I’m a member of three writers’ bodies in the UK – the Society of Authors, the Romantic Novelists’ Association and the Chartered Institute of Editors and Proofreaders. I’ve been to numerous writers’ conferences and pitched to more literary agents than I can remember. From my experience, the world of publishing in the UK is predominantly white and middle-class.
But for us, introducing stereotypes into our writing isn’t an issue, because the industry is also filled with nice, intelligent, liberal people, right? We’re all far too self-aware to be guilty of writing racism, misogyny, homophobia or class snobbery into our fiction, or contributing to mental health stigma, because ‘that sort of thing’ is only written by people ‘other than us’…
…or this is what I used to think for, I’m embarrassed to say, far too long a time.
I’m putting my editor’s hat on and turning to the dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a stereotype as: ‘A preconceived and oversimplified idea of the characteristics which typify a person, situation, etc.’
Why do we create stereotypes?
Stereotyping is a shortcut to a way of thinking about someone, and our brains love a shortcut. Intelligent school-kids are glasses-wearing nerds; fat women are jolly (especially if they’re black); young blonde women are dumb; all women become sweet as soon as they’re past eighty.
We take stereotypes on board without thinking about it. But when negative stereotypes are repeated and repeated and repeated and repeated, they have an insidious effect, and not just on the victims of stereotyping. The people who carry on repeating the stereotypes are blinkered, and they’re blinkered because they’ve grown up with these stereotypes, and the next generation will be blinkered in turn.
How racists are us…
Last year the Romance Writers of America organisation was accused of ‘systemic bigotry’ after a furore about endemic racism among its writers. These are writers like you and me, who would never in this world consider themselves racist. We think ourselves free from prejudice. However, as writers, our stereotypes are clear to see in our stories – to everyone except ourselves and the predominantly white, middle-class gatekeepers in the publishing industry who share our outlook.
How people are made to feel ‘other’…
My first experience of feeling ‘other’ was arriving from Africa to the UK, aged 6. I couldn’t understand the Yorkshire accents around me at school. Some of my classmates asked me if I’d lived in a mud hut – some genuinely curious, some spiteful. This was my first introduction to a group of peers, except I didn’t feel I belonged and for a long time, I felt ‘other’.
Then there was the fact my family are of Irish Catholic descent. Until I was 16, I didn’t feel ‘other’ about this, because I went to Catholic schools. It wasn’t until I went to a state school that I felt ‘wow, people are really thinking I’m different here. What is this all about?’
And then as a person of Irish descent who speaks with a (now northern) English accent I’ve faced racism in Ireland and been told to ‘eff off back to England’ in Scotland.
Meanwhile, back in England, during the troubles I was suspected by a neighbour of harbouring IRA terrorists – because, like Muslims now, in those days Catholics had to be terrorists, didn’t they?
Why we shouldn’t be complacent
My experience of feeling in a minority is very small fry compared to the experiences of very many, but I like to hope (I hope) it’s made me think more deeply about how I portray people in my novels. I literally get angry when I come across stereotypes in books I’m reading (my husband said he didn’t know people could get so worked up by fiction until he met me :) ) and I’d be mortified if I felt my own unconscious prejudices (and yes, like everyone, I do have them) came across via my characters.
Although I come across prejudice and stereotypes in books, because I basically lead a pretty sheltered life working from home, I still thought the days of prejudice are surely drawing to an end, especially in the world of writers. Like I said, we’re all nice, liberal, educated people, right? In the 21st century, surely we’re moving beyond all this.
I thought that until I began freelance editing. Reading other people’s novels has been an eye-opener. Let me say that it’s been a privilege and pleasure to read the vast majority, but there are still – still – many unconscious prejudices and stereotypes coming up in the work I’ve been sent to edit.
Here are some of the stereotypes / prejudices I’ve come across:
- Greeks are ‘hot-blooded’
- Italians are ‘highly strung’ and love their families and / or are mafiosi
- Too many male gay characters described as having ‘effeminate’ gestures, and descriptions of young gay males who appear to be wearing accessories borrowed from a middle-aged woman’s wardrobe. Note to straight writers: gay men shop in the same shops as straight men. There are even – and prepare to be astonished! – gay men who are slobs. And do you even need to mention a character’s sexuality in the first place? If so, why?
- Characters described as ‘ethnic-looking’ (?)
- Characters with a diagnosed mental health problem who must therefore be dangerous
- Meals served up in a different culture to the writer’s and portrayed as somehow ‘weird’
- A gay man who is ‘really half a woman’ (?)
- Too many addicts as working-class bums. (People have many reasons for becoming addicted to drugs/alcohol, and addiction crosses all classes)
- Too many men who beat their wives as working-class bums. (There are abusive bums across all classes)
- Characters described as having ‘almond eyes’. (You can probably fill in the rest)
- Characters with a mental health problem who apparently should be able to pull themselves together
- Many, many characters whose ethnicity is declared in the writing when it’s not at all relevant. Do we really need to know where a character’s grandparents came from or the colour of their skin? If you feel it’s relevant, then fine. If not, why is it important to mention it?
No writer I know would like to think their unconscious bias shows through in their writing. I’d be mortified myself if anyone pointed it out to me. But I’d far sooner an editor or a reader told me, so that I could face up to it and deal with it, and I’d like to hope I’d handle it with as much grace as Lisa Kleypas in this article a couple of years ago .
How writers can make a difference
Writers don’t have to write to preach a lesson (although some do). But fiction isn’t just entertainment, even if that’s how we see it ourselves. Our characters become real people in the minds of our readers. Writers of fiction – especially of commercial fiction, which reaches a wide audience – have an opportunity to help break the cycle of stereotyping by portraying a wide variety of characters as people really are, and not how we are programmed to expect them to be.
Our words can have an influence, for good or bad. And for anyone who thinks readers can easily rise above stereotypes, this article on the terrifying power of stereotypes says exactly why we should try to root them out.
I’d been thinking about writing this post for a long time, but the recent protests in the US and London have prompted me to post today. Our words matter, and we make a difference.
Are there any stereotypes you’ve noticed in books you’ve read recently? What are the stereotypes you find repeated most often? Do you think writers have a responsibility, or is fiction ‘just entertainment’? And have you ever felt yourself to be the victim of stereotyping?
If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear from you.