian, the idea of justice informs all I see; as a woman who has (in the most minor ways comparatively) been the victim of oppression, I see the need to call out that oppression when I see it; as a southerner, I needed to understand this stain on my cultural past and its lingering legacy today.
Yet, some people will not read my book because it’s not labelled the right way or doesn’t have the most overt references to themes or worldviews they find important. This is sad. But people can read what they want, and that’s totally okay.
What isn’t okay is the way we use labels to exclude writers from our own categories. Someone doesn’t have the “authentic” black experience because a Black Studies professor deems it so (true story, from a dear friend), or someone isn’t honoring God because his book doesn’t talk about Jesus or the Bible or theology or challenges our traditional way of viewing those things, or someone isn’t a feminist because she writes about her choice to stay at home with her children and the way this has overjoyed and exhuasted her. When we decide that someone is or isn’t something, we’re walking on dangerous ground and invite that kind of judgment about our own personhoods.
Sure, we need labels for books so that readers can find the topics they want to read, and if our books are about Southern life or religion or blackness or gayness or feminism, by all means, they should get that little fine print label on the back. But we’d also be wise to recognize that just because something doesn’t have a particular label doesn’t mean that the writer doesn’t share those elements in her identity. So many amazing novels are written by LGBT people without being overtly about sexuality at all, and hispanic people write books all the time that don’t have anything to do with their culture or immigration or any of the other stereotypical topics we think apply to people with hispanic heritage. All people in a certain population – be it an ethnic group, a gender, a faith, or a culture – do not need to write directly about those things in order to have those aspects of their identity be real or crucial to who they are. It doesn’t make my friend any less black just because she loves rock and roll, no matter what her Black Studies professor says.
When we start applying the labels we put on books to writers, we make the grave mistake of claiming that the way we categorize objects is transferable to the way we look at people, and in the process, we limit and exclude in ways that not only hurt writing but that wound people.
I am a feminist, white, southern, Christian, straight writer. I hope no one but me ever labels me that way, and I hope no one thinks I am any less of one of those things simply because I don’t take on those subjects in every word I write.
How do you feel about labels for writers? Does a writer’s work have to include certain traits for it to be labelled a certain way – i.e. do Christians always have to mention Jesus or gay people always talk about gayness?