Cynical Publishing Advice: If you’re a brown writer who’s writing brown characters, you can’t afford to ignore race

I was talking to a friend recently about the curious fact that any book which is by a brown writer and is about brown characters will naturally be read through a racial lens. That is to say: readers will pick it up and read it primarily for what it has to say about race.

On its face, this doesn’t seem like it needs to be true. One can easily imagine a brown writer who writes stories about brown characters that don’t really have weighty themes. Maybe they write mysteries or romances or science fiction novels that just happen to star brown people.

Yes, you can imagine such a writer, but readers cannot. People who just want to read a good story without weighty themes tend to read white writers. People who want to read a good story with weighty themes that are not race-related tend to read white writers. The only people reading brown writers are people who care about race. The exception, if one exists, might be the audience of general fiction readers who happen to be black, and who’ve created a category of best-selling black commercial authors (most notably Terri McMillan). But generally speaking, this will not be you.

It’s easy to decry this state of affairs as being racist. Unfortunately, the very editors and readers who are doing the decrying are the same ones perpetuating the problem. People who care enough about race to want there to be a market for PoC books that aren’t about race are also the people who tend to read books through a race-related lens.

The answer is that if you’re brown, you must put race-related themes into your book. There is simply no avoiding it. Yes, you can eschew this, but the editors and agents who are trying to sell the book are going to studiously do their best to read race-related themes into it, and if the readers who buy it will also try to read race-related themes into it. And if those themes aren’t overtly there in the text, they’ll stretch really hard to find them, but ultimately it’ll be unsatisfying: they won’t know why they dislike the book, all they’ll know is that they do.

So do them a favor: somewhere in the first three chapters, just put in an explicit race-related reading (“Once again, it fell to a brown person to clean up the mess…of an alien invasion”). Just do it and be done with it. The alternative is not being able to sell your book.

P.S. If you want more such advice, check out my Cynical Guide to the Publishing Industry

2 thoughts on “Cynical Publishing Advice: If you’re a brown writer who’s writing brown characters, you can’t afford to ignore race

  1. Wolfram-J VK

    ‘I wanted to show them what they were missing. To make them experience something a little more thrilling. A little more real. A little more me.’

    You’ve raised an important point. Some of us like reading QPoC authors because their stories enrich our concept of queerness. But obviously we’re not the status quo. It’s harder to fall in love with these stories because we might not find others to share our enthusiasm.

    Meanwhile, I don’t know, the books everyone wants to talk about just don’t seem to do it. If I hear one more person call Red White and Royal Blue ‘important’ I will screeeaaam.

    I think you’ve also made an important suggestion at the end there. Of making your intended themes overt. I mean, imagine if a protagonist didn’t just exist, but asserted the necessity of their existence right from the start? They didn’t just belong in the story; they were integral to it and the world by proxy. I’d love that.

    1. Naomi

      What’s that quote from! Did I say that? You’re right, a lot
      Of the important books are so bland. I hate when people call my book important. To me it’s like another way of saying a book is dull. But that’s how you sell books!

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