One of my biggest pet peeves as a reader is when writers hide the race of their characters

3008781_f248So,  I went and watched World War Z. And it was okay. I mean, it was suspenseful and made my heart race and everything. But it was nowhere near the awe-inspiring experience that the book was. So I went home and reread the book. And I have to say, the book was not as good the second time. The problem with almost all fictional world-spanning books tends to be the very simplistic geopolitics. Like, oh, your fictional Russia becomes dogmatic and authoritarian? And your fictional Brazil has illegal organ transplantation? It’s not an attractive trait in a book. Orson Scott Card is as guilty of this as anyone. Oh god, his Ender’s Shadow books are so cringeworthy. Like, is this really how he sees the world?

World War Z is saved by its sheer fertility. There’s always another story. There’s another voice. The personal outweighs the political. And there are some surprises. I liked the snippets of India in the book. And the Cuban and North Korean stories were interesting.

But alright, when I finished the book, I thought, “That was great, but why did I bother with this watered-down shit? Why didn’t I just go to the real version?”

Max Brooks obviously based World War Z on Studs Terkel’s oral histories. And I actually have one of those, his history of the Great Depression–Hard Times–that I’ve been meaning to read for ages, ever since my mind was blown by Studs Terkel’s monolithic book Working (where he interviewed people about our jobs).

Hard Times isn’t quite as good as working, mostly because there’s a certain monotony to people’s experiences of the Depression. Yes, they were poor. Yes, they felt a bit angry at the system. Or no, they actually did well in the Depression and didn’t notice it at all. It doesn’t have quite the same playfulness as Working. But it’s still excellent.

At times, Terkel comes close to one of my big pet peeves as a writer. I really hate it when writer introduce a non-white character without explicitly mentioning their race or color and then expect you to intuit their ethnicity. In practice, this is mostly a problem with black characters (since Asian, African, and Hispanic characters tend to be given away by their names).

Weirdly, every white person I mention this to doesn’t really feel this way. They’re like, “Oh well, maybe if their race is relevant to the story.” No. If the character is black, just say he or she is black. It’s really that simple.

The “intuit the character’s race” method leads to one of two problems: a) stereotyping; or b) whitewashing.

If you require the reader to intuit a character’s race, then you need to give that character traits that are associated with that race: a dialect; certain habits; media choices; neighborhoods, etc. And that’s fine, if that’s who you’re writing about. But what it means is that the only black characters in your work will tend to be ones who embody stereotypes.

This is because audiences tend to read characters as white, unless they’re unable to. So if you have Levi Jones, the Harvard-educated lawyer, it doesn’t matter if you think of him as a black character, readers are almost always going to read him as white. Usually, in fact, they’ll even ignore whatever “clues” you sprinkle through the text (which is why, for instance, most white readers read the characters in Earthsea as being white). If you want the audience to see a nonstereotypical character as being of a certain ethnicity, then you need to hammer it home, so it cannot be ignored.

Oh, so, back to Studs Terkel, he also frequently doesn’t mention ethnicity (in a way that’s incredibly awkward) in his little introductions for each characters. But, since they’re oral histories (he basically edits out his own interview questions so the stories read as monologues), it rapidly becomes clear what ethnicity they are, since they’ll say something like, “Oh, but, you know, the union wouldn’t accept Negros, so I lost my job, etc.”

This is, in some cases, obviously a result of Studs Terkel asking race-oriented questions, which makes it seem super disingenuous to pretend, in the intros, like he somehow doesn’t see the race of his respondents. But whatever, at least it’s not confusing, which is what I care about.