Saturday, August 14, 2010

To Critique or Not to Critique...

Book cover 'borrowed' from Nora Roberts' web site by Denny S. Bryce

I’ve been in a mild quandary the past few days after receiving a list of potential critique partners and on it one of the writers listed African American as a ‘genre’ she’d be uncomfortable critiquing. My initial reaction was ‘huh?’ And frankly still hovers in WTF-ville.

But am I over reacting?

In romance (or any number of genres including nonfiction), publishers, bookstores, you name it, present ‘African American’ as a genre or a separate ‘section’ in their store or bookshelves or web sites. Publishers market books to specific audiences based on content, style, and/or the ethnic niche it may appeal to. And as a marketer, I get that. To reach prospective buyers you want to point them toward their proven preferences. If publishers sell books with African American main characters to mostly African American buyers then they market those
books accordingly. If buyers want one genre over another, the marketer wants to save them time, by letting them know more about the main characters or what the story may be about up front. In today's get it fast world, a decision to buy a book is not pondered, it happens quickly. Mulling over a purchase is quickly becoming passe. Marketers subscribe to the buying publics buying habits.

But in a critique partner or critique group if I felt uncomfortable critiquing romances without African Americans main characters, I’d be limiting myself to a very small list of prospective partners (lucky to find more than a handful).

I’m not saying readers shouldn’t choose or not choose to read a romance based on such guidelines as African American or Interracial, or Gay or Lesbian or Historical or Paranormal (although I might question their sense of fun regarding the latter:), but it’s the critiquing that gets me.

As a romance critique partner, I want to support my partner (or the group) and that means I'm looking for a good, consistent voice, story, plot, character, you know, the stuff that makes fiction work.

I write fiction with non-African American main characters. I write fiction with African American main characters. I feel comfortable and qualified to write stories with a multi-cultural cast because I, Denny S. Bryce, exist in a diverse society. Raised, worked, loved, and hung out, and still do, with friends and loved ones from different ethnic backgrounds. So I know the emotional journey of characters in a romance ain’t all that different from race to race from culture to culture. And even if I start writing steampunk (which I’m thinking about, seriously. I had a dream and yeah, it was good:) or some other historical, I’ll research to find a make-sense way to create a multi-cultural cast, but mostly, my goal will be to write an effective romance in a really good book.

Hopefully, when I get published (boldness ensues on a Saturday afternoon:), the readers who choose to buy my book(s) will relate to the main character’s journey because it grabs them. Whether they are white or black (the readers) is neither here nor there to me. I just want to write a good book that people want to read.

But let me not be too self-righteous here. I know plenty of African-Americans who don’t read popular fiction, don’t read romance with non-black characters, and aren’t interested in paranormal stories. And sure, some of them may be writers, mainstream authors, or politicians, but I still don’t get saying in a list of genres you’d be uncomfortable critiquing African American romance.

Am I naïve? Missing the point? Being hypersensitive?  Could be…

But if Nora Roberts had called me (no, she doesn’t have my number) and invited me to be her critique partner for “The Search” (and yeah, I know she doesn't need a critique partner) I wouldn’t have turned her down. Because I know her goal is to write a main character that will intrigue and relate to many readers of romance. I can go on a journey with Fiona, and fall in love with her dogs (and Simon, too). It doesn't matter to me that they aren't black or that the dogs are dogs. 

It matters that it's a well-written romance. And that would be a joy to critique.

PS: In case you're interested (and for full disclosure), I listed the following as categories I'd feel uncomfortable or unqualified to critique: traditional fantasy, high fantasy, no elves or were-seals (the latter I actually meant as a joke, because I bet there's a good book out there with an insanely well-written romance with elves or were-seals). So, maybe I need to check myself, huh?


  1. Hi Denny. Really enjoyed your posts. I have really thought about my writing, especially since I write paranormal romance with AA main character. There are plenty of other people in the story but the main character have been AA because I hate to not see them in a genre I love so much.

    I'll tell you about some of the experiences I've had with critiquing. I think most people should have no problem with plot, character development, and other thing specific to writing in general, but some people had questions about my characters because they had no reference to the background or culture. I never mind explaining and educating, but sometimes it can effect someone's critique if they can't understand where your characters are coming from.

    One example - My critique group asked what race my character was because he had a dark complexion and blue eyes. I said what do you mean? He's black. They said they never seen that. I said well my husband has blue eyes. Then I had to explain Creoles to them.

    It's a difficult situation with no good answer yet. We just got to get more diverse AA characters out in the market.


  2. Hi and welcome, and I look forward to getting to 'know' you via our blogs. Also, here's to getting our manuscripts out there as soon as we can:)!!

    I am a complete fan of explaining and providing intel on the AA culture, etc. My challenge here was a writer saying - I won't even try. I'm so uncomfortable I'm taking myself out of the running...that's what got me.

    But alas. I'm off and running in the critique group now, and looking forward to critiquing and being critiqued and in general support of the efforts of my fellow writers.

    And speaking of eye-color and dark complexions - my family has Bermudan roots and my grand-dad had coffee with heavy cream-colored skin and dazzling green eyes...and coincidently, my next blog will feature the actor Jesse Williams (if you don't know him check out Grey's Anatomy's 2010 cast of regulars). But frankly it sounds like you have a Jesse of your own at home:).

  3. This is a fantastic post, Denny. I'm going to put in my list of shout-outs this week.

    I once dated a Brazilian with dark, dark skin and bright green eyes, so I'm not surprised by any combination of attributes anymore. He was also one of the inspirations for my current mc, although I also had a beta reader who said she didn't buy a Hispanic guy with green eyes. To make it easy, I made his eyes brown. I also realized that I was trying too hard to make him like my ex, and I needed to just let Javier be himself. :-) But maybe now I'll change his eyes back.

    Anyway, I'm really looking forward to reading your book.

  4. Thank you. Thank you. It's a wide, wide, world of pretty, and I appreciate all forms:)...

    And Brazilian men? Hot! You go girl...!

    And glad you kept the name Javier. I like it (and also reconsider that eye color - as they say - write what you know.


  5. I changed his eyes back after I read this post. :-) Now he's got pretty green eyes just like my ex. :-)

    Oh, and yes, my Brazilian, he was H-O-T. I was one lucky girl. Operative word, of course, was. But he's a good guy. I miss him sometimes, but he's better off where he is.

    And I'm better off with a hot werewolf named Javier who has green eyes and occupies my mind! :-)

  6. Having run the gamut with critique groups, I have to tell you it's better that the woman was up-front about at least that aspect, but she, and potentially you, are missing out. Here's the matter what we write, we want to eventually reach as wide an audience as possible (at least, that's my goal!), and that means crossing as many cultural, racial etc. lines as possible. People unfamiliar with what they're reading can make the BEST critique partners from that standpoint. They can point out places where a little more explanation will make things clearer for those who aren't knowledgeable about the subject matter. While I firmly believe people are people and our journeys are marked by similar milestones and experiences, I also don't believe in the homogenizing of books, particularly romances. So if one character's reaction or a piece of internal dialog will make something clearer to someone, while keeping the flavor I'm trying to impart, I want to know!

    But, having said that, if she has a particular bias, she's not going to look really honestly at the piece...




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