The Tricky Thing About Reading ‘Neutral’

The following was prompted by a recent Telegraph article responding to K. Tempest Bradford’s reading challenge on XOJane. (I’m not linking the Telegraph article because I think it’s a steaming pile of crap – it’s poorly-researched, uses terrible argumentation, and includes personal attacks)

A response I see come up frequently when people talk about reading challenges or pushing for greater diversity in reading is some variation of the following:

‘I don’t pay attention to gender or race or sexuality of authors when I read. I just read what I like and what looks good.’

On the surface, that’s a laudable approach – it’s meritocratic, it avoids bias based on the background of the author.


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Push Comics Forward


…and while we’re at it, books, too.

Yesterday, the team at BOOM! Studios, one of the coolest independent comics publishers, announced a new initiative called ‘Comics Forward’

Push Comics Forward

Push Comics Forward has its own site, and a hashtag for discussion on Twitter (#ComicsForward)

And fortunately, BOOM! are not the only comic publisher pushing diversity and expanding their audience. DC has added Gotham Academy and Batgirl, Marvel has Captain MarvelMs. Marvel and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and more. Image has a swathe of comics like this – fewer for all-ages, but many that expand the range of what’s available in comics storytelling.

Some quick historical context: when comes were at their most popular, they encompassed a wide range of genres (especially including romance, a notable missing genre among most larger comics publishers right now, crime, as well as supernatural/fantasy/supers), and the readership was both women and men. It’s only later on that the major publishers narrowed their aesthetic and marketing focus in a way that excluded women and younger audiences. So this intentional expansion of what kinds of stories are being told and what audiences are being invited in is not a question of ‘cheapening’ comics or ‘giving in to feminism’ (which is like saying ‘giving in to equality and compassion’), but more like a return to the breadth of content and readership comics had at its height.

I am excited to see what Push Comics Forward will accomplish, for BOOM! and for comics more broadly.

In both comics and in SFF literature, there’s been ongoing conversations about diversity and representation, to the point that I hope it will prove to be a sea change and not a seasonal or temporary topic. With initiatives like Push Comics Forward, the Destroy Science Fiction anthologies (Women Destroy Science Fiction, Queers Destroy Science Fiction), We Need Diverse Books, and more, I hope that a high standard of diversity and representation will become just another part of what is expected from the comics and SFF literary world. I’ve been doing my best to be part of the equation by writing as diversely as I can, and there are many other writers leading the way in the prose world – Seanan McGuire, Ann Leckie, Kameron Hurley, Max Gladstone, N.K. Jemisin, Saladin Ahmed, and many many more.

Whether these efforts succeed or fail will be decided by creators and consumers both. So let’s Push Comics (and Books) Forward.

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter.

This simple statement shouldn’t be controversial, but the events of the past weeks have made it painfully clear to me that a disturbing number of people, people in law enforcement positions, the legal profession, and around the country simply do not believe in that statement.

In just one of many irregularities in the Grand Jury hearing to decide whether to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, the prosecutor *failed to ask for an indictment.* IANAL, but my lawyer friends tell me this is kind of a big deal. Also, Darren Wilson was allowed to testify, and for hours, without being cross-examined, which is also highly irregular for a grand jury hearing. 

One of the best decisions I’ve made in the last few months was to take a suggestion (I believe from Daniel Jose Older) to follow reporter Shaun King, who writes for the Daily Kos.

King has written the following reports (among many others) about three of the most recent police killings of black people in the USA.

On the killing of Eric Garner.

On the killing of Tamir Rice.

On the killing of Michael Brown.

If you think these killings are isolated incidents, Reddit user biopterin has created an extensive list of other killing incidents by officers. If you doubt that there is a pattern of police violence against unarmed people, I’d invite you to investigate this.

Or maybe watch this Daily Show segment:


The Civil Rights movement is not over. It was never over. But it is back with a strained, but powerful voice, with protests in 137 cities last week, and more coming.

Many of you are as incensed as I am, or more, probably more. I can only be outraged and ashamed on behalf of my country and the people who are supposed to protect its citizenry. I don’t know what it’s like to be black in America. I haven’t lived it, and even reading about the lived experiences of black people in the country, I don’t really know what it was like. But I see the pain on people’s faces, read what people write about what it is like, and I want to do something.

I need to do something.

Black Lives Matter.


Here are some sites of groups that are organizing protests and direct actions:


If the USA wants to prove that it believes that black lives matter, we need to stand up and do something. I’ve been RTing like it’s my job throughout this, and trying spend more time listening and using my platform megaphone to magnify the voices of black people rather than drowning them out with my own voice.


So what am I doing about it?

My main answer to these issues of systemic injustice is to work it into my writing. One more white body and white voice at a protest may not tip the scale as much as one more white writer writing diversely and supporting diverse works and creators.

The way I see it, there are two main approaches in terms of writing to support diversity.

1) Write the world as it is, to show people who do not know or who refuse to see. Show how life actually is for people in marginalized and threatened positions. This is harder to do from the outside. I can’t know what it’s like to be a black man living in America, but neither can I know what it’s like to be a wizard, and I’ve written plenty of wizards. These are not the same, but it’s important, I think, to remember that fiction writers, especially writes in the literature of the fantastic, that we are constantly writing outside our own experience. But getting it wrong when it comes to writing diversely can have pronounced, real-world effects, can hurt people, can propagate dangerous stereotypes.

2) Write the world you’d like to see. Write worlds where black lives do matter, where the systems work, where systemic racism has been ended, or is being overthrown, or slices within a world where things already are better, worlds untouched by these problems, to give breathing room, space for safe escape and adventure. A world that says “Don’t worry about that for a moment, let’s have some fun and take a break.”

I spend more time on strategy #2 than #1, but I hope to do better at both, do better all the time, as I become a better writer and a more whole and compasionate human being. I try t write diversely because representation isn’t just about the pleasure of seeing yourself in narrative. It’s about narrative acknowledging that you exist, that you are a valid person, that you deserve existence. That there is space for you in this world. When generations worth of abuse and violence looms over your head, it is my hope that having more stories where black lives matter can help change the conversation. That stories can fight stereotypes, can provide more models for readers of a world that does better, of black people as people, instead of the Big Black Buck or Thug stereotypes propagated by a white supremacist system.

We can also support diverse writers, promote diverse voices in publishing – not just writers but editors, designers, artists.

This is a good time to remind folks about We Need Diverse Books, which is working on supporting NYC publishing internships for people from diverse backgrounds.

All of this is connected. The killing of Michael Brown is connected to Daniel Handler’s racist comments overshadowing Jackie Woodson’s National Book Award Win. These are all manifestations of a racist, anti-black culture.

So this is me, lifting my voice in an attempt to follow suit with existing actions, to write in a way that moves the conversation and our cultures towards sympathy, empathy, and justice. And along the way, I’m trying to spread the news as written largely by people who this systemic injustice threatens most directly, using my privilege to help propagate their message, so that they may be heard by more people, that their voices build momentum, as do their actions.

Black Lives Matter.


UPDATE: In the 8ish hours since I posted this, I’ve learned of another shooting death of an unarmed black person by a police officer: The note about the officer’s immediate verbal response makes me thing that it was a mistake based on an in-the-moment judgement call by the officer, but Rumain Brisbon, the victim, is still dead, mistake or not.

Why Writing Diversely Matters To Me

The Younger Gods is my fourth published novel, but my first with a white male protagonist. This is not a co-incidence – it was a very deliberate choice.

Stories make our world. As a writer, I help tell the stories that people internalize to set their expectations of what the world is, and who is welcome and valid in it. For me, being a writer means including people from diverse backgrounds and lived experiences. To do any less is to erase them from history and deny their existence.

Instead, I aggressively seek out ways to write characters from diverse backgrounds and lived experiences, both to show the breadth of viable lives and perspectives that humanity holds, and to use my disproportionately-favored voice as one with privilege Yatzee (male, straight, white, cisgender, middle class, neurotypical, able, etc.) to bring greater attention to and respect for the diversity of lived experiences in the world.

Writing diversely has been a mission that I embrace whole-heatedly, challenging myself to learn more about the world and about the people in it. I feel that writing diversely greatly enriches my work, helps me avoid cliche and lazy storytelling. In writing diversely, I seek to create stories that people from many different lived experiences can see themselves in, stories that say, “We can all be heroes.”

So, that’s all great in theory, Mike. But do you walk the walk?

In addition to actively casting The Younger Gods in a manner that fits the city’s demographics (numerous African-american characters, Filipino characters, Hispanic characters, South Asian Characters, etc.), I made several conscious casting changes in The Younger Gods – one in the middle of the rough draft, and another change very close to publication. the first change is that the character of Dorothea was originally a man. I wanted my cast to have a better gender balance, and found that writing the Broadway Knight character as a woman was even more interesting for me.

The other changes were the opposite direction, changing a female character to male. In an earlier draft, Jacob’s friend Thomas was his girlfriend, Jennifer – things still went sour after prom, but it was a loss of a romantic partner instead of a platonic friend. The death of Jessica had been part of the character’s story pretty much since the beginning, from when I first had the idea over ten years ago.

But in the process of revisions, I realized that there was no way to keep Jessica in the role without her being an example of Women in Refrigerators (trigger warning: sexualized violence against women). I’d internalized that narrative trend thanks to decades of reading comics and playing video games, etc., and only when I was nose-deep in revisions did I realize that I was replicating it without useful critique or subversion. No matter how I framed the death or demonized it, it was still another Fridging. And I wouldn’t have been proud of the work if I hadn’t made that change. In the conversation I had with my fiance, I had to actively push back the panic and shame I was experiencing about putting a book out with a major fail like that. But thankfully, I was able to make the change, with the support of my editor, Adam Wilson.

The Takeaway

Making that change not only meant that I didn’t have a fridged girlfriend as a motivating factor for my leading character, but what I ended up with was a stronger story overall. Having Thomas in that role – as Jake’s one friend betrayed by his family, sending our hero away from the family – meant that all of the other themes of friendship and alienation throughout the book were enriched by that loss and guilt about Thomas that Jacob felt.

In my experience as a consumer and student of stories, the loss male best friend is a far less common motivating factor for a male character than the loss of a romantic partner. Male friendships are downplayed, contextualized as being ‘bromances,’ often to avoid homosocial/homosexual connotations (because the patriarchy says that gay = effeminate, and since feminine = bad, gay = bad! Thanks, patriarchy! Your logic is as straightforward as it is spurious and toxic). So having Thomas be a major motivator for Jake gave me a new perspective on the story. And I think the novel is stronger for it, since so much of the rest of the novel is about Jacob learning about how to reach out to other people, to build friendships and rely on those friends and allies.

It is not sufficient for me to write only people who look like me, who come from my exact background. Writing diversely gives me challenges, forces me to stretch my writing skills, and creates the opportunity for me to explore the world through the perspective of people who come from and have lived very different lives than I have. I can’t tell other writers that they *have* to write diversely. Even if I did, it’s better for writers to come to that decision for themselves. I think it’s far better to write diversely and to mess up than to be afraid and let that fear of rebuke control you, so that you settle for the easy writing choices and produce another white-washed, overwhelmingly male, white, cisgenger, straight world that Hollywood so often shows us as their ‘default).

Writing Diversity While Playing in Life’s Easy Mode

The weird thing is that my Privilege Yahtzee actually puts me at an advantage even when intentionally writing diversely. I’m more likely to be able to sell a work that has a lot of diversity, than a woman or a person of color is. And once sold, I’m more likely to be lauded for it, as a “brave” or “insightful” or something. All of this, just for meeting a minimum bar of decency that I set for myself. It’s a weird reality, but it seems to be the way of things. And if I can use my privilege to get more stories into the world that acknowledge and celebrate the lived experiences of people from diverse backgrounds, then I will totally do so. And along the way, I’ll also use my privilege to promote the voices and works of people from diverse backgrounds and lived experiences. I can do both, and both make the world better.

Writing diversely, and doing it well, is not easy. I will mess up. I have already messed up, and been called on it, and have taken those comments to heart. But I wouldn’t have learned those lessons, wouldn’t have become better-able to write diversely, if I hadn’t tried.

This is not about fishing for cookies, it is not about white/male/anything guilt.

Here’s what it is:

  • A promise to myself that I won’t settle for my ingrained, lazy defaults as a person who grew up in a culture that’s patriarchal, kyriarchal, racist, and more.
  • A realization that challenging my own assumptions will let me dig deeper and find fresh, more interesting ways of storytelling.
  • A public pledge to tell stories about and for as much of the world as I can, to make sure that I do not erase and ignore people who have been marginalized, oppressed, and erased in/from narratives of all sorts (fictional, historical, etc.).
  • An effort to show other writers who are intimidated by the idea or practice of writing diversely for fear of its difficulty or fear of getting it wrong.

To those writers, let me say this: it’s better, in my eyes, to be a screw-up with good intentions, working (imperfectly) on the side of social justice and inclusion than to take the easy route and let your work perpetuate the crappy, marginalizing and erasure-tastic status quo. Your mileage may vary, but this is where I stand.

When it comes to writing diversely, I am proud of The Younger Gods. I put a lot of time into making sure that it showed a more accurate cross-section of the people who live in actual New York even as I was moving apocalyptic sorcerers, Nephilim, and other super-humans around to chase each other and have fight scenes. I feel that it is a stronger book for being diverse, and I hope you will enjoy it.


The Younger Gods cover