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.

berry 2 pressure to reveal personal life berry 1

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. This was so well written. I think one of the main things that people need to remember – whether writing or reading – is that EVERYONE is DIFFERENT. Like you stated so well 🙂 I, personally, am a Ginger-haired, white American mom. Am I like every other white American woman? No. Everyone is different and it seems that this gets forgotten more often than it should. I think there’s also an added pressure for people to read diverse books JUST BECAUSE they’re diverse, not because they’re great books. I have a hard time standing behind that because I read a book based on its character development, plot, and all-over appeal to me. Everyone likes different things. Some people like fantasy. Some go for romance. I have gotten quite a bit of pressure from other bloggers to read diverse books and “oh, why aren’t you reading diverse books instead of books about white girl characters?” We tend to forget that all literature should be created equally and enjoyed the same! Yay to those who love diverse books and “own voices” books! Yay to those who like reading books that showcase characters like they are, even if they’re white Americans. Long story short, I love your post and that you’re raising awareness for some of the pressures put on people who write and review this type of literature! (and disclaimer – I enjoy diverse books, too!)

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  2. I’m not really part of any minority groups, so I sometimes hesitate to throw out my opinion on topics like this, but the pressure to identify is something I have been uncomfortable with for a long time. I understand that people are more confident the representation will be more authentic from someone who has experience what they are writing about, but not everyone wants to announce their sexuality, religion, health problems, struggles with mental illness, etc. to the world at large, and I agree there is a pressure to do so in order to have the book be more well-received or even just more visibly marketed. And, yeah, I think people researching the biography of the author to determine whether they are OV can also be an invasion of privacy. Someone’s desire to publish a book is not necessarily an agreement to have people try to find out about their personal lives.

    I also agree that, even when a book is OV, readers need to recognize that the book will still only reflect what the author has experienced–which is not necessarily what *everyone* in that group has experienced, nor does it need to be. I guess one of the only examples I can personally speak to is being a woman. But people have different experiences with what it means to be a woman, and I recognize I will not always agree with them, and just because they are writing about *their* experience does not really mean they are trying to speak for me.

    As for reviewing, I don’t really talk about rep in my reviews, firstly because I largely don’t belong to the groups under discussion and secondly because I ascribe to the view it is the author’s experience. Who am I to say the author is experiencing being in [insert group] correctly or incorrectly? If other people have opinions on this, they are definitely welcome to share them, but it’s generally not something I feel comfortable covering myself. I agree with you that there are lines where there might be something that is overt racism or a stereotype, but if the experience is more subjective, I largely defer to the author’s experience.

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  3. Haha, I don’t know if you know Exo, but I lowkey cracked up when you used that ‘screaming internally’ gif of one of the members xD Gotta love his resting face, even though I don’t stan that group anymore

    Anyway, yeah. I agree with this. I understand why people want people who represent certain groups to speak out about certain issues within their community. However, this is the internet and we should try to remind ourselves that we don’t know everything about certain people. After all, we don’t know everything about people in our real lives so why should we assume we know everything?

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  4. These types of posts by you are always so well written. And always give me a lot to think about. I personally am not an OV review however I think all of the points you have made are extremely valid it is never ok to pry into another persons personal life and remember everyone is different and therefore their experiences are going to be different.

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  5. Thank you for bringing this problem up! This topic honestly isn’t discussed enough in the community. I’m not necessarily part of any minority groups, but I have definitely wondered about this topic before. What really spoke to me in your post is how ultimately, we all need to be aware that everyone is different and although some of us may be a part of the same minority, we all have distinct opinions, views, and interpretations that are uniquely our own. Lovely discussion! ❤️

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  6. This is such a great post. I love and want more OV writers, but there’s also a right for them to keep their privacy. And your description of representing all people in the demographic basically describes Let’s Talk About Love. (Not sure if it’s OV though.) I didn’t feel represented one bit by it, but others did.

    – Caidyn

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  7. hey may, thank you for writing this post! i agree with all of those, especially the privacy part. i am a private person in real life, having to share my experience to validate my feelings is not something i enjoy feelings. i think the pressure is especially present in the lgbtq+ community, not only to the bookish community, but i’ve seen the pressure to come out to validate someone’s experience on other community too! especially in hollywood, the most recent one is lee pace being forced to came out. it’s something that always bugged me, why do people feel the need to intrude someone’s privacy for the sake of validity.

    and also about getting everything right. each! experience! is! different! i heard a lot of people say that crazy rich asians stereotypes asian family with how meddling they are. it saddens me because guess what? my family is exactly like that. it makes me feel invalidated. i really hope people realize that just because it doesn’t represent them, doesn’t mean it does not represent others! about the pressure of writing ownvoices books, i never noticed nor seen it, but i really hope publishers give marginalized authors equal chance to write and not only because ownvoices stories are currently “the trend” that they give us the chance.

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  8. I completely agree with so many of the points here. I would say that I’m an ownvoices reviewer, but then again, I can’t really find anything problematic with Filipino representation when there are no Filipino characters in books, buuuuuut that’s a story for another day. (I’m still salty, sorry.)
    The pressure on authors is unreal – I’ve seen my bi friend attempt to write a book that included a gay couple as the main focus, and people tried to challenge her sexuality, telling her that she was just gay and to stop “pretending” she was attracted to boys, which is just!! so!! disgusting!! to me. People are not the art they create, and ownvoices authors shouldn’t have to always always always write books specifically about their marginalisations. Like you said, gross.
    And the pressure on people to come out/have no privacy is so awful. I can’t imagine going through that. We should really work towards supporting OV authors and respecting their privacy, but sometimes it’s a little hard when everyone’s so quick to assume and judge.
    Sorry for my salt. I just get angry.<3

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  9. Haha omg there are only a few comments here so far but they’re so long – I pray for you May, you might want to get a bowl of mangoes cause you’ll be here for a while answering comments xD I’ll try and keep this short and to-the-point. I LOVE YOU FOR THIS (i mean, i loved you before but especially now). I’ve seen people on twitter, especially, asking authors things about their sexuality and religion, mental health, etc. etc. because they want to know if their book classifies as own voices so they can decide how to label the book on the scale of not very problematic to HAZARD THIS IS VERY PROBLEMATIC BECAUSE THIS DOES NOT ACCURATELY REPRESENT ____ AND/OR ____ bECAUSE PERSON 1 SAID SO.
    Like. Um. No? For all of the reasons you stated in your review. This is why when everyone flocks to one blogger they know is chinese/muslim/black/etc. i kinda cringe a bit because they can’t say if the rep is necessarily ‘good’ or not because the characters in the book could be very different than them.
    Anyway, yeah, great post!! (and i noticed your usage of a kpop gif, that made my day 😀 )

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  10. I have never ever been so excited about one of your posts before, oh my gosh. i honestly agree with everything in this post; thank you so much for writing this. you have literally spoke my mind. i’m probably going to leave a super long comment on here later but for now, just know that i really appreciate this post and i’m so glad you tackled this topic SO well.

    ps. the harry potter gif is amazing lmao

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  11. Oh, this is SO GOOD! Also, the comments are great? I mean reading through them is amazing, because everyone has such great thoughts.
    OV books are incredible and I appreciate each and every one of them. I think most books don’t really represent the majority of people. Either they’re so upper class, all white/European focus, that average people just can’t relate. And when I think about minorities, and people who have been oppressed for generations, it makes me frustrated that books are all so focused on white narratives. But I also get frustrated with agents? Because they list “Interested in fantasy outside of Europe/America” and I want to bang my head against a wall. Most fantasy on the market today is so upper class British. You can’t throw out all European fantasy, because Europe is NOT ALL THE SAME. And there are minority groups in Europe who’s stories haven’t been told? And alot of YA fantasy is all about pseudo-English lords and queen ladies.
    Except a few authors who’ve done a remarkable job with fantasy from other European cultures, like Leigh Bardugo and Russian/Northern European fantasy.
    And the pressure to be completely open about everything? Sometimes it’s just not safe and people demand to know everything about your gender/sexuality/beliefs, and I just want to go hide in a hole. It makes me nervous even reviewing books with bi rep because of people demanding to know whether this is an OV review. The pressure is insane and so risky.

    Thanks so much, May, for talking about this! You deserve a whole shipping basket full of mangoes. And vanilla ice-cream. (Mangoes & ice-cream works, right?)

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  12. This is such a fantastic post, May, thank you so much for talking about this. I love that you mentioned the privacy side, both from the authors and reviewers side. I know that, on a personal side, I don’t feel like mentioning the representation in some books and share my review of some book and say that the representation feels right, from my point of view, just because I don’t necessarily want to talk about my personal life. So I just don’t. It’s just a matter of feeling comfortable about it though. And yes, everyone has its own experience of everything, whether they’re authors or reviewers, no experience is universal after all and it makes me sad how so many people still expect to find universal experiences in book sometimes.
    ANYWAY, wonderful post! ❤ ❤

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  13. Great post May, and I love pretty much everything you said on this topic and the fact that you spoke about this as well. I feel like I’ve seen a fair bit around the community on the pressure of Own Voices authors and diverse books written by people who aren’t Own Voices authors. I feel like the pressure to reveal your identity is a big one, both for authors and reviewers. Obviously and especially when it comes to sexuality some people may be reviewing or writing these kind of books but not in the open, then do they have to reveal that part of their life, even if they’re not ready to.
    I think what you said on at the end, about having to specify even if the Thai representation didn’t speak to you it may speak to others is something interesting because obviously where we all enjoy different things about books that will apply to what we feel represents us too.
    Again great post. 🙂 ❤

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  14. I agree with this so much!! I think that if authors *want* their audience to acknowledge their book as an OV book, its’s great and as reviews we can help promote, but now people have a craze to disclose whether or not it is/isn’t an own voices and it’s nosy and not NEEDED. If the author does not disclose it as OV before release, they probably don’t want to!!

    And yes! one display of a marginalised group will not represent EVERYONE in that group!! Everyone will have different views, or experiences that shape the way that they will regard their own labely thing.

    This is an amazing post and I will end it here before I just start repeating what you’ve said and !!! all over the place!

    GREAT DISCUSSION I ADORE.

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  15. I think you’ve hit on so many important points here… something that I think is especially important is the reviewer in situations where they are reviewing ownvoices books. I’ve seen a few (not a lot) of reviewers getting bashed for genuinely not enjoying an ownvoices book from a writing perspective. I think it’s important to respect everyone involved, because isn’t that the point of ownvoices books? To understand and respect other people?
    Sorry, just some of my thoughts…
    (ALSO THAT SCREAMING INTERNALLY GIF IS CHANYEOL AHHH)

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  16. I loved reading this. I’ve thought about this a lot because though I am Filipino, I’m not Philippines born so I’ve been feeling pressure to get everything I know right. But I agree, someone’s ownvoice experience will always be different from someone else’s experience.

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  17. This is so good. The fact that everyone is different and has different experiences seems like a simple enough concept, but it seems we can’t emphasize it enough. How can people expect one book to accurately represent so many people?? And marginalized authors being pressured to write ownvoices??!! EVERYONE should be able to write whatever book in whatever genre they want.

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  18. 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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  19. “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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  20. 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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  21. 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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