Stop saying that if I don’t relate to a book by an AoC it’s because I wasn’t “supposed” to

Okay, I am almost never confrontational on this blog, but I’m going to be today. Because I have read this dozens of times in the past year and I’m sick of seeing it.

Context. There have been a lot of posts (especially since May) about how White privilege and unconscious bias can lead to white reviewers to rate books by authors of color lower. These posts often focus on ways we write our reviews that are unfair to authors of color (and readers of color) that are almost always fair. True, reading about an unfamiliar world experience can be uncomfortable, which some reviews frame negatively and should not.

However, one point that I’ve seen time and time again is that the authors of these posts might say “Stop saying you didn’t relate to a book. The book wasn’t written for you, you weren’t supposed to relate to it.” And I just cannot express how angry this idea makes me.

Yes, it is fair to say that a book by an author-of-color was maybe not written “for” me. It is a fair statement that I might not “see myself” in the book as much as a reader of the same ethnicity/background of the author might. But that does not mean the author doesn’t intend for me to relate the novel or characters.

The entire point of literature and reading is to connect with people and experiences who are different from you. A good author can make a character who is completely different from you relatable. A big part of the reason to read books from diverse authors are so you can experience empathy for people who are different from you. OF COURSE you’re “supposed” to relate to these books!

I’m going to use one of my favorite books from 2020 as an example, You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson. Here are all of the ways in which the protagonist, Liz, is someone I “shouldn’t” be able to relate with her:

  • I am not Black.
  • I am not one of two people at my school with my skin-tone.
  • I have never lost a parent.
  • A person I love has never had a chronic illness like sickle-cell anemia.
  • I am not gay.
  • I have never been shamed for a relationship.
  • I have never been publicly “outed”.
  • I have never been in a situation in which I was dependent on a scholarship in order to go to college.
  • My family has never talked in fear of having to give up our house.
  • I have never had to care for a younger sibling.

On paper, there’s nothing for me to “relate to” in this book. AND YET. I connected so deeply with Liz. We’re both band nerds. We’re both shy in public and outgoing with friends. Neither of us fits in with the popular crowd. We both lost our best friends to misunderstandings. We both want(ed) to find love. I was so inspired by Liz’s determination to make the world a better place and to never give up. I adored this book because I related with Liz, despite our many differences.

And that ability to relate to the character is essential. Since I related to Liz I was able to experience through the pages what it is to be a Black LGBT teen in America. It built empathy and awareness of how difficult that can be. Reading this book did not make me an expert on being Black or being gay, I understand that. But it opened the door for me to understand Black, gay teens better. Without that connection, none of that would have been possible.

I think that what these posts are trying to say is that if White reviewers are consistently enjoying posts by authors of color less than they enjoy books by White authors, that’s a problem. Those reviewers should take a hard look at their internalized biases and ask themselves why they didn’t enjoy the book.

But when those posts say the White readers aren’t “supposed” to relate to the books, that’s a problem. It sends the message that you can only connect with books and characters who are like you. It sends the message that the only characters you can find common ground with are characters with your exact same background and life experience. It send the message that the only reason to read books by AoC is to “do the work,” not because you might find a deep connection or enjoyment of the book. And, in my opinion, none of those things are or should be true.

Perhaps a better message to include in these posts would be “Stop blaming your inability to relate to a character on that character, author, or book. That’s on you.” Because I think that’s what these bloggers really mean anyway.

17 thoughts on “Stop saying that if I don’t relate to a book by an AoC it’s because I wasn’t “supposed” to

  1. I often struggle with this pervasive idea in the online book community that “relatability” is the number one thing a book should strive for and “relating to the characters” is the only way someone would like a book in the first place.

    I agree with you that even if I am fundamentally different from a character on major points, there’s often someone we have in common, even if it’s something like “we both like baking” or “we’ve both had to find courage to do something hard.” But I also think that I can have NOTHING in common with a main character and still enjoy the book and think it’s objectively well-written. I can even dislike the main character (maybe they’re a serial killer! or just completely obnoxious!) and think it’s a good book!

    The “supposed to” rhetoric gets weird for me mainly because I can’t tell if people are implying other readers should rate the book higher because it “wasn’t written for them” so it’s unfair to not like it and rate it lower? I don’t know. I agree that internalized bias is a thing and definitely something readers/reviewers should reflect on, but I’m just not always certain what the goal of saying, “You weren’t supposed to relate to the character” is.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m thinking it through, and it’s just that whether or not I relate to a character is simply not what I fundamentally judge a book on, so it’s always odd to me that other people are so caught up in this. Maybe instead of arguing about whether people were “supposed to” relate to the character, it’d be more interesting to ask if they enjoyed the book otherwise. Like, was it a good story? Was it well-written? Interesting?

      Because, to me, rating a book low because you don’t have much in common with the main character seems a bit silly–but I’m getting that other people DON’T think it’s silly because this is for some reason the #1 thing they look for in a book and they think they CANNOT like a book if they’re not similar to the main character?

      Liked by 2 people

    2. That’s a great point, I can not relate to a character at all and still love the book. Great example, Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdez. Had literally zero in common with Eva, but loved her and loved the book to death.

      I’m also not sure what people’s goal is here. I think we can maybe chalk it up to people who aren’t experts on race issues talking about them? I sometimes have to remind myself that a lot of bloggers are teenagers and college students.

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  2. I totally agree with Briana @ Pages Unbound in her comments. For me, I don’t strive for relatability in reading because that’s an unrealistic standard—no two people are the same and hence no one is going to relate 100% to a story. Instead I ask myself, “Do I understand where this character is coming from? Do I understand the logic and/or emotional resonance of their motivations?” I think those questions are better to ask because they can be traced to a relatively objective source (writing technique and characterization) and so that allows me to say, “I may not relate to or even like [this character], but I do at least understand where they’re coming from and in that way I can say the author did a good job with developing the character and the story.” Even as a marginalized reader and reviewer I think it’s a worrying path to go down to say that you’ll only like a story if you relate to the main character in terms of identity. For example, I love stories about villainous women—I think that they explore a fascinating idea in feminism—that women can be terrible and still be allowed the dimensionality of a man. But I’m certainly not evil (hell, you’d be hard pressed to find a time when I’ve voiced mean or petty thoughts lol!). Even if I don’t relate at all to a character in any way possible, that doesn’t mean their story isn’t interesting or compelling. So, yeah, I think the bookish community might be a little better off if we strived for understanding characters, rather than relating to them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Completely agree, character motivation is SUPER important to me, and it bothers me a lot more if I can’t understand a character’s choices than if the character makes different choices than they would.

      I think it’s worth stating that I do see a lot of reviewers saying things like “I couldn’t relate to this book/character at all”, so I think it’s a common thing reviewers say or think. Come to think of it, I always enjoy a lot more with a book when I make a deep connection with the character, often because I find them “relatable”. It’s not the end-all-be-all, agreed, but it is something people talk about, I guess.

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  3. Great post! I agree with you. One can find, one or two things to relate to character or book, if they want to or pay attention. And even if there isn’t anything to relate to, characters and books are written to experience, to understand different people’s situation and feeling, we being a third person. No story is our story or journey, it’s impossible to relate to all of them. Not being able to relate to book or character shouldn’t be a sole reason to rate the book lower.

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  4. I think you may have missed the point behind that phrase, just a little. When people of color or authors of color say that, it often means that you weren’t meant to see *yourself* in the book. While you can relate to aspects and sympathize, we often write our stories with our community and its many layers in mind. We are not considering white perspectives being able to relate to what’s happening, even if some things (being shy, or a band nerd.)

    The statement is merely asking that you decentralize yourself from stories about our people, because so often even if the fact that we can relate to people who are not like us is true, you cannot truly connect to certain characters in the way Black readers will connect to that character.

    Respectfully, you are whitesplaining Black and other POC’s feelings about this with this post, and you are doing it in a way that centers your feelings instead of understanding where these Black and other POC voices are coming from.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for your feedback. I’m sorry it came across that I was making this all about me and my feelings. Genuinely, my feelings aren’t hurt by this statement. I am more concerned that the statement could be misleading to young, less experienced bloggers who might not understand the nuance of race discussions. I’m concerned that they may take the wrong message from that statement, and I wonder if we could find a different way to phrase it so it’s more clear what it means.

      I have heard people talking about decentralizing oneself from stories about people of color, and I appreciate your reminder. I will make an effort to do so.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. But are you still not centering yourself in expecting authors of color to augment their statements and feelings for your personal comfort? I, a person of color, have explained this to you, which means you now have the knowledge to pass along to potentially confused, younger bloggers. The assumption that you know better how to present information and statements on race relations than and actual person of color is the problem here.

        It’s not that a different phrase is needed, it’s that people are unwilling to understand where people are coming from and allow us to express our feelings without having to constantly alter our words for the benefit or white consumers.

        I’m glad you’ve said you’ll make an effort, but it kind of starts with actually changing your behavior, not expecting people of color to do it for you.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Well Katie I do agree with you because…before being of one color or one gender or rich or ….we are all humans! We hurt, we laugh, we cry, we are elated we FEEL! Whatever the gender, color of skin, religion, … so yes we can relate IF the author does a proper job.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. When one adult says to another, “You don’t understand me, never have, never will, and furthermore you CAN’T,” that’s an instant relationship killer.

    And I think this holds true across races and cultures as well. I have lived overseas. As long as people still want a relationship, they will keep trying to be understood. If they stop, that means they have given up on the relationship. If they say, “I don’t want to be understood by YOU,” that’s a stiff-arm.

    If I heard this kind of statement from a significant other, I would respond something like, “Well, you’d better help me understand, because otherwise we’ve got nothing.” If I heard it from another adult whom I knew slightly, I would walk away, because it’s obvious they don’t want to be friends.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t think that’s what people *mean* when they say this, but it can certainly come across that way, can’t it? I just think it’s important that we choose our words carefully, especially when we’re talking about race, because it’s so easy to hurt one another.

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  7. Hmm very good discussion! It got me thinking!
    On the one hand, I dispute the logic of this argument, because it implies that AoC want their books to only be read by one group of people. And I’d assume all authors want people to relate to the human experience of their characters in some way (or empathise with it). I think that a lot of the time, “not relating” can be a catchall for not connecting. This isn’t necessarily a massive criticism- it can just be saying the book isn’t for you- for whatever indefinable reason. And I’ve also felt I’ve massively related to characters I have nothing (on paper) in common with too. I do also recognise that there can be a problem here- because I’ve certainly seen reviewers where I think their argument is coming from a place of “oh I have nothing in common with this person on paper” and it *can* be a lazy dismissal. But then that’s a matter of having a problem with an individual reviewer. I agree that this can be a question of being more specific when criticising reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I also think that folks who say this are trying to call out reviewer laziness. As I’m talking to people in the comments, I’m increasingly convinced that folks saying “you’re not supposed to relate” just aren’t saying quite what they mean.

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  8. The way I see it, “you’re not supposed to relate” is basically “you’re not the target audience for this book.” It’s kinda like how adults are not the target audience for YA; adults can definitely read anything they want, including YA, and it’s great when adults can relate to aspects of YA characters, but I go into serious eye roll annoyed territory when adults say that teens in YA books are acting immature or something (we’re literally teenagers cut us a break lmao). Similarly, anyone can and should read books by POC, where they can see and learn more about people different from them, and maybe hopefully relate to a few aspects of them! But when reviewers critique a book because they don’t “relate,” we get annoyed because literally you’re not the target audience, this book wasn’t written for you to relate to. and honestly, just like how an adult’s opinion on a book about high school isn’t as important as a high schooler’s opinion, your opinion and review just isn’t as important as what an actual poc thinks of the book.

    I think also “relating” to a character for POC can be more than some personality traits or something, for me it can really be about the book as a whole. For example, I had nothing in common with Xifeng in Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, but I really appreciated the setting of the book in an East Asian inspired world, similar to where my family lives, and really different from the generic European inspired world we’ve all read a million times. And maybe a white reviewer will relate to the character’s traits (lol I hope not it’s literally an evil queen retelling complete with eating hearts but you never know), but they might also write off the world building, customs, culture as confusing or not relatable, and that’s where I say stop saying you don’t relate, the world wasn’t written for you to relate to.

    I do agree with you and some other commenters to an extent though. Idk why the end all be all seems to be relatability–there are some books I love where I have nothing in common with the main character, and there are also some books where I really do relate to the mc but the plot is a garbled up mess so I don’t like the book. Anyways, this was a super interesting post!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree, there’s something to your “target audience” interpretation. I definitely get eye-rolly when adults read YA and say they thought the characters were too immature. Like, hello, teenagers. So I suppose when you put it that way, the comment makes sense.

      But I guess my thought is that if you’re saying you don’t relate to the customs/cultures of a book that doesn’t mean you’re not meant to? Take fantasy and sci-fi. They create completely new cultures that are often wholly unfamiliar, yet we still find ways to relate to them because that’s what people do when they read. I think when people can’t relate to a book that is from an unfamiliar perspective it isn’t because they’re not “supposed to”, but because they’ve either not connected with the writing or because they’re being a lazy reader. But that’s just my two cents.

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