Quite a while ago I decided the best thing I could do to make a difference as a writer, not only to people’s perceptions, but to the way literature is perceived is to lead by example. I feel that my early work pandered somewhat to canonical expectations. I tried to subtly include diversity, as side characters or sometimes even leaving it entirely open to interpretation.
More recently I decided that to celebrate diversity I would have main characters that are diverse, but that the story is not about their diversity, it’s just a part of what makes them, well, them. My first attempt at this was with The Crew Chronicles series, which touches on gender perception and domestic violence, amongst other things, whilst still managing to be “a good deal of fun” (Altered Instinct).
The most obvious way I have diversified my characters, however, is in my most recent work, I Wore Heels to the Apocalypse.
Described by Sabotage Reviews as “an elegant blend of humour and horror”, Heels is a satire, not only of apocalyptic fiction, but of our current political climate. I diversified it by making almost all of the characters bisexual. Anyone who has watched an apocalypse movie knows that one of the major tropes is that the characters find time to pair off, no matter what level of danger they’re in, there’s always time for sex!
I did not label the book as LGBT, anyone who knows me, knows that I hate having to label my work anyway, and choosing this label defeated the object, I felt, which was to diversify mainstream fiction, not put it in a subgenre. I felt incredibly nervous letting this out for people to read. It was the first time I had written anything like this and I was terrified that it would be badly received. It was a huge relief, that not only did my fantastic team of beta readers love it, but I was also offered a publishing contract with micro publisher Wight Orchid Publishing.
It has received a couple of negative reviews from people claiming it was utter nonsense (or words to that effect), which is fair, it is. It’s a nod the the absurdist theatre movement of Beckett and friends, why else would there be a random talking badger, to add a touch of realism? However, the vast majority of feedback has been incredibly positive, and made me feel confident enough to write a sequel. I also submitted it to a number of review blogs, and have been delighted with the response.
However, the response of one review site gave me pause. Not because it was a bad review, because it wasn’t, it was a very good review. At least the first part was:
“I Wore Heels to the Apocalypse by C H Clepitt is an entertaining short story. I picked this book as I was attracted by its cover and genre. I am glad that I selected it because there were many dialogues/scenes that made me laugh. Kerry’s character is extremely relatable. Her need to prove her worth at a time of disaster is quite impressive. The side characters, Sam, Peter, Tyrone, and Petal, are also well written. Each of them has something special about them. The plot moved without any hiccups. It was quite easy to follow and entertaining — for the most part. Kerry’s trouble with the heels lasted for very less time than I would have liked. However, the author managed to make the most of those few moments, which is a relief, considering the title of the book has “heels” in it.
Despite this praise the reviewer only gave the book three stars, meaning that they did not have to post the review on Amazon, or Goodreads, or anywhere else, as it is the site’s policy to only publish reviews of four stars or above. Basically the review is only visible to me, the reviewer has managed to keep it in the closet.
So, where did my two stars go?
The disconnect, for me, started when a lot of attention was on sexuality. I believe many lines were wasted on people talking about their sexualities and doubts regarding the same. This is a shame because the book was doing really good until then. There were hilarious moments and enough twists to keep me turning the pages. Even the discussion of the sexuality was fine until it kept coming again and again. I Wore Heels to the Apocalypse is perfect in every other sense and has a potential to be one of the best in the humor genres. Of couse, this is my subjective opinion and others might disagree with my point of view, but I believe that all the sexuality talks distracted and overwhelmed me. Hence, I could not enjoy the book as much as I know I would have.”
So, perfect apart from the sexuality thing? Having gays in my book basically lost me an entire two stars? I felt like the victim of a hate crime! It was horrible! But then, maybe I was being over sensitive. After all, my book is my baby. So I posted on Facebook, so see what everyone else thought.
My sister, also a professional writer (playwright and dramaturge) made me laugh out loud with her succinct, satirical translation of what she felt the review was trying to say:
I liked the book. However, I am homophobic and expected a book with red patent heels on the cover to not be at all gay. I also lack imagination and take book titles literally. Don’t get me started on The Turn of the Screw.
There were similarly supportive comments, a lot of people just saying it says more about the reviewer than the book, but what upset me more than the review, was those people who commented things like “it’s just her opinion, she’s allowed to share it”. So, why did this upset me? Because they are fellow authors who just don’t get it. They live in a little bubble of privilege that they have never had a need to emerge from. They have never been discriminated against, so they don’t need to write about it, because it doesn’t actually happen. Discrimination is a thing made up by minorities to explain why they are held back. They failed to see the distinction. Had the reviewer said: “the disconnect for me was the focus on character relationships, I would have preferred more focus on the adventure and less time on the interpersonal”, then yes, this would have been an opinion, and it would have been a fair criticism, maybe. But what she said was “sexuality”, not sex, not relationships, “sexuality”. Let’s face it, there are very few lines spent actually discussing sexuality in any real sense, the rest is Tyrone using inappropriate language, which is funny. No, really, it’s funny, honestly. My favourite line is when he calls Kerry a “kick ass lesbo”.
What the review, and the reaction to it demonstrates, is that it is still very important to write diverse characters; but what is equally important is to normalise them. Not to label your book, or essentially warn people. No-one warns you that a book contains straight people, do they? If we continue to pander to people’s biases, and remain afraid to call them out on their prejudice then we’ll never progress. It’s not the same as having an opinion. Prejudice is not the same as opinion. If we remain terrified of offending bigots, then we stand in the way of progress. I’m sure A Taste of Honey offended racists, does that mean it wasn’t a good play? Perhaps it would have been a good play if they hadn’t spent so much time on race? Am I making my point yet, or am I still being too subtle? Just to be clear, I am not saying that anyone involved here is a bigot, I am simply observing that, in a general sense, prejudice exists, and we should be standing up to it, not ignoring it.
I can almost guarantee, that had the book been labelled as LGBT, the reviewer would not have picked it up, but as it was, she enjoyed it, apart from the whole focus on sexuality, thing. Maybe she’ll go on to read some more of my stuff. Maybe, she’ll think it through and rethink her opinions. Maybe she won’t, who knows? The point is that I managed to reach someone who perhaps would not have picked up the book otherwise.
I’ve never been very good at conclusions, it’s why my books are always quite open ended. That, and ‘always leave room for a sequel’. So, I’ll just finish up by saying thank you to everyone who took the time to read any of my books. Your support means a lot to me. I am delighted that most of you really enjoyed them, and don’t worry, there’ll be more of the same in the next one, I haven’t been deterred.