zaberI am generally a fan of our friends at Book Riot, but sometimes their views on diversity in book publishing are a little misguided. This latest by Constance Augusta Zaber is on a subject I have some experience with, and it articulated for me a little about what I find so problematic about the quest for diversity in fiction.

Zaber writes about literature with a transgender theme, and her point is this: they are all the same story. No matter what other architecture the plot might provide, there is always the transition thread, where they learn about the trans community, come to to their friends and family, and begin the treatment process. These stories are all ‘interchangeable,’ Zaber says. And she would like to see a greater diversity than this one narrative.

Fair enough. But then, she says this:

“Now let’s be clear, this question isn’t just directed at cis authors [link added] but to the larger world of publishers and readers. Authors may start the process by writing or pitching a book, but that book still needs to make it through the gamut of publishing and marketing and sales before it will ever show up on a bookshelf…and so with that in mind I’ll restate my question, “Dear cis people who read books about trans characters, who write about trans characters, who turn manuscripts about trans characters into books about trans characters: when do trans lives become too boring for you to read about?”

Okay, now let’s back up for a second. First of all, it doesn’t need to make it through a ‘gambit’ anymore. I can publish to the Kindle store—as can anyone else—with a manuscript and a handful of clicks. If Zaber wants to see more diverse stories, why doesn’t she write one? If she wants readers to see a different world view, why doesn’t she share one?

Secondly, I am not clear on why she thinks this is the reader’s fault. If these more diverse are simply not available to me, how am I going to read them? Why is she blaming an innocent content consumer for the lack of content being provided to them?

And finally, I find the language of differentiation she uses to be a bit problematic. ‘Cis people who read books about trans characters’?’ Really? I just come away from phrases like that feeling like she expects to qualify readers to read these books, somehow. If you are a trans person like her, it’s totally fine to read widely in this genre, as she states she has. But if you are a ‘cis person’ you are offending her by reading these same available titles?

The ironic thing for me is, I actually do have some experience reading in this genre. And I do have a loved one who is a trans person, has written a trans-themed book, and whose book does cover the ‘memoir of coming out’ arc that Zaber rails against. And my response, therefore, is ‘and?’ If that’s my loved one’s experience, and that is the story she wants to share, why should Zaber stop her? If someone else has a different experience to share, they are are free to to do.

I guess I feel that in the end, reading as a pastime is threatened enough already without telling innocent readers that they have to somehow be deserving to read in a particular genre, and then blaming them when they don’t read the books in this cannon that are not approved by you as being worthy. And if you want to offer them more diverse stories, Ms. Zaber, perhaps you and your more diverse community of peers can get your lovely trans selves to the computer and write some.


  1. Wow, Joanna, why so defensive? I don’t know you and I have never commented on this site before, but I hope you can hear this feedback with an open mind. Your response to this Book Riot article is incredibly offensive and dismissive. I get that you are particularly taking issue with the suggestion that “readers” need to change their reading behaviours, but I’d like to ask you to step back for a minute, realize that this is such a small, small part of what this author was trying to say, and recognize that you, a member of a privileged community as a cis person, just told a member of an extensively marginalized community to shut up because you didn’t like something they said. Your response to this article is the equivalent of “Not All Men!” in response to a woman talking about sexism, or rape, or misogyny, or “All Lives Matter!” in response to a black person talking about racism and being the target of violence by white folks. I invite you to take a deep breath, read the article again, and see if you can hear the entirety of what Zaber is trying to say without feeling personally attacked.

  2. Wow, Erin, you seem to have missed my point altogether. I never told anyone to shut up. In fact, I asked them to speak up more! I would love to see more diverse trans characters in fiction.

    But I frankly do not have the necessary experience to write such things myself. And I know that there are many capable and engaging trans writers who could be. I guess my issue with Zaber’s piece was that I was not clear (and am still not) on why she is blaming the readers for this. Readers read what is available to them. If there is no book, they can’t read it. And that is a legitimate rebuttal to Zaber’s point.

    And be careful about calling a stranger ‘privileged.’ You have no idea what my background is, and it is disingenuous to suggest that just because I am a ‘cis person’ I don’t know how maginilization feels and have not had experience with it.

  3. Let’s see, on the one hand we are being told that trans lives are perfectly ordinary and normal, no reason to get excited, nothing-to-see-here-folks. just chill out and accept it; and on the other we are being told — apparently by the same people — that there’s a whole lot of really interesting and unique material here that authors should be writing about. But you can’t have it both ways.

    There was a time when novels could be ‘about’ homosexuality, or atheism, because they were new and poorly understood and risky. But in the West at least they have become routine, and no longer interesting as subjects for something which is intended to be entertaining. Presumably transsexuality (is that the correct word?) will go the same way over time. And presumably that’s exactly what we want to happen.

  4. Joanna, I find your piece incredibly problematic. As a cis person, it is my responsibility to hear Zaber’s critique of the publishing industry in all it’s parts (writers, editors, designers, marketing, and readers) as a trans-phobic system that is perpetuating single stories of trans lives. I agree with Erin above, your reaction seems defensive to this important feedback. It is the role of everyone in the system, to advocate for a presence of meaningful stories that reflect our world. To continue the metaphors suggested by Erin, it is as if a black person asked the publishing industry to stop only producing stories of black men who are perpetrators of violence, and a white person replied, well, go write them yourself our system is not racist. The onus is not on the marginalized to do all the work, it is for those who have privilege with respect to that identity to hear their feedback, reflect, educate themselves, and try to do better.

  5. Maybe this is where we disagree then, Moira. I don’t think readers are part of the publishing ‘industry’ in anything remotely approaching the same category as ‘writers, editors and designers.’ They are customers, plain and simple. And if the content is not available to the, they have no ability to make it appear in the way a writer or editor could.

    Where I see Zaber’s point, as I said in my article, is that I do think it’s completely fair to say there should be more diversity. My sole issue is with blaming the reader for the lack of it. When my sister came out, I read everything I could get my hands on about this, which back in the stone ages of the late 90s, was not a whole lot. But my family and I were desperate for information. This was not at all a mainstream topic then. And a lot of the stuff I read was frankly awful, but that’s what there was, and it’s not my fault about that.

    One of the joys of the self-publishing age we now find ourselves in is that we no longer have to , as you say ‘ask the publishing industry.’ Anyone can publish any stories they wish. And…well, if you think it unfair to ask trans people to write them, who do you expect to do it? Thinking of the stories I have read within my own community, I can’t day no non-Jewish person (for instance) has ever written a good Jewish book. But the vast majority of the ones I remember reading probably were written by Jewish authors.

    And the black authors…well, you’ve heard of the Harlem Renaissance, no? They did respond to the lack of real stories about themselves by writing them directly. I just am not clear on how else you expect it to be solved.

  6. I didn’t miss your point, Joanna, I just disagreed with it. I believe it’s a straw man argument that misrepresents Zaber’s article and is written in an offensive and dismissive way — and as a cis person working in publishing I feel strongly about being an ally and challenging such content. And to be clear, I very purposefully did not call you privileged precisely because I don’t know anything about you. I said that as a member of a privileged community you have power in this dynamic and I invite you to revisit how you use that power.

  7. I understood completely what Constance Augusta was trying to say. There is more to a trans person than being trans and transitioning. Trans people are as full and rounded as any cis person and should be depicted as such when they are fictionalized. We are most likely in a period where being trans is still so new an issue in the public mind that we only see trans people in that light, despite them being so much more. It will take time for trans characters to be more than lessons on the issue and to be real leading characters and even supporting characters with lives that go beyond the issue, as important as the issue is.

    As a mother to a trans son and as someone who is in contact with our local trans community, I know that to be true. While transitioning and being trans is now the central issue in my son’s life, he is much more than “just” trans and the issues in his life are beyond transitioning and include becoming an adult and finding his way in the adult world. He is a gifted musician, he is an aspiring writer, he has Asperger’s, he has social anxiety disorder, he wants to move to England, he loves Game of Thrones, he is a rabid defender of GLBT rights at the same time as being afraid to walk down the streets alone. While being trans and transitioning is central to his personal story, he is more than that, as important and meaningful as that is.

    If I were to write him into a story, I would want him to be more than just a token trans person, or a means to teach the cis public about being trans or transitioning, as if that was all there was to him. It would be nice to read about a trans person who is also a detective solving a murder case, or a spy facing a terrorist plot, or the captain of a cargo vessel on route to salvage a crashed spaceship, or a knight who has lost his brother in arms during war, etc. etc. In other words, as more than caricatures or teaching moments. As fully rounded characters.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail