Reader Stereotyping

Picture is the property of The Telegraph

Okay, two things for today. One, a hearty three cheers for Aung San Suu Kyi’s bravery and generous spirit. I pray that this wonderful woman can continue to lead the struggle for peaceful change within her country. A few days ago, author Jeannie Lin wrote a blog on Asian heroes. This woman is one of mine.

And on a lesser, but still important note: I’m the moderator for the Authors of Asian Novels group (use the link if you’re interested in joining us!) and we frequently have interesting conversations.

This month’s topic has touched on interracial relationships and reader expectations. All this led me to question, as a writer, how do you deal with reader stereotyping and discrimination? Not on the racial side of this topic, but on the side of depicting culture in ways that are believable and non-stereotypical, I’ve had the following experience.

I once requested a critique of my opening chapters (this was before the Sandy competition, but not THAT much before it) from a s.f./fantasy online group I belonged to. The response I got back really floored me. One person wailed at me that I knew nothing about the culture I was using. I hadn’t used caste/rank realistically, etc. These were his expectations and based on what he knew about Asian culture. The problem is, I knew enough about Asian culture to know caste-based behavior was historically frowned on even while it was expected!
In my story, my upper class MC is asked about his welcoming behavior toward a lower caste merchant. My MC comments that the merchant could be his brother. That’s when this reader railed on me, not understanding that I had done this intentionally. He thought I’d done it because I’m American and don’t understand caste.
This guy clearly had some other issues and beliefs regarding Asian culture and I blew his racial and cultural comments off, but am still very much aware he won’t be the only reader with these assumptions. The truth is, my hero doesn’t act on caste/rank because that’s who he is and his behavior was the MODEL to the Chinese of how a man should react to others. It simply isn’t how the majority of men acted. I used this to set my hero apart as a hero, but it made my critiquer spazz. He expected and wanted the stereotype. 
So my questions is, how should I have responded? (I’m not the best debater, I admit.) How do you respond when faced with stereotype expectations and reader discrimination?




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16 Responses to “Reader Stereotyping”

  1. Mary Hill says:

    "Thank you." Then hope the next reader has something to say you will be able to use.

  2. Janet Johnson says:

    How interesting! I think you show plenty of the caste difference elsewhere in your novel, and I agree, your MC is not typical. I can see what that guy might have been saying, but I think you are right to not take his advice in this case. Your MC is simply not the person that critiquer thinks he is.

  3. Lydia Kang says:

    I agree with Mary: a polite thank you and I'll definitely think about it…
    That's a tough situation!

  4. Victoria Dixon says:

    Thanks! This makes me feel better. I always try to take critique comments to heart, but every time I went back to his, I couldn't think of anything but,"He's WRONG." LOL. I could not do as he suggested, but part of me wondered if that wasn't because of how he phrased the critique. He acted like the cultural bible of all things Asian and was therefore already on my bad side.

  5. FredTownWard says:

    This wouldn't necessarily work in your novel, depending on what else is going on, but one historically accurate way to explain a main character who defies a caste system would be to make him or her a Christian.

    Though nominal (usually upper class, natch) Christians have occasionally found a way to make peace with it, it is all but impossible to reconcile the teachings (and especially the actions) of Jesus Christ, as recorded in the Bible, with a caste system. Thus, upper caste members who become Christians tend to automatically lose their caste, but by definition tend not to care that much about it. Caste systems have tended to respond by defining Christians as members of their own brand new caste…

    whose true level in the caste hiearchy tended to depend on how well nominally Christian military forces were doing at the moment.

  6. Victoria Dixon says:

    It's a brilliant idea, Fred, but it wouldn't work for a number of reasons including that Christianity hadn't reached China at the time my story takes place. However, thanks for the input! Since my faith is a huge part of my life, (and has already appeared in my short stories and poetry), I fully expect it to show up in my novels. Just not this one. ;D

  7. Joanna St. James says:

    I will vote for thank yuo and I will think about it. When your book comes out hold a super popular contest to dispel the misconceived notions

  8. Walt M says:

    I agree about ignoring it, though it's not always the easiest thing to do.

    What time period does your novel take place?

  9. Victoria Dixon says:

    Oooh, I LIKE the party idea, Joanna. Maybe have a trivia pursuit game in there. LOL

    Walt, the story is set in an alternative universe to ours, but is essentially 200 A.D. Trivia question #1. Did Chinese women of this time period bind their feet?

    Hmmmm. Maybe I should start writing down quizzes. LOL

  10. FredTownWard says:

    Oh? What time does your story take place? The reason I ask is that the earliest date of Christianity in China keeps getting pushed back. According to

    "Studies show that as early as 86 A.D., or the third year under the reign of 'Yuanhe' of Eastern Han, Dynasty Christianity entered into China, 550 years earlier than the world accepted time."

    Of course for fictional purposes, you needn't wait for absolute proof because a plausible theory will do.

  11. Medeia Sharif says:

    I ignored one reader who wanted stereotypes. He seemed inflexible and, well, rude. Perhaps he thought the stereotypes were realistic when in fact they weren't.

    I'll subtly allude to stereotypes without letting them take center stage in my writing. I want to answer questions people may have, but I want to stay true both to reality and to my vision.

  12. Victoria Dixon says:

    Hey, Fred. Thanks for digging that up and I really do like the idea, but this will force HUGE changes in the ms and I'm not sure that's required. We'll see. It would provide an interesting solution to a problem in another novel I've got in mind, so I'm not completely putting it in the out of the question file, mind you. LOL

    EXACTLY the problem I had, Medeia. He phrased everything in such a rude fashion, I had a difficult time even accepting those suggestions he made that WERE valid. In the end, you always have to stay true to your own vision or it becomes someone else's story.

  13. Walt M says:

    Fred beat me to it. When you think that India borders China and that one of the twelve apostles finished his career in India, it's plausible to get Christianity one country over. The only downside to that theory is the the little things between China and India called the Himalayas. It prevented invasions from that side as well as travel difficult.

  14. Jack says:

    What I would take away from that critique was that maybe I didn't do a thorough enough job of showing other characters in the story reacting to what an unusual attitude my MC had. Like maybe it needs more people going "what a scandalous thing you just said!" and the MC going "I treat everyone as my brother because X happened to me as a boy" or something. Of course, you can't take just one crit like that too seriously – I'd only worry about it if a number of beta readers said the same thing.

  15. Rachna Chhabria says:

    I agree with Mary and Lydia..a polite thanks a lot and I will keep it in mind for future reference.

  16. Victoria Dixon says:

    Hey, Walt. Yeah, what Fred suggests has merit especially since in my alternative world, the Indian continental shelf has pushed nearly as hard against China as it has in our world and the mountains, while formidable, are passable.

    Thanks, Jack. I agree, if I'd had even one more beta/critiquer comment on this topic, I would be concerned. So far, this guy was the only person with this concern and I've had Chinese readers as well as Americans.

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