The stigma of stereotyping

Ah, January: the time when agents are running around in circles, scooting to provide necessary tax documentation for their authors’ royalties by the end of the month, writers are feverishly sending out their New Year’s resolution queries and unsolicited manuscripts, and contest judges are steeling themselves for the next batch of entries. Actually, it’s such a busy time of year in the publishing industry that I always tell my editing clients: just stay home for now. Give the queries a rest for a few weeks because, honestly, this is far and away the hardest time of year to get picked up by an agent. With everyone under the sun querying at once, competition is at its most fierce.

You can always start querying again next month.

The timing is good, too, for PNWA members, because contest entries are due at the end of February. Now’s a fabulous time to be polishing up the work you plan to submit; for those of you new to the blog, check out the posts from the three weeks around the holidays for a ton of advice about how to improve your entries in the eyes of judges. (And lest this sound like a sales pitch for the organization that sponsors my passing all of this advice on to you, consider: winning the 2004 Zola award for my memoir propelled me directly into the path of my wonderful agent, who sold the book to a fine NYC publisher within 8 months of my night of pride at PNWA. I’m just saying.)

Even if you don’t, for some reason beyond my ken, want to enter the contest – hey, I know that you all have lives — it’s still a great time to be working on your submissions, rather than submitting them. Which is why today I chose a topic that will help you no matter whether you are entering a contest or querying an agent: avoiding stereotypes in your work.

Television and movies have rather hardened us to stereotypes, haven’t they? In visual media, stereotypes are accepted as a means of shorthand, a way to convey intended meaning without adding length to the plot or character development for minor characters. In this shorthand, we are all expected to accept that “regular guys” on screens large and small will invariably be commitment-shy, inarticulate about their emotions, and into meaningless sex; pretty women will be shallow, especially if they’re busty; anyone whose name ends in a vowel will be Mafia-connected; every Southerner will be bigoted, and every politician will be corrupt, unless played by the romantic lead.

In other words: the moment that Oliver Stone decided to show us Jim Morrison having a metaphysical experience, didn’t we all already know that he was going to stick a Native American somewhere in the frame as a spiritual merit badge?

Personally, I find this kind of predictability utterly boring. Honestly, as soon as any man in a horror movie is mentioned as having had “a hard childhood,” don’t we all know by now that he’s going to turn out to be the serial killer? Don’t we all know instantly that if the female lead faints or mentions putting on weight, she must be pregnant? And oh, lordy, as soon as we see Jackie Chan standing next to a ladder, don’t we all instinctively brace for a fight to break out?

Don’t get me wrong – I adore Jackie Chan; he’s a wonderful comedy writer. But after seeing dozens of ladder-related incidents in countless movies throughout his career, I suspect that he could garner laughs at this point by walking up to any given ladder, turning to the camera, and inviting the audience to join him in counting until a gang of ruffians appears to beat him up.

If I find such predictable elements boring, imagine how their appearance must make the fine people who read thousands and thousands of agency submissions for a living want to tear their own hair out, strand by painful strand. Because, alas, this sort of stereotyping is not limited to screenwriting alone. It has found its way – oh, how abundantly – into novels.

The sad thing is, it’s often unconscious on the part of the writer. Most of us imbibe truisms from our television sets, so it seems natural to us that every professor should be absentminded, every redhead should have a fiery temper, every high school cheerleader be a bimbette who cares only for boys with expensive cars. And, for what it’s worth, there are many, many readers out there who won’t lift an eyebrow if you reproduce these stereotypes in your work.

However, in ANY querying situation, just as in any contest or in submitting to any small publishing house on the planet, a writer can have literally NO idea who is going to read her submission. What that crucial reader – crucial because that person will make the decision whether your work is worth promoting or not – believes or does not believe about the patterns of human interaction is a big mystery. You cannot assume that this person is going to, say, laugh at the same jokes as everyone at your office.

And this can be counterintuitive, because as anyone who follows standup comedy can already tell you, there are a lot of people out there who will laugh at sexist, racist, homophobic, and other humor not particularly insightful about the nuances of the human condition. (Anyone want to hear about the differences between New York and LA? Anyone? Anyone?)

Many years ago, when e-mail was just starting to become widely used, an old high school classmate of mine looked me up. For awhile, we exchanged messages (okay, I’ll admit it, while we were both at work; it’s how Americans have gotten their revenge for losing coffee breaks and paid overtime) about what was going on in our daily lives, but like many people, Mark’s idea of keeping in touch with far-flung friends was to forward jokes that he’d found on the internet. Jokes he would not necessarily tell face-to-face.

Some of those jokes were awfully darned offensive, but my gentle twitting in response did not make him stop sending them. My bouncing them back to him did not work, either. So, on a day when he had sent me three jokes that were sexist (and two of them racist as well), I sent him a reply wherein I detailed exactly WHY the jokes were not funny to me; because I am a funny person, I rewrote one of them so it was funny without being offensive, to show him the difference. I thought he’d get a kick out of it, and he would stop forwarding such jokes to me.

You can see this coming, right?

When I went to work the next day, my inbox was crammed to the gills with nasty responses from people I had never heard of, much less intended to e-mail. (Seems I had accidentally chosen REPLY ALL.) About the nicest thing any of them called me was a snob; many suggested that my hobby was doing unpleasant things to men for which dominatrixes are very well paid indeed, and most seemed to think I was of the canine persuasion. In short, it was a bloodbath.

It took me several hours to figure out what had happened: apparently, Mark had been routinely forwarding these same jokes to everyone in his office. How did I figure it out? Two clues: a sharp rebuke from Mark, beginning with, “Are you trying to get me fired?” and five e-mails from female coworkers of his, thanking me for asking him publicly to stop. According to them, since the boss routinely forwarded (and told) this type of joke himself, they were all afraid that they would get fired if they said anything about it. I suspect they were right – the boss sent me one of the nastiest of the flame-mails.

Now, the content of the jokes is actually not my point here: other people might well have read them without finding them offensive; it’s entirely possible that I was simply the wrong audience for them. The important thing to note is that both Mark and I made, in one sense, the same mistake: we each sent something out assuming that the recipients thought the same way we did. And that is always a mistake.

In this case, our respective assumptions merely ended a friendship – which, given that we’d known each other since junior high and this incident occurred when I was in graduate school, was not an insignificant loss. But consider this: was what either of us did really so unlike what writers who include stereotyping in their work do every day when they submit to agents and editors?

Trust me, because I have learned this from long experience: when you send in a submission, you have even less idea about the interpersonal politics and personalities at any given agency or publishing house than I did all those years ago about the corporate culture of Mark’s company. You may not intend to hurt anyone’s feelings or raise anyone’s hackles, but honestly, you have no way of knowing that the agent’s assistant WASN’T a cheerleader in high school – and class valedictorian to boot. Maybe your use of an ostensibly harmless bimbo character will be one use too many for her – because maybe, just maybe, that reader is the kind of really nice person who worked at Mark’s company, who has been shrugging off offense after offense for years, because that’s how you get along at a job.

You never can tell. But just once, it would be nice to see a Native American character actually WALK into or out of a room, rather than appearing mysteriously and/or melting away into the darkness, wouldn’t it?

I’m not saying that you should strip your sociopolitical views from what you write. Definitely not. But do be aware that, like the law professor I mentioned a couple of weeks ago who struck up a conversation with an unknown colleague without realizing that the unknown’s wife was a Supreme Court justice, your reputation can only be improved by utilizing every ounce of tact at your disposal. Every time you use a stereotype, even one you’ve seen a million times on TV, you run the risk of offending someone’s sensibilities on the receiving end.

That’s just a fact.

Besides, you’re more talented than that. I know you’re more than capable of making your characters your own, without taking the easy way out of invoking stereotypes as a substitute for character development.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: Oh, and so you know, the PNWA website will be on hold for a few days later this week, so it may reemerge in its new and fabulous form!

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