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. Continue reading