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How to Critique Diverse Writing: A Practical Lesson in Tolerance and Acceptance -- by jlgfellers

It’s Wednesday! Yay! That means new stories are up on Critique Circle! Excited, you scroll through the queue. So many choices, but nothing catches your eye except—wait. Ooh, this looks good. You begin to read. One paragraph. Two. This is good stuff that you can’t wait to critique—no. You scroll to the top of the page and hover your curser over the author’s profile Sigh. You hit the back button and begin searching for something that you’re more comfortable with, but why? We’ve all done it, and not because of the story itself. Not because there are technical errors or a plot hole big enough to drive a minivan through. No, it’s something deeper—something within you and nothing that the author has written.

Admit it. You’re uncomfortable because the writer is different than you. He or she doesn’t fit into the comfortable little box that’s your reality.

Quit your squirming and don’t back away from this blog post. Instead, take a deep breath and keep reading. I’m not trying to indoctrinate you into anything. On the contrary, I’m trying to educate you on what to do when you come across the unfamiliar here on CC or anywhere else. I want you jump headlong into the world outside your comfort zone. I want you to embrace the unfamiliar like your favorite childhood stuffed toy. I want you to read, to understand, to squirm and be uncomfortable at times.

 I've been writing for over twenty years and publishing for over a decade, and I've come across a problem, a real problem with sharing my work in critique groups. Some critters don't know how to respond and, inevitably, shut down when they come across other ways of being besides their own. I’ve recently had this happen to me on CC, but this time I'm not giving up and going home. (I gave the critter, a dedicated critter at that, an opportunity to escape before he completed the meltdown he’d already started—but that’s a different story) I'm tired of dealing with such ignorance. People need to know how to respond to the unknown, how to work past their personal discomfort without sounding like something they probably don't want to be known as—a bigot.

That’s right. I said it. We think we’re not capable, but we all have the dark, ugly bigotry beast lurking within in us, so I’m going to give you a process to work through whenever you come across writing that takes you outside of your comfort zone, thereby negating the bigot beast.

But, before we dig deeper, we need to understand what diverse writing really is: The Midnight Publishing website includes a great definition. (NOTE: I am in no way associated with nor do I promote Midnight Publishing or their services. Rather, I am merely sharing a good definition) Per their page “Diversity in Books and How to include it,” some “of the most popular subject matter in the publishing industry right now involves the all-encompassing term of diversity. Characters who are part of the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual) community, as well as differing religious and cultural beliefs and protagonists of other races all gaining vast amounts of exposure and inclusion in modern-day fiction.” This is a great overall definition, but our problem lies in something deeper. How do we, as writers, critique diverse content?

Here's your list of how to navigate and critique through diverse writing no matter the genre.

When you encounter diverse writing:

  • Keep reading. Read. Embrace writing from outside your personal realm before you ever critique it. In other words—be well read. Read some well-written erotica—Fifty Shades does not qualify as good erotica any more than Twilight qualifies as good vampire fiction. Read some award-winning gay romance. Read some feminist Sci-Fi. Read stories by Latinos, Africans, Asians, Muslims, Jews—read from minority groups—and more than the sprinkling you were force fed in school. You’ll learn something about society. You’ll learn something about humanity. But, most importantly, you’ll learn something about yourself.
  • Identify the problem. Know that how you feel is how you feel, but is what you feel fear of the unknown or is it something else? Does your discomfort when you read Muslim authors derive from your unfamiliarity with the culture, or is it because you’re Islamophobia? Did you drop that Sci-Fi chapter submission like a hot potato because it contained bad writing, or because the protagonist wasn’t a straight, white man like you are? Become aware of your own prejudices and work past them. If you can’t you’re missing stacks of good stories.

How to critique a diverse story:

  • Critique the story and not the author’s culture, religion, lifestyle or anything else. If is not your place to say what’s right and isn’t. Now, if you’re a part of said culture, you can identify yourself then politely delve a bit deeper into the diverse aspects of said group, but if you’re not, leave it alone. If you don’t you’ll be labeld a bigot and rightly so.
  • Don’t think your way of thinking is the only way of thinking. Bigotry denotes ignorance.
  • Call a spade a spade when necessary. For example: if a story is misogynistic or misandrist, call it such, but be aware of how such things fit into different cultures. Is the female protagonist forced to work inside the guidelines of such a culture? If so, understand this and leave it alone. Sometimes survival speaks stronger than resistance. Case in point: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel where protagonist is forced to work within the confines of the extreme misogyny her world has descended into. This does not make the work misogynistic. Rather, the story is a feminist tale.  Personal Note: I’ve come across a few stories here on CC that were actually violent, misogynist fantasies hidden under the label of erotica. I called them what they were and would do the same for a story containing misandry. Don’t be afraid to do so, but know why you’re doing so and be prepared to articulate and defend your position with sound evidence. Hate is hate. Abuse is abuse. Don’t be afraid to call it out, but know who the real hater is before you do so.

Still ucomfortable? Here are some graceful work arounds that will still let you critique:

  • Heed warning labels. Even if there's no reason in your eyes, the author posted the warning because she/ he thinks there's good reason.
  • Ignore the content in question. If the story is great except for that one part that makes you uncomfortable, work around it. It’s very easy to do.
  • Admit that you aren’t familiar with the culture, religion, community or lifestyle and will be not critiquing that story aspect for that reason. No one will fault you for it. Don’t go into details why you aren’t—no “I don’t believe” or “I don’t like”—it doesn’t matter. Just say you aren’t because you have no basis for comparison and get on with it.
  • If all else fails, go ahead hit that back button, but it should be your last resort. If you feel that strongly about the content, say nothing and go do something else. Don’t try to set someone “straight.” Don’t try to make someone agree with you. Don’t get in a tizzy. Don’t gloss to the end, call the writer a name, and stomp off. You’re bigger than that.
  • Never, ever attack an author personally. Period. That’ll get you thrown out of every critique group I’ve ever been a part of, and, if you want to write, you need somewhere to share your works in progress.

So there you have it. Read. Critique. Write. But most of all, Learn. When we learn, we can accept. When we can accept, we can understand. When we can understand, we can embrace. When we can embrace, we become a part of a something greater, something we can all write about so even more of us can learn so the cycle perpetuates. We’ve taken a few cultural back steps lately, especially in the U.S., but it shouldn’t keep us from progressing as readers, writers, and insightful, confident critters.  

Posted by jlgfellers 15 Feb 2017 at 00:57
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