Nitpicking or Serious Problem? How To (Potentially) Ruin A Good Book

I’m reading a NA (New Adult) romance with a biracial heroine. I know this because every chance the author gets, a reference is made to her appearance. It’s either her olive/darker skin, with one reference even going so far as to say her skin gets as “black as her father’s” (that’s a whole other issue) after prolonged sun exposure. Of course {sarcasm}, it needs to be pointed out repeatedly that her look is “different” to the tall, willowy blondes of her acquaintance (our heroine is curvy by comparison, obviously), her blond, hottie boyfriend, and her Irish half-sister with the seemingly perfect life, who’s actually a redhead, but same applies. And then there are the hair references. I think I’ve counted at least 3 uses of the words kinky and I’m only 11% into the book. Afro’s been thrown in as well.

Oh, did I mention the author is white?

To a non-POC, many of these instances can and probably will be overlooked (I’ve checked some Goodreads reviews and have seen no mention). I’m not saying that the author shouldn’t give a physical description of the character; that’s necessary for reader engagement. What troubles me is the manner is which those descriptions are made and the frequency of them. Having just finished the previous book in this series, with a blonde heroine, the differences are even more noticeable. Once it was established, I don’t remember it being mentioned ever again or at least nowhere near as often. This bothers me, as a reader and a publishing professional.

From a reader’s perspective, after a point, it’s like, “Hey, I totally get it. I’m already picturing Gugu Mbatha-Raw, no need to keep hitting me over the head with the fact that you created a POC heroine. Yay, you.”

As a person working in publishing, I want to know why the agent and editor didn’t say this to the author. Someone should’ve said, “Okay, enough. This isn’t really necessary after this point in the narrative.” When we talk about needing more diversity in the industry, this is one of the reasons why.

I’ve been privy to a few author discussions on this topic, about where to draw the line and how to handle writing a character who’s different from you. If you’re wondering, writers, where to draw said line, I’m showing you the line. If you wouldn’t do it for your white characters, then don’t do it for the non-white characters. The opportunity to accidentally delve into stereotypes or offensive descriptions is too great. Rein it in. That applies to any writer of any cultural, ethnic, racial background writing about someone different from yourself. Write a human who just happens to be whatever they happen to be. Stop trying to write a black/white/Asian/gay/bi/whatever character. Write. A. Human.

And do your research.

I’m sure, or at least I’m hoping, that this fixation on the characters appearance is part of the issues from her past that she’ll confront later on. Other than this, I’m enjoying the book so far. Let’s hope I continue to do so. But from prior experience with this matter, everything with reference to the characters ethnicity is going to stick out like the proverbial sore thumb now.

 

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