Don’t Kill Diversity

The Red launch blog tour continues today at Pageturners.

 

Okay, first off I have to send you on a field trip to read this article that was recently reprinted at the Publisher’s Weekly Blog.

Back?

Can I just say I’m shaking my head at this?  It’s ludicrous to say “I’ll represent your book if you cut out a character who has what I perceive to be an unmarketable DIFFERENCE.”  I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of it.

NEWSFLASH!  Not everyone in the world is white and straight.

I have always wondered why there’s a whole other section for African American Romance in bookstores.  Why shouldn’t those books be mixed in alphabetically with all the other romance?  It’s still people.  And even as a straight white female, I totally wonder why there’s not more fiction out there with primary characters who aren’t straight aren’t straight and white.

I was ecstatic to see Alec and Magnus in The Mortal Instruments and Jamie in The Demon’s Lexicon.  These are well-rounded and interesting characters who go beyond being the hero/ine’s BFF or the token gay guy.  The authors mostly don’t make a big deal about their sexuality, even if Alec does face some unsurprising discrimination among Shadowhunter society.  It’s AWESOME because, you know what?  Kids who are gay or otherwise different face discrimination in OUR society and fiction is a fantastic place to show that that doesn’t have to be the case.

YA these days, in many ways, is all about dealing with complicated issues–suicide, eating disorders, abuse, and all manner of dark and horrible things.  Yet industry professionals are shying away from showing legitimately diverse heroes and heroines who might be black or homosexual or bisexual?  Is this more of that ludicrous moralizing that thinks YA is too dark for teens (a la that infamous Wall Street Journal article) because teens who read can’t think for themselves and might read about something and decide to try it?  I read it in a book, so I’ll commit suicide.  Or I think I’ll try girls for a while.

WHAT THE HECK PEOPLE?

You can’t say its not marketable if you’ve never tried to sell it.  And really, why in God’s name do you have to bring up the race or sexual orientation of the characters in the marketing plan anyway?  Why not just market it as exactly what it is?

Say the story was:

A fugitive princess must battle demon-powered robots to save her kingdom from ruin.

How does her being a lesbian or bisexual or black or Hispanic or Asian or some other race remotely figure into that plot in any meaningful way that’s gonna make it on the book jacket and into marketing materials?

Are they worried that the innocent, delicate teen readers can’t handle being exposed to such things when they probably see them at school every day?  More likely parents who can’t cope with the reality of the modern world who are heading up calls to ban books with such content.

This crap drives me nuts.

But, Kait, you may be saying. You don’t have any non-white, non-straight characters in your books.  First, I only have 4 stories out and they’re all but one pretty short.  Second, I AM a straight, white chick.  I don’t have the personal experience to write authentically about what it is to be, say, a gay black guy or whatever and I don’t want people upset if I did it wrong.  That’s always a challenge for writers–the desire to include diversity in a way that doesn’t diminish it somehow by being a token character or somehow a caricature of a real person.  Now that I’m getting into longer works with bigger casts, I’m hoping I can add in some more diverse characters in a positive way.

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18 comments

  1. I will just say: AMEN to everything you just said. I love that that article is making the rounds on Twitter and other social media sites. Glad to get the word out. And I also felt the need to write a blog post about it, though mine is scheduled for tomorrow.

    I appreciate your hesitation to write minority characters when you are not yourself a minority. However, I think that writers who pay attention to human behavior around them, do their research, and take a real sympathetic interest are perfectly capable of writing believable, sympathetic, authentic characters that do not reflect the writer’s own personal background. And we, your readers, would be perfectly willing (I think) to give you the benefit of the doubt if you ever chose to write something from the pov of a minority character.

  2. Hi Kait,

    This is the first time I’m commenting on your blog but, I just couldn’t let this pass without saying something. Kudos to you for recognizing the discrimination that exists on the shelf not just for readers of gay/lesbian romance but for Blacks, Latinos, etc. Just like you, I’ve often wondered why African American Romance doesn’t fall in where it belongs like the others. I find it insulting that as an author/reader you’re saying I’m either less of an author or too stupid of a reader to want to experience novels that have heroines who are not like myself (in the descriptive sense). And also, it creates a prejudice among blacks about what titles/authors they will read. You will never guess how many people of color I know who will NEVER read a book without an ethnic hero/heroine. The excuse they give is that they were forced to read books by/about whites in school and now they will never read another book by/about a white person again. I think it’s sad and limiting and definitely speaks to publishers idea of what manuscripts are ‘marketable’. I just can’t decide if this is something that is created by publishing or readers. What do you think?

  3. The article leaves me a little flabbergasted and irritated, but I can’t say I’m entirely surprised. I have a series I’ve been working out that I (very) loosely call “kind of Harry Potter in Space,” but I have no intention to make those books YA. Partly because I know I’m not good with YA, but I think most of it is because it deals a lot with sexuality and there are two prominent characters who are gay and very unashamed of this fact. And I could just never see that being something I could ever really publish for a YA audience. I hate how this article confirms that I was not incorrect in this reasoning…

    …granted, this article also makes me want to write that series at YA just to go against the grain and try to make that step towards more diversity being accepted. It’s a series that’s been giving me a lot of trouble in being written, and so maybe that’s it. Maybe it was destined to be YA despite my reservations. I should give it a try.

    I actually find it a little astonishing that YA editors would be against the presentation of more gay characters in books targeted toward teens (or more ethnicity, while we’re at it), since it seems definitely Internet culture and increasingly television culture seems to be embracing a more open approach. There’s all this talk about traditional publishing starting to be old fashioned and unable to keep up with the changes of our times…could it be true that these same editors and agents and publication houses are just as dragging in the times as to what their readers might want and crave and cling to? (Some/Most) Parents might not be willing to open up to these characters in fiction, and neither might these publishers of the same generation. But it’s clear that authors want to write about these topics, and teens want to read about them….

    And I’ll stop writing this novel of a comment, and maybe instead go and write my novels with my unapologetic gays, lesbians, and bisexuals.

  4. That article shocked and horrified me. Call me naive, but I thought we were past that. And I think, in a way, we are. I think that agent was WAY behind the times. Diversity is still hugely underrepresented, but it’s also available in many successful books – showing that those books CAN sell. Never mind the fact that there are tons of groups who might happily snatch up the book because finally their identity is being represented – and that makes me feel like it’s not about the marketing, it’s about the fact that those groups don’t matter, and when you’d rather have a problem than make money, I think that’s a sign of how bad the problem is. Don’t know if that last paragraph made any sense.

    I’m also feeling you on the diversity representations in my own work. I’m comfortable representing different sexualities since that is part of my own identity, but I always worry that my portrayal of different ethnicities will be off. With my latest WIP, I’ve decided to stretch myself and do some research so that I can authentically represent characters with a different ethnicity than my own.

  5. This is an awesome piece, Kait and right on target. Ambiguous designations serve only one purpose which is to provide justification to discriminate. No one chooses their gender, their race, their dna-decided physical looks or their sexual preference. When we finally see past these points of ambiguity we find that we are all just people with the same drives and desires. It is the diversity of humanity that holds our greatest power. Writers do have the power to reshape thought and removing these discriminatory practices is a great place to start.

  6. This makes me so mad!!! I’ve decided to call it Bleach and Iron.
    I am also straight, and white, and I write about characters of different nationalities and sexual orientation. I do several things 1- I’m not making big social political statements they just are. 2- When ever someone offers a class on writing realistic characters I take it- so far only Gay and Native American. 3-In my YA book I cheat and it’s in 1st person so I don’t need to know the inner turmoil or cultural outlook on life. 4- I watch a lot of foreign films and no this doesn’t always give an accurate view of who they live but neither does a book 5- Not everyone no matter what their ethnicity grows up in culturally rich house. So you don’t have to know all that- maybe their 6th generation and their favorite food is hot dogs? I think sometime we’ve become so afraid of offending people we miss out on expressing ourselves fully and create more separation between us all. Also you can ask someone of that group to read your work and give you feedback.
    Sorry this is long and full of my opinion, but grrr this issue makes me so mad!

  7. I have the same fear about writing non-straight characters, that I won’t do them justice. I do occasionally remember that I have quite a lot of ethnic diversity in the book which is just coming up, and that’s going to make it interesting, as I have no experience of those cultures. Still, it is what it is. I write the characters as they come to me. If I get some gay or lesbian characters popping up, I will do my damndest to write them as they want to be written. It hasn’t happened yet, but that doesn’t mean to say it won’t. And as a white, blonde, straight woman, I will still be terrified of getting it wrong.

  8. Wonderful piece, Kait. Like AM, I fear I won’t do non-straight characters justice, but I do have an idea for a character in a future book. It’s ridiculous that it’s even an issue anymore. As far as ethnic diversity, I have to be conscious of that, because I live in predominantly white Iowa, and I just don’t THINK to make my characters any different. I want them to be, but because I’m surrounded by people who look like me, it’s not an automatic thing. Does that make sense?

    Anyway, great post and kudos to you for having the guts to put it out there.

  9. Yep, I’m in the white, blonde, straight club with AM, terrified of getting it wrong. Which is too bad, but we’re people. We see other authors try and take flak for not getting it just right and it’s nervous-making. Maybe as I grow and become more confident as a writer I’ll feel more up to that challenge.

    I’m glad you wrote about the article. And I liked how the name of the agent wasn’t mentioned and the focus was on the actual problem. What I don’t get about it is that I think the YA audience make their own reading choices; I don’t imagine them shying away from a story because of characters with different ethnicities or sexual orientations (particularly when those things aren’t the focus of the story but just parts of the characters). Kids and readers are both groups that tend to be curious and open-minded. I can’t imagine the character mentioned in the article harming sales of the book once published–that doesn’t make sense to me.

  10. Excellent blog posting. When I was a kid, I read a book with a gay MC. It really opened my eyes to this whole new world. After that, I was hooked on finding more of the same which led to homoerotic romance when I was an adult. I’ve read quite a lot of it. What I found there wasn’t so much about being gay as it was about being in relationships. We’re all human. Is there a right or wrong way to be a human being? That kind of question doesn’t even deserve an answer. I write gay male main characters. I’m a married mid-western American mom. The connect is not my or my character’s gender or orientation – it’s our humanity. To take away diversity is to remove massive chunks of what being human really means. In the end, we’re ALL different, yet we’re really all the same… how can we (as humans) realize this truly if the only thing we’re “allowed” to write/read is cookie cutter?

    I know… I’m totally preaching to the choir here. 🙂

  11. I love the go there honesty of this post Kait! I think that when you are ready, you will be able to write any type of diverse character you choose. To me, it is about writing about people so what they look like or practice in terms of religion or who they love is just a layer of that.

    The industry has always baffled me in the placement and promotion of certain books. Isolating books based on the race or sexual orientation of the author has I’m sure kept many fantastic finds from the view of readers and from getting the kudos and sales they deserve. But I’ve also seen this crazy, tunnel vision view play out in writing workshops and classes. Just a few weeks ago I was attacked in a class by a woman because she assumed, in the face of all the clues in the writing that told her otherwise, that my story’s characters should and did all look like me. She ranted four separate times that the family, since they were from the south and religious, couldn’t be white (which also says volumes about this lady’s sheltered world…heh). What an awful handcuff to put on writers.

  12. Thank you for pointing that out. There are markets for Asians and blacks. We are looking more for those since we could identify with those more than we could identify with white chicks. After all, not all of us are white.

  13. I was listening to CBC today and caught an interview and story I thought would definitely interest you. I am going to feature it in my mash-up tomorrow.
    Authors Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith were there talking about whether young-adult fiction is intolerant of gay characters: http://www.cbc.ca/q/blog/2011/09/28/is-young-adult-fiction-intolerant-to-gay-characters/. These two caused a stir this month with an open letter (http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/genreville/?p=1519) calling on their colleagues to speak up about an unspoken rule in their corner of the publishing world: that gay characters aren’t particularly welcome.

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