My Imaginary Reading Wishlist, OR Things I’d Love to See More Often in Fiction

This afternoon, I finished up my preparations for my upcoming flight to the UK, and as I was pulling books from my shelf to bring with me, I thought a bit about the enormous role that fiction plays in the creation of our social reality. Fiction isn’t “real” in the conventional sense — nothing in Madame Bovary literally happened, for instance — but Madame Bovary says things about dissatisfaction and yearning that nonetheless feature heavily, painfully, and concretely in our lives. Fiction, despite its imaginary nature, is often just as real as the physical world around us — and sometimes even more so.

Fictional representation is powerful: it calls forth feelings we didn’t know we had, draws our attention to issues we may not have been exposed to, familiarizes us with people unlike those we already know, guides us through the process of learning new ways of thinking, asks us to question and improve upon existing practices, beliefs, and ethical and political systems, and humanizes far away places or differing ways of life that we otherwise would have fewer means of understanding. Fiction is not just a cultural weather vane that shows which way the figurative wind is blowing; it is also a wind current in itself.

This is why it’s monumentally important for fiction, especially popular, mass-market fiction, to be responsible in its representations of imagined “reality,” even if fiction isn’t necessarily a reflection of true life, because it nonetheless sets cultural tones and standards for a large part of society. We think and feel we way we do partly because of the books we’ve read. We want the things we want partly because of the things we read. And we expect certain things from life partly because of the books we’ve read.

And this is what led me to come up with this list of things I’d like to see more often in mainstream American fiction —

Books at Quadrangle Club, Princeton, March 2013.

1. More people of color, not just as supporting characters or sidekicks (as is already common), but as lead characters for whom race is only incidental, not central to their main story. The current under-representation of POCs in American fiction implies that the POC presence in America is not worth bothering to read about…which is just not true. And no stereotypes, please. Come on, people.

2. More female leads, and more complex female leads  — because the default gender of a main character right now is male, and because we need to train quite a few male readers out of thinking that a female lead character’s presence means that a book is worthless “chick lit.” And I don’t want any of that ~strong female character~ bullshit. I just want well-developed female characters, strong or not. Female characters should be allowed to be as petty or lost or fickle or conflicted as any other character without their gender making it an issue. When was the last time we criticized a male character for not being a “strong male character”? Exactly. When people demand strong female characters, I know they’re usually well-intentioned in doing so, but oftentimes that demand is coupled with disdain for any female character who is less-than-godly, and that speaks to a gender bias as well.

3. On a similar note: more LGBQT protagonists — because right now we see boy-meets-girl stories as the romantic ideal, and we should strive not to be heteronormative.

4. Body diversity. If you claim in a novel that a character is of an average build or larger build, stick to that. Don’t have her become a size zero in the middle of the book so that he or she can find a partner/land a better job/be happier/whatever, because that tells your audience that there’s something wrong with not being a size zero in the end. And there isn’t. Weight loss should not be a prerequisite of character development. Relatedly, if you claim in a novel that a character is “unattractive,” stick to that. I don’t need to read more novels in which the lead character whines about being ugly while everyone around them is actually saying they’re ~so gorgeous and they don’t know it~. Let’s not treat physical beauty as if it’s a major qualification for protagonist status.

5. Fewer romantic rewards and happy endings. When we end books with Disney-style romantic happy endings, we train people to think that the only kind of satisfying, “correct” ending is one that includes a romantic partnership coming together. But sometimes this just doesn’t happen, and it doesn’t have to happen. Why make people think it should? That only sets the stage for mass disillusionment, disappointment, and entitlement. We need to start writing and reading about people who don’t end up together, and whose lives are not worsened because of it. Furthermore, what about the crap that happens after people get together? The formation of a relationship is never actually the end of a story, so don’t treat it like one.

6. Fewer young, beautiful, and powerful people with bizarrely good careers. Crack open the average new American novel (or watch almost any contemporary film) and you’ll see 25 year-old businessmen or lawyers and doctors or hyper-successful architects, billionaires who aren’t even 30 yet, teenage genius kids who do government work, and other characters of that ilk. It’s insultingly stupid that we’re expected to eat this stuff up like it makes sense, and it all smacks strongly of Mary Sue-ism or Gary Stu-ism.

7. Fewer power-imbalanced Cinderella romances in the sense of “wow, she got so lucky landing him.” We need to see fewer secretaries hooking up with bosses, fewer underdog nerdy girls getting noticed by hot football players, fewer native women falling in love with Big White Guy from the so-called old world, fewer girls-next-door getting dates with sons of presidents or what-have-you (and, ahem, fewer klutzy-normal-girls finding earth-shattering romance with sparkly, gorgeous, supernatural beings). This only perpetuates the idea that women need to “marry up” or that men should aspire to be some kind of princely, hyper-masculine thing towering over their partners in terms of status. We need to see more reversals instead, or more evenly matched situations.

8.  Less emphasis on middle-class life or upper-class life. Sure, books about middle-class people sell because there are so many people in the middle class who are frequent bookstore shoppers, and because the middle class is relatively easy to write about (images of them are already plastered everywhere in American media). And sure, books about upper class excess and intrigue (Gossip Girl, etc.) are fascinating because of the glamour factor. But when we prioritize these classes in mainstream fiction, we’re effectively erasing everyone else.

9. Books that don’t use other countries and other peoples as dramatic backdrops for the playing-out of a story that reveals ~Something Big about White Europeans~. Stop treating other cultures as if they’re only important if they can be exploited to make a point about Europe, and not about those cultures themselves (I’m looking at you, Heart of Darkness…I know you’re a classic, but that doesn’t mean you’re not guilty as hell).

10. Books that pass the Bechdel test.


6 thoughts on “My Imaginary Reading Wishlist, OR Things I’d Love to See More Often in Fiction

  1. I couldn’t agree more, and I’m rather proud to say my list of stories I want to write is pretty much right up there with the stories you want to read.

    I do have a couple of questions, if you don’t mind being asked?

      • Well, nothing too deep, more just as a reader, I was wondering if you tended to project certain things when they weren’t stated?

        I like leaving a lot up to reader’s interpretation or projection, but I’ve found that a lot of people will assume if an ethnicity isn’t stated, they assume white, or if a sexuality isn’t stated they assume hetero.

        I understand it in the sense that a lot of times that’s how stories are written, but there are also times I picture a character in my head to be, say, Hispanic or gay or Buddhist, but there was no way to put that into the story without it sounding awkward and forced (I write a lot of short stories and that doesn’t always lend itself to these details). So I just go ahead and leave it unstated, and figure the reader can go ahead and assume whatever they want.

        So as a reader, when details are left unstated, do you generally assume that the writer meant for the character to be white, straight, etc. or do you like reading stories with these undefined aspects that let you fill in what *you* want the character to be?

      • That’s a good question! There isn’t a real answer, I don’t think, but this is the way I think about it:

        It’s a chicken-or-the-egg situation. Lack of character variety leads to assumptions, but assumptions also lead to lack of character variety. Because most characters in mainstream fiction are white/male/straight/etc., we come to assume that — unless otherwise specified — a given character starts as white/male/straight/etc. on default. But at the same time, because we assume that characters are white/male/straight/etc., it’s hard for writers to break out of the mold with characters who are different (say, Hispanic or gay or Buddhist, as you say) without beating the reader over the head with that information.

        So for the second part to change, we need to work on the power of people’s assumptions. We need to show people that we can’t always make assumptions about identity, because that erases the importance of everyone else. And to break down assumptions, we need to write/publish/distribute/popularize fiction that shows more diversity than people are accustomed to.

        Of course this is where we run into another problem: mainstream audiences are very resistant to diversity in fiction. Show a random sample of readers a book about Vietnamese immigrants and something by Nicholas Sparks (the master of all things related to middle class white people in love), and it’s likely that the majority of them will choose the Nicholas Sparks book. This is another problem American society needs to work on: its willingness to read about/think about people of color, and its curiosity (or lack thereof) about them in general.

      • I went slightly off topic, I think, so to get back on track:

        At this point in history it’s actually necessary to specify Difference with a capital D. Otherwise, the assumptions will just continue and keep building, and that’s not the direction we want to move in if we want fiction to become more diverse and if we want society to become more tolerant and curious as a whole. We need to show diversity before people will be able to believe and see it on their own when they crack open a new book. It does feel weird to specify things like race and gender and faith, I know, but I think we’re culturally at a stage where lack of specification just leads people to imagine characters as default white/straight/male figures.

      • Thank you *so* much for your reply! That’s what I’ve been (slowly) coming to realize, that yeah, unless I do specify, it will get lost in the ‘normalization’ process that people do precisely because certain things have been normalized in fiction.

        Still, there are times when I try to specify subtly, especially in the use of ethnicly derived names, but then again if the reader isn’t familiar with those names it can again get lost.

        The story I wrote today used foods (and, admittedly, some food stereotypes used in a humorous way) to indicate the general ethnicities of the people invovled without doing things like specifying color of skin or anything.

        I’d be honored if you’d read it and let me know what you think. Honestly. If you think it’s in poor taste, I’d like to know.

        It’s the last entry on my blog:

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