Racist, sexist, homophobic

Note: this post was written at the beginning of 2021 but got delayed because writing about my publishing problems seemed more immediate. Sorry to begin the new year with two fairly downbeat essays, but that’s the writer’s life for you: ups and downs all the way. Hope you get something out of this; hopefully I’ll be able to present more positivity next week.

This isn’t meant as a moan or a whine; apologies if it comes across as one. But I was told at my last writing group meeting that I’d been imbibing – and regurgitating – racist, sexist and homophobic tropes, and… well, it’s been on my mind.

It’s not just one piece; it is, apparently, in my work in general. The accusation was made by the person who accused me of being racist – or at least colonialist – in my treatment of slum clearances, and this scene was certainly in her mind as she, once more, took me to task.

So what do I make of this? Has she got a point? She didn’t directly accuse me of being the ‘ists’ but she might as well have, as I flatter myself that I am a modern, well-balanced human being who is, if not immune to racism and sexism, then at least am aware of my flaws and my ignorances and try to work on them. The accusation stings and I’m not sure what to do about it.

First things first: is she right? This latest criticism came to over a short(ish) story that involves a central female character who is viewed through the lens of a narrator who idolises, almost worships her. My critic says that there is nothing to her but her looks and here she may have a point; I’ve almost deliberately not gone into her spirit and agenda as I want her to be ethereal, almost mesmerising, rather than grounded and gritty.

As for her looks, I wasn’t even aware that I’d portrayed her as good looking (there’s certainly no paragraph of description that could appear in the Men Writing Women twitter feed) but, looking back, I suppose I had managed to give that impression.

So I can just about see where my critic is coming from. I just don’t know if I should make changes based on her opinion.

And now I’m shaken. I have many, many flaws, but I didn’t think I was a bad person. I’ve reviled groups like the Sad Puppies for their right-wing agenda. Am I now to see myself in such company? Hell, have I been lying to myself – and the world – all this time? How do I become the person I imagine myself to be?

Writing is an intensely personal business. That’s why criticism hurts. We lay ourselves out there on the page and receive what slings and arrows come our way. I’m constantly afraid that my Antarctic trilogy, in particular, will fail one of these acid tests because it’s consciously multinational and I’m writing outside of my own experiences.

Now I’m being told that my writing in general fails. And that means I’ve failed as a person.

I don’t think I’m in the best position to evaluate my flaws, but I’m not sure there’s anyone else. If anyone out there feels they’re better placed, I’d love to hear from you.

Some ways I am racist

Not racist but

I have my first contracted copy-edits, and with them indisputable proof that I am, in fact, a horrible person.

Whilst most errors are of the repetition variety – a pain to fix but mostly harmless – there have been highlighted a number of more serious faults of taste and discretion.

Let me share some of them with you:

  • Describing a black female character as a janitor

I was unaware that the role of janitor was considered especially lowly, and the sort of role that might be viewed as uber-menial: in other words, a typically ‘black’ job. By giving someone that title, and by making her black, I was unwittingly playing into stereotype. In my mind it was a jokey act of self-deprecation that had become a badge of honour. That’s not necessarily how it came across.

  • Introducing a white man and a black man, describing one by his job and the other by his race.

Yeah, this is bad. These are two fairly minor characters and I wanted to give my cast diversity. But by treating them differently I was creating an atmosphere where personality matters less than the colour of the skin. I don’t have a good excuse for this, unless ignorance and stupidity can be accepted as mitigating factors.

  • A chain round the black man’s neck

…and just to ram it home, here’s a little nod to slavery slipped in sotto voce. I thought I was just giving this chap a little individuality, but a black man wearing a chain around his neck? This is the sort of thing that, apparently, gets noticed.

  • Describing a Latin American character as ‘having a little rodent in his ancestry.’

You might think this is bad enough as it is. Given the current political climate this looks a whole lot worse. First Katie Hopkins calls migrants ‘cockroaches’, then – and more pertinently – Trump describes illegal immigrants (notably Spanish-speaking people) as animals. I thought I was making a nice, concise allusion to a character’s untrustworthiness. Instead it seems I am allying myself with people I detest.

  • Having a command structure where all the leaders are white

This wasn’t even a decision. It just happened. And that’s much worse than making a conscious choice because I can’t justify it: excuse me, sir, but your subconscious biases are showing.

Now I could go on at length to try and explain myself, but basically what I’m left with is this: I didn’t know what I was doing. It took a professional copy-editor to point out these errors. And whilst I feel crushed by the realisation that I’m not the careful, concerned liberal I try to be (have you read any of my recent posts? I’m now virtue-signalling at an expert level), I now have the chance to make things right. I am a very lucky boy.

What’s really struck me, though, is how easy it is to go astray. I wrote this novel, through all the drafts, thinking with smug satisfaction that I was doing the right thing. That I had diversity, that I wasn’t being a horrible thoughtless person. But what to me is a simple nickname, or character note, or description, is to someone else a red flag.

I don’t know who the copy-editor who spotted my sins is. I do know they’re American, and in this case that’s proved critical (such a small thing, isn’t it?). This is why getting diverse feedback matters. This novel has been read by around a dozen betas (for the record: all white, save one British Indian), has been assessed by an agent, and none of them saw anything wrong with the manuscript.

I’m not necessarily saying that a specialist diversity reader is essential for all books. I am saying that having a diverse assemblage of readers pre-release can help you kill this sort of mistake before the pitchfork-shaking mob arrives to serve a judgement of fire.

I am humbled. I have seen through a mirror, darkly, and am not the man I thought I was.

So all praise to the editors. They’re not just there to point out your dodgy spellnig.