The #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign started with a simple Twitter exchange between authors Ellen Oh and Malinda Lo about the lack of diversity in children’s literature on April 17, 2014. One year later, we’ve seen huge support on social media and in major book and author events, including BookCon and BEA. However, there is still more work to be done to make #WeNeedDiverseBooks a reality.
Alis Franklin is the author of LIESMITH, a queer urban fantasy novel published by Hydra. In LIESMITH, Sigmund Sussman, a shy young man working in low-level IT support in Australia, falls in love with Lain Laufeyjarson, a Norse god. Below, Alis addresses the problem of the underrepresentation of minority groups in literature and what needs to be done to improve diversity in publishing.
One of the most fascinating things to realize about the (Western) publishing industry is that it’s been around, in some form or another, for something like 500 years. That is one old industry. It’s also an old industry that’s seen an enormous amount of disruption, to the point where it seems every year brings something new to shake things up.
If 2014 rattled anything on the manuscript-stacked table, it did it via talk of diversity, a.k.a. the way marginalized and other non-majority authors are treated and their stories told. This is particularly relevant as we enter April, which marks the one year anniversary of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. Originally intended to spotlight the lack of diversity in children’s literature, over the past twelve months it has since grown beyond its original mission statement, spawning conversations in every corner of the industry.
And for good reason. There’s plenty to talk about when it comes to publishing’s relationship to diversity and, to set the scene, let’s begin by pointing out that…
1. Publishing is super, super homogeneous
No matter where you look–from fictional characters to their creators to their producers–the consensus is that the publishing industry is white and it is (with some exceptions) male and it is middle-class. “Write what you know,” says decades worth of well-meaning writing advice. Which, according to a quote attributed to US sci-fi author Joe Haldeman, is “why so many mediocre novels are about English professors contemplating adultery.”
Plenty has been written about this topic already, noting the homogeneity of characters appearing in genres as disparate as children’s lit and erotic romance. Employment wise, the publishing industry as a whole isn’t much better than the fiction it produces, with indications things are getting worse as publishers poach executive talent from the notoriously white and male tech sector. Meanwhile, white male authors are not just more likely to gain critical acclaim–particularly when they write in genres traditionally considered to be “for women“–but to get sympathetic pats on the head from prestigious media outlets when they do “lose out” on literary awards in favor of women or people of color.
Not only that, but plummeting advances for novels mean that “author” is fast becoming more of a side project than a day job. Sure, self-publishing is on the rise, but self-publishing is notoriously cost and labor intensive, making it prohibitive for large segments of the community. Ditto for writing in general, for that matter, and there’s been a lot of chatter recently about the so-called “death of the creative middle class” in countries such as the US. This is a phenomenon that is almost always both phrased and derided as a very white, very privileged sort of thing to complain about. People are dying because they can’t afford health care, and poets are whining that they have to get day jobs? Get real!
But the reality is that the people hit hardest by the de-professionalization of writing as a career path aren’t white middle-class Arts majors. They’re segments that are so disenfranchised they become invisible to the entire debate. The second shift is a well-observed phenomenon and affects more women than men; where does a “third shift” of writing fit into that? (Hint: supportive partners help a lot.) Poverty disproportionately affects people of color compared to white people; when families are struggling to work multiple jobs just to survive, where does the energy come from to produce a novel? Ditto for people with disabilities and mental illness, and for people in the LGBT community. If writing is a privileged person’s hobby, and writers write what they know, how many stories are we missing out on simply because the authors who would’ve written them never even got a chance to start?
The reality is we don’t know what we’re missing out on. And that matters because…
2. People are the stories they tell
English professors contemplating adultery may make up approximately all of modern literature, but the actual percentage of adulterous English professors versus the rest of the population is pretty low. Significantly less than 1%, in fact, using statistics for the United States in 2012, which were the easiest to Google. By contrast, approximately 27% of Americans are non-white, 4% identify as LGBT, 18% have mental illness, 19% have a physical disability, and 14% live in poverty. (The percentage of non-adulterous Americans is harder to estimate, but seems to be somewhere around 80%.)
To say that these populations are not proportionally represented in modern fiction would be putting it mildly.
This lack of representation matters because fiction informs the way we see ourselves and the world around us. If you’re feeling too pleased with the state of the world today, then this story about a mother dealing with her mixed-race daughter not believing she could be a princess because princesses are white will surely help. That essay comes from a series collected by fantasy author Jim C. Hines, INVISIBLE, which is a heartbreaking look at representation and misrepresentation in genre fiction, and should absolutely be required reading by everyone forever. (Full disclosure: I contributed an essay for the up-and-coming 2015 collection, INVISIBLE 2.)
And if the non-inclusion of diversity is a problem, then so too is poor inclusion of it. Stereotype threat, the phenomenon of individuals performing worse at a task when told their demographic group is bad at it, is absolutely a thing, and has absolutely real consequences, from poor scores in math tests right up to and including women being more likely to accept harmful myths about rape when exposed to sexualized avatars in video games. Meanwhile, the SFF genres in particular are plagued with a specific kind of covert racism, often invisible to white audiences, that draws directly from the notion of a foreign horde of human-looking-but-not-human, always-evil Others that may be killed without hesitation or apology. Lest anyone be tempted to think such attitudes relics of an antiquated, imperialist past, I would point you to this and this, and ask you to keep them in mind the next time you’re enjoying a piece of fiction which ends in the mass genocide of the invading aliens and/or orcs (Hollywood SFF blockbusters, I’m looking at you).
So no diversity is bad and poorly done diversity is worse. Fortunately, there are signs out there that things are improving. Young adult author Malinda Lo has been tracking diversity in young adult literature since 2011, and reports a 59% increase in LGBT representation in 2014 versus 2013, including a big jump in intersectional diversity (that is, characters who are both queer and something else). Meanwhile, SFF’s 2014 Hugo awards were generally seen as a positive step for their simultaneous recognition of diversity and rejection of those who oppose it.
So it’s not all bad news, and things are getting better. Of course, you’d be entirely forgiven for thinking otherwise, because…
3. Even when a book is diverse, it often doesn’t look it
There’s a post going around Tumblr as I write this called “White Girls Not Looking At You: A YA Series.” It’s a list of exactly what it sounds like: dozens upon dozens of young adult book covers featuring stock photo models of pretty young white girls turned away from the camera. This is hardly a new trend in cover design; YA writer Kate Hart was writing about it back in 2012 (with Malinda Lo pointing out that using pretty white girls to sell things is hardly constrained to books).
Three years later, things are not actually that much better. Ditto in the adult SFF world, where you’re still more likely to see, say, a dragon on a book’s cover than you are a person of color. Meanwhile, White People Almost Kissing may be the romance genre’s equivalent of White Girl Not Looking At You, and yet surprisingly few m/m romance novels feature the same trope compared to their straight counterparts.
And forget entirely about characters who are, say, overweight or in possession of some kind of obvious physical disability; they may as well not exist on book covers at all.
Even when books do feature diverse characters between the pages, getting them onto covers can be a struggle, despite the best intentions of everyone involved.
In my own book, LIESMITH, one protagonist is an overweight, glasses-wearing, multiracial 20-something, while the other is a dude described as looking “Tilda Swinton androgynous.” My editors, the lovely people at Hydra, went out of their way to consult with me on the appearance of the characters. I drew pictures and added photos and it was all very exciting and positive and I couldn’t wait to see how things would look.
When I got sent the first drafts, they looked like two white dudes.
The problem, as it turned out, was this: all the good intentions in the publishing industry don’t add up to anything when every stock photo model available looks the same. My cover artist had done the best he could do, but the best was still “skinny kid with dark hair who swears he’s 1/8th Cherokee maybe” and “ginger-stubbled GAP model.”
Thankfully, my editors were (and are) lovely and tolerant and my cover artist was patient as I made him go through literally every model available to find one who could maybe-kinda-sorta represent someone from the book. Things, thankfully, worked out in the end. But getting through the process was a challenge.
In contrast, LIESMITH’s sequel, STORMBRINGER, features the same two protagonists from the first novel, but adds in a third; a fair skinned, blonde haired girl. She’s the one who ended up on the cover, and we got her model right first go. Funny that.
The reality is book publishers rely heavily on stock photos to make their covers, and stock photos are notoriously lacking in certain areas (“black people? in medieval costume? you must be kidding!”). Efforts do exist to address some of these issues, such as the Kickstarter for Mosaic Stock, but movement is slow. In the meantime, enjoy your fifty shades of beige. Which is a nice segue into…
4. Diversity is not a publishing “trend”
Here’s the thing about publishing: it’s a saturated market. Getting the stats on how many books are published each year is tricky, but numbers like 600,000 to 1,000,000 are what gets thrown around. Oh, and that’s in the US alone. Meanwhile, the number of people who actually read books (again, in the US) is on the decline. What this means is that authors and publishers will often try anything, anything, to get their titles noticed. Increasingly, that means touting a work’s diversity angle.
Diversity was the hot buzzword in 2014, there’s no denying it. And there’s no denying this has opened opportunities for authors and stories that might not otherwise have gotten attention–or even published–only a handful of years ago. I’ve spoken to several authors over the last year who are suddenly finding themselves with multiple offers on books they’d previously thought untouchable by mainstream imprints. I’m talking books with protagonists of color, queer protagonists, and protagonists with alternate gender identities. Their authors have written them from the heart, and they believe in—and often personally share—the diverse elements they’ve included. The lead time for producing a work of fiction, particularly a debut, is notoriously long, meaning authors often started their works with very little hope they’d be accepted by publishers. They wrote because their stories demanded to be written, as is often the way, and by luck and perseverance they’ve managed to catch a break on a riding tide.
The problem is I keep hearing this:
”I’ve been offered representation by [well-known agent or editor]. They told me they wouldn’t usually represent ‘minority’ fiction, but they think it’s going to be the Next Big Thing!”
And my heart falls, just a little bit.
The two most important working relationships an author can have are with her agent and her editor. Publishing is a tough road, and the only thing that smooths the track is an earnest belief on the part of everyone involved in a book’s production that it is a truly worthy thing to be produced, not just a quick cash grab or something to throw at a trend. There are plenty of editors and agents out there who do believe in opening publishing to greater diversity (yours truly managed to find some, mostly by luck), but there are also people out there looking to make a quick buck.
The problem with treating diversity as a publishing trend, however, is that it reduces real-world people and issues to the status of vampires or post-apocalyptic dystopias. Poorly done portrayals of fictional things don’t, as a general rule, hurt people in real life. There is no Dragon Defense League to get upset over negative stereotypes about gold hoarding and village burning, no zombie ever lost her job over an unfounded fear of brain-eating, and no teenage Chosen One is going to struggle to sell his next book just because the hero’s journey has gone out of style.
But by treating diversity as a trend, rather than a norm, this is exactly what the publishing industry risks. Diversity is not a business proposition. It is not something publishers should be looking at because it is profitable or has the potential to unlock new markets. Publishers should be investing in diversity because not doing so is socially damaging. It’s damaging for the majority of people to never grow up seeing positive portrayals of themselves in the media they consume, and it’s even more damaging if the only portrayals are negative or stereotyped or ill-done.
As mentioned above, the one-year anniversary of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign is coming up soon, so maybe it’s time for a bit of a review. The last year has been a good one, more-or-less, thanks in no small part to the hard work of WNDB, and some progress has been made in opening up publishing to voices and stories outside of our much-maligned adulterous English professor. But there’s still a long way to go yet.
About Alis Franklin
Alis Franklin is an Australian urban fantasy author. Her first book, LIESMITH, came out in October 2014. The sequel, STORMBRINGER, is set for July 21, 2015. Connect with Alis on her website and on Twitter.