Essays

What Happened to the Own Voices Label?

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On Twitter in 2015, Corinne Duyvis, a white, disabled, bisexual author from the Netherlands, coined the hashtag #OwnVoices. A SFF YA author, she was initially looking for kid lit book recommendations. Her hashtag would have a broad impact on offline and online conversations and the publishing industry in general. It went viral across genres, age groups, and marginalized identities. Duyvis later clarified that any marginalized author could call their fiction own voices, “as long as the protagonist and the author share a marginalized identity.”

The term own voices resonated with many people, encapsulating ongoing conversations regarding diversity and authenticity in publishing. Prioritizing authors who share marginalized identities with their protagonists might seem obvious now, but it was a game-changer. Ironically, even when acknowledging the need for diverse books, publishing still often sidelines diverse authors.

Because of centuries of systemic oppression, white, wealthy, allo cis het, non-disabled, Christian writers still have huge advantages over marginalized people at every step of the publishing process. I’m white and disabled, and I felt alienated growing up reading stereotypical or absent disabled characters. Non-disabled relatives, friends, and doctors of disabled people are often considered experts on disabled people, over our own lived experiences. The majority is often framed as “universal” and marginalized people as a “niche market.”

Diverse authors may also have writing and storytelling styles that differ from neurotypical and Eurocentric “norms.” Story structures and themes vary immensely across cultures. If publishers prioritize diverse stories, but not diverse authors, the biased status quo remains. Depictions from outside of a marginalized group are often inaccurate and stereotypical in ways the authors don’t realize.

The hashtag #OwnVoices was used in pitch contests, like DVPit, which launched many diverse authors’ careers. Most articles I’ve found on the own voices label focus on children’s lit, but Duyvis said adult fiction authors could also use it. I think young people need lit that reflects them, but we also need diverse authors and books of every age and genre.

Problems With the Term

I think own voices is a great tool for equity in publishing. However, things don’t always play out in real life as I’d hoped. Real-life consequences are always more important than theory.

In 2017, Book Riot’s Danika Ellis wrote that readers often expect LGBTQIA lit to be own voices. This can contribute to “the pressure to be an out author.” In 2020, Becky Albertalli, author of the YA novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, came out as bisexual in a Medium post, saying that she’d been “scrutinized, subtweeted, mocked, lectured, and invalidated.” The pressure to come out, and speculation on personal identities, is a dangerous personal boundary violation.

Blogger Fadwa made excellent points on the ways #OwnVoices has been misused. She described marginalized authors feeling boxed in by the label. It doesn’t mean that all readers from a particular background will relate to one specific own voices book. It refers to a commonality between the author and their protagonist, not necessarily their readers, she wrote.

In June 2021, a press release from the organization We Need Diverse Books explained why they no longer use the term own voices. WNDB had been an early supporter of the term, but as Alaina Lavoie explained, the term is vague and has been misused to gate-keep identities and invade authors’ privacy. Around the same time, we at Book Riot opted for more specificity (for example, saying “a book with a Muslim protagonist by a Muslim author”) rather than own voices.

Paradoxically, the own voices label can be both too vague and too specific. If a white writer created a protagonist of color who had the writer’s own disability, for example, it would seem misleading to call the story own voices. However, readers shouldn’t presume they know intimate details of an author’s personal life, like diagnoses, sexual orientation, relationships, ethnicity, or religion, just by reading their fiction. Nor are they entitled to know, judge, or speculate on these details.

Where Do We Go From Here?

As a disabled writer and a supporter of diversity in lit, I think own voices is a great idea and am concerned at how it has been weaponized. Of course, as other writers have said, own voices books are not inherently good or unproblematic; nor are books necessarily problematic for not being own voices.

Some of the problems raised with own voices are in fact broader issues with publishing and social media — for example, readers expecting stereotypes or trauma. I don’t want to ask people to disclose legally protected, private information. Own voices works better for authors to self-ID than as a marketing tool by publishers. It should be opt-in, never compulsory. I hope we can make publishing more equitable without pressuring people to disclose personal information.

In 2021, Heather Murphy Capps blogged that own voices has “outlived its usefulness.” I agree, but the statistics she cites conflate books by people of color with books about people of color. Studies on diversity in publishing rarely distinguish whether books are by marginalized people, about them, or both. This indicates that own voices, or a similar idea, is still needed.

For authors who openly share their marginalized identities, there are anthologies like Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens, and imprints, such as Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Heartdrum for Indigenous authors. More diversity and transparency at every level of publishing, including acquisitions and editorial, could help diverse writers get discovered. Sensitivity readers help flag books for offensive or inaccurate portrayals.

These are systemic problems, not the fault of individual writers, agents, or editors. There’s no panacea for the centuries of prejudice marginalized writers have faced. However, I think there must be a happy medium between the extremes of compulsory self-disclosure and considering white, Christian, cis het, or non-disabled people the “universal” default to tell every story.

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