I’m not sure my earlier piece was as clear as I’d like. Rather than taking it down, I’m adding a second post.
When thinking about what terrain writers can and cannot cover, I think the key is recognizing that there’s a difference between writers as creators and writers as publishing professionals.
When writers are in their creative space, I don’t think any topic is off-limits.
Most writers I know write their stories because they have questions they want to explore, or they’re trying to understand the world around them. We create worlds and beings/entities to populate them. We ask questions about what it’s like to walk through life as someone completely different from the person we see in the mirror. We tell ourselves the stories we want to read.
And during that process, I think writers can (and should) explore the world they’re creating through as diverse and imaginative a cast of characters as they can. That’s how writers learn and grow in my experience.
However, we need to recognize that those imaginative works might not be saleable. And we need to understand how literary agents think and the publishing world works.
When agents or publishers are acquiring a work, they have to consider which readers will buy it. Most of them are only too aware that the average reader typically only buys books by writers they already know. If most readers are like the library patrons I see when I’m at work, they only try new writers if the book is recommended by a friend or well-reviewed.
Which means most only read books by authors who look like the reader.
So, let’s say two women have written books featuring a female slave as the protagonist. Both writers are trying to get their debut sale. Both have been writing about the same amount of time, and both are writing at the same level. Both books are solid, and both have the potential to be a breakout novel.
One writer is a white woman. The other is a woman of color.
Ideally, both of their books would be published, and they’d both get equitable terms in their contracts.
But reality says the white writer will probably be published because publishers and agents assume they’ll have an easier time selling her book.
That kind of situation is why so many writers of color are frustrated by white writers featuring non-white protagonists.
As writers and readers, we need to buy and read diverse books. We need to demand that literary agencies and publishing companies diversify their staff. We need to champion writers of color and recommend their works to our readers and friends.
We shouldn’t hesitate during the creative phase of our work to explore whatever questions we have. But when it’s time to publish, we need to realize that some of our stories are, perhaps, best left on our hard drives.