Discussing the #OwnVoices Label and the Negative Pressure it Puts on Both Authors and Reviewers (A Long Overdue Rant)

If you’ve been here for some time, you know I’m big on discussions (aka rants).

This is no different! An issue arises, whether in the book community or outside of it, I observe it for some time, and then decide to talk about it.

This time, I’m going to be talking about the pressure of the #ownvoices label, on both authors and reviewers. I think people have discussed the pressure of the label on authors (though not enough, which is why I’m here), but not really on reviewers? And it’s a pressure I’ve felt myself so I think it’s important to talk about.

I’ve got a lot to say and I’m pretty sure y’all don’t have enough of an attention span to read more than 2000 words of me ranting so I’m just going to end this horribly written, awkward intro and get on with it.

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THE OWNVOICES LABEL

First of all, what does “ownvoices” even mean?

It originated as a hashtag by Corinne Duyvis (though I won’t be referring to it as a hashtag in this post and may even call it OV for short). There’s not a specific definition, but an ownvoices book is essentially by an author who shares the same marginalized identity/identities as the main character(s) or major secondary character(s).

Check out Corinne Duyvis’s page on the term to learn more about it!

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PRESSURE ON AUTHORS

Like I said before, I think that while this is something discussed, it’s not discussed ENOUGH. We place so much importance on the ownvoices label that we let it become more important than authors—their privacy, their feeling of security in their identity, and more.

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I think this is the biggest source of pressure, because we place so much importance on ownvoices: “Oh my god!!! This book is ownvoices for a black Jewish girl!! Read it the rep is amazing!” Whereas, a book with a non-ownvoices black Jewish girl may get some hype but not as much.

We can ALL agree that if you’re part of the minority group that your character is in, you’re likely to represent that character and minority more accurately than an author who ISN’T in that minority group. I myself trust the accuracy of OV rep more than non-OV rep, even if that non-OV author did their research.

But I see so many times in the book community where reviewers are SO intent on checking if the diverse rep of a book is ownvoices that it ventures into intrusive territory.

I keep track of the ownvoices books I read; I think they’re important and should be recognized for being ownvoices. But I don’t go out and ask authors “hey are you disabled?” or “are you bisexual?” because it’s not their responsibility to tell me private info.

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I’m using this gif only because Harry’s face is green and he looks funny

(And they probably wouldn’t answer me, whether or not my question was intrusive.)

One huge example is with coming out as part of the queer community. That is something VERY private and it may not be safe for that author to reveal that they are queer, so to force them to come out, JUST for you to know if you should trust that book’s rep more than another non-OV book, is disgusting.

Like yes!! It’s VERY important to boost ownvoices books and voices. But value their privacy and their right to not tell readers certain things MORE than your want to know if you can trust a book’s rep of a character more than a non-OV book’s rep.

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When people in the book community, including myself!, trust OV authors to write more accurate rep than non-OV authors, that obviously places a LOT of pressure on them… pressure to write accurate rep.

But “accurate rep” is going to be different for everyone. Marginalized people are not a monolith. We have different experiences and opinions and beliefs, and what’s going to accurately represent us is based on our experiences with being part of that minority group. Someone else may not relate to a book that you relate to, and vice versa.

However, despite a lot of members of the book community KNOWING that a book will not be able to represent all people of that minority, there is STILL a pressure on authors to write books that will represent everyone. Which is completely unfair.

I mean, I’m not a published author. But I AM a writer, and I haven’t written a main character that shares any of my marginalizations (yet), partly because I’m afraid it’ll hit too close to home to me, and also because I don’t want to accidentally write something wrong that other people in the same minority group will find inaccurate.

Which is ridiculous!! Because we are all different and have different experiences and will find different things accurate and different things inaccurate!!

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But despite knowing that there is no reason for that pressure, that pressure is still there. The best way to lessen that pressure is to gently (or aggressively) remind everyone that no one should be expected to represent a whole community of people!!!

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This one is such a HUGE ! IMPORTANT ! GROSS ! thing that I rarely see talked about!! And it’s really prevalent!!!

I see a lot of agents, on their “wish” page (I don’t know what they’re called oops), put things like “fantasy books not set in the US/Europe!” and “contemporary books with a  unique romance” and then… “ownvoices books”.

Like I’ve said: Ownvoices books are important! They are good! They are great! But agents/publishing houses CANNOT be signing with marginalized creators just for them to tell ownvoices stories.

Marginalized writers can write ownvoices books, but they should be able to write other books as well, and be able to sell them. Expecting marginalized authors to write only about their marginalization(s) is gross. If non-marginalized authors can write whatever they want, why can’t marginalized writers?

Basically: GIVE MARGINALIZED AUTHORS THE SAME OPPORTUNITIES AND FREEDOMS TO WRITE WHATEVER THEY WANT AS NON-MARGINALIZED AUTHORS ARE GIVEN.

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PRESSURE ON REVIEWERS

I barely hear about the pressure on ownvoices reviewers: But it’s real, and it exists. For one, I have experienced that pressure, and I’ve discussed it with other reviewers as well. And it needs !! to !! be !! discussed !!

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Again, the same type of pressure pops up for reviewers. And it’s VERY similar to the pressure on authors.

I think we as a book community can all agree that if reviewers are part of the same minority group as a character in a book is, then they can better say how accurate the rep of that character is. (Just like for authors and their characters!)

But I think we put so much expectation on ownvoices reviewers to tell us if rep is right or not that we, yet again, forget that they deserve the right to privacy.

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listen I know this has nothing to do with the conversation but why is this me

For example: A bi reviewer may want to talk about how problematic the bi rep was to them. They haven’t come out yet as bi, and they don’t want to. But all the popular reviewers have talked about how well-written the bi rep was.

Let’s say that this particular bi rep was overall written pretty well. (I say “overall” because there are always people whose experiences will lead them to believe that it’s not good rep, which is valid.) I KNOW that this has happened before in the community: Another person calls out this reviewer for talking about how the bi rep was problematic to them, a bi person, when they don’t want to say that they’re bi.

Policing is ugly. Saying that “you can’t have an opinion on this rep because you’re not part of that minority group!” is not good. I always put it as this: You can always have an opinion, but it won’t be as accurate as an ownvoices reviewer. But you simply CAN’T make someone reveal private information about themselves just because you want to know if you can trust their opinion more than someone else’s.

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I guess I keep having to repeat myself: But marginalized people are NOT a monolith!! We all have different experiences!!! We aren’t raised the same and we don’t have the same beliefs and we all have experienced being marginalized in various ways. That doesn’t mean we don’t share experiences with others!! But we will ALWAYS go through something different than what someone else goes through because, get this, we’re our own person, separate from the other people in our minority group.

I think that OV reviewers feel the pressure to, when commenting on whether the rep was accurate or not, say for ALL people of that minority how good the rep is.

Obviously, reading multiple reviews is how you get the better of opinion of the quality of the book and the rep, but some people don’t do that. They expect ONE person to be the shining, all-knowing, all-representing holy being of the minority group. Which is 1) dehumanizing, and 2) places a LOT of pressure on that person.

And I know I’ve talked about this before a lot, but there’s a difference between bad rep for a few people because of their different experiences, and inherently problematic rep for pretty much everyone in that minority group.

Girl on the Verge by Pintip DunnFor example: Maternal expectations on an Asian girl to be a “good girl” = something I can’t relate to. Not problematic rep, just rep I can’t relate to. But: Asians written as not being able to see anything because of small eyes = 100000% PROBLEMATIC. No one’s ever told me I can’t see anything because I have small eyes, but that is. undeniably problematic.

That “maternal expectations” example isn’t hypothetical though, that’s from the book Girl on the Verge, a thriller about a THAI !! TEEN !! GIRL !!!!! When I was writing that review, I kept saying “but this is obviously not true for everyone!” and “some people may relate to this!” and “I was personally not represented by this!” because I felt that pressure to represent ALL Thai readers to say whether the rep was good or not and felt the need to clarify that, no, I do not represent all Thai people.


shall we chat

what are your opinions on this? if you’re an OV reviewer, do you feel this kind of pressure? and if you’re writing a book with an OV character, do you feel this pressure as well? make sure to take care of your marginalized (OV or not) authors and reviewers!!!!

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37 thoughts on “Discussing the #OwnVoices Label and the Negative Pressure it Puts on Both Authors and Reviewers (A Long Overdue Rant)

  1. I definitely feel that pressure as a reviewer! I’ve skipped reviewing a lot of books or left some thoughts out because I often don’t like sharing more personal responses to books. I never really reviewed How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake, for instance, because it helped me figure out my sexuality, and I wasn’t prepared to share that experience. And if I do love a book for its rep, I’m always a little afraid I’ll be called out on it, if that makes sense. And as a writer, I do feel like I have some sort of responsibility to make my queer characters or characters with anxiety “accurate,” which really doesn’t make a lot of sense.
    But I also think I’ve played a part in the pressure on OV authors, because I tend to get more hyped up about OV books. Thanks for this review and for reminding people about this issue! :)

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  2. “But “accurate rep” is going to be different for everyone.”
    Truth. I watch the conversation about #OwnVoices sometimes, especially when it starts getting negative, and find this is *often* why. “It’s about a black Jewish girl, but I’m black and Jewish and I don’t relate enough!” I can see where a reader would be disappointed if they expected to see themselves and it didn’t fit, but I also think maybe one shouldn’t go into a book with the expectation to find a literary doppelganger? No matter who you are?

    I do hope that the pressure on #OwnVoices reviewers goes down. :( I love reading #OwnVoices reviews and have a more respect for their opinions on representation, but you shouldn’t have to rep everyone.

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  3. I hate that there is a pressure on authors to come out or talk about themselves. It’s really horrible and I feel like their stories can be so invalidated and hated if they don’t stamp that #ownvoices label on their book. I feel like at some point we put TOO much emphasis on ownvoices and while we need to boost the stories, can we please boost non-ownvoices novels because MAYBE it’s ownvoices who knows?! I think privacy is so important and no one should be forced to come out or anything like that. Of course, I will still boost ownvoices novels a lot more (and sometimes it is obvious like if the author is black and the story is about a black girl OFC im going to boost that or trust that rep more than if a white author wrote a black girl in a story) but other times we don’t know? Agh it’s confusing. I think ownvoices is so powerful up until it puts pressure on authors.

    And yes!! I see people GET so angry at in-accurate (they don’t relate) ownvoices rep and while I GET that (love hate and other filters) I also think it’s kinda bad to put that much pressure on an author. I think it’s fine to say you don’t relate to the rep or express your frustration but when you shun the author for writing an ownvoices novel or say things like they are wrong and “THERE IS NO GOOD REP IN THE WORLD”I think that’s kinda disgusting. tho i won’t act like im perfect. i did used to be set in this mindset that if I didn’t find the rep accurate, the author’s authenticity didn’t matter but i’m glad i have learnt from that.

    and i feel like when an ownvoices book comes out EVERYONE jumps on it expecting some sort of PERFECT rep and are disappointed when they don’t get that. I get readers wanting relatable rep BC THAT’S ME!! but also now i think about the authors and how i wouldn’t want that pressure!??!

    and OH YES the pressure to write OV books. ahahha. i haven’t done so yet because THE Fricking pRESSURE and the things I know that would come along with writing my identity!?! sometimes i so BADLY want to comment on rep in a review…but i don’t. mostly because it will reveal stuff about my life and i’m not ready for that but i still want to comment on the rep without someone going “thats not valid bc ur not x,y and z” :/

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  4. Yes to everything in this post! It does put a lot of pressure on authors to reveal details about themselves that they may not want to. I didn’t even really think how it can do the same to reviewers, but that’s a good point too. And yes, I haven’t written any books, but I’d like to one day, and part of me wants to write about a character w/ the same chronic illness I have, but then another part of me fears that people will get angry and say it’s bad rep just because their experience is different or because they have an idea that the rep should only ever be *like this*. And the way it makes marginalized authors feel pressured to only write OV books is another great point. I agree OV books are great, but I’ve never had an issue with non-OV books as long as the rep isn’t harmful.

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