Diversity in reading and writing has always been an issue. In recent years it has rightly gained more traction and become the source of debate and discussion within the publishing community and amongst readers. Readers want books from different voices not only in the characters on the pages, but those who write. The publishing world is listening and working to give readers what they want. This is fantastic and is something which is very overdue.
As I’ve mentioned a few times I am a firm believer in expanding one’s reading. This can be accomplished not only by exploring other genres, but by also trying new authors. But when I take a look at my library I notice a trend. The authors on the self are overwhelming white. The protagonists and antagonists within the pages are white. To get even more finite, the characters are straight, not disabled, and if they are religious, fall more in line with the Christian faith. You get the idea. Take a look at your own library and you’ll more than likely find a similar trend or if not necessarily white, you’ll find you fall into some kind of pattern.
This isn’t based on any inherent bias I have nor do I think there is any inherent bias the publishing industry has. At least I hope the publishing industry doesn’t have one. A lot of it is based upon what is available and what sells. I do, though, shoulder the responsibility for what I choose to read and realize I need to do a better job of diversifying my library. This is something I have slowly started to work on. One great resource has been my book club. The leader of it picks books set in different parts of the world as well as choosing non-white, non-Western authors. Another resource has been going to book festivals and conferences. This allows me to meet and speak with authors about their work. And finally, yes, looking at that photo but only if the story sounds fascinating.
But one area when it comes to encouraging diversity in literature is in how books are marketed. Marketing is tricky no matter what, but factoring in such selling points as race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender, it makes things even messier, in my opinion. While it makes sense to market books based upon genre, why is it okay to market using labels based upon race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion of the characters or the author? I understand these are underserved markets but whereas a label like Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, or Western is based upon the story, labeling a section based upon race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion seems bizarre.
As a reader I find this troubling. To me it doesn’t actually help with diversity in fiction, it hampers it. Does it help the average reader discover new and more diverse voices? I don’t think it does and instead this type of labeling reduces an author’s audience into a niche. This has the potential to hamstring an author’s ability to attract new readers. A diverse audience of readers which is what I think all authors desire. We want our stories to connect with people of all backgrounds because we hope something in that story, be it the plot or the character, will resonate.
One of the most beautiful things about literature is the ability for a story to transcend race, religion, culture, time, age, gender, sexual orientation, and genre. A well-told story connects with readers regardless of barriers. It’s why someone who never reads fantasy may fall in love with Harry Potter. Or someone who never reads westerns may love Lonesome Dove. Or why someone who is white can feel the pain and strength expressed in Maya Angelou’s poetry. Literature can teach us about people’s lives and make us better people by forcing us to see the world through another’s eyes. That metaphorical walk in another person’s shoes.
As a writer I am working to better incorporate diversity in my characters. I admit it is a struggle since the characters who come to me are white, straight, and not disabled. Unfortunately any characters who don’t fall into these categories tend to be supporting players. My biggest quandary is do I try to force changes which don’t fit a character purely for the sake of diversity? My hopes this will change as my own reading habits evolve as I am frequently inspired by what I read. Again, it’s the power of literature to show me something outside myself and I am hopeful it will come through in my writing. Everyone’s voice deserves to be heard.