A Critical Look at #Ownvoices

By Katherine Hunt

On August 31st, Becky Albertalli, blogger and author of multiple books including Simon vs. The Homosapien Agenda posted an entry to her blog entitled, “I know I’m late”. In the post she details her experiences writing books and coming to terms with her sexuality. At 37 years old, this already happily married woman felt pressured enough to come out publicly, and the rest of us should ask why. Why did this successful woman feel the need to share something so intimate and personal with strangers on the internet? 

The answer: the #Ownvoices movement. 

#Ownvoices came to be because of a tweet from Corrine Duyvis in 2015. Her tweet describes the tag as a way to “recommend kidlit about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group.” This is how it all started: people sharing diverse books and spreading awareness about unknown authors. Like most things, however, the situation turned out too good to be true. 

Not too long after the hashtag came out and gained notoriety, the internet did what it does best and invoked the rule of cancel culture. Some trolls took it even further by harassing writers on their social media—berating them for writing a story or a character that “wasn’t theirs” to write, and then prying into their personal life to identify or find something that justified them to write such a book. In the case of Albertalli, people went after her for writing a story about a gay boy struggling with coming out because she was a straight woman who did not know that struggle herself.  

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Becky Albertalli

Unfortunately, she did.“This doesn’t feel good or empowering, or even particularly safe…” Albertalli wrote about coming out, “Honestly, I’m doing this because I’ve been scrutinized, subtweeted, mocked, lectured, and invalidated just about every single day for years, and I’m exhausted.”  She has also mentioned how she isn’t the only clostested queer author in the young adult community who feels this way. 

Albertalli is a prime example of how the #Ownvoices movement has pivoted away from its original purpose of spreading diversity, to become a way of spreading hate and creating tension between authors and readers. All in all, this attitude is going to kill representation in young adult books. According to a 2018 Data USA study, 80.1% of authors in the United States are white, 43% are men. In addition, a study conducted by Lee and Low Books found that 81% are straight and 89% are non-disabled. If we’re telling people they can only write about what they know, based on these statistics, it seems like we’re going to get a lot of books about straight white men with no disabilities, effectively killing diversity… And, do correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that the opposite of what we’re trying to do? 

Furthermore, with fear of harassment and invasions of privacy, authors won’t even write books that include bi-racial or LGBT characters, let alone try to publish them. What would be the point? If people are telling them to stay in their lane, why not just do what they’re told? It’s a heck of a lot easier than having hundreds of mean tweets and people speculating about your personal life. 

I am not saying that we stop using #Ownvoices to share and recognize diverse stories, but that the literary community needs to take a step back from it. We need to take an in-depth look at and evaluate  what the tag is being used to justify, as well as what it was supposed to do. This hashtag was not meant to “out” people, it was not meant to make people afraid of expressing their creative talents. It was not meant to exclude, but to include and recognize groups of people who had been overlooked and ignored. So, please, let’s start using #Ownvoices the way it was meant to be used.