What Does “We Need Diverse Books” Even Mean? | A Note from the Director

Posted on November 23, 2015 «
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diversity in books

Over the last year I have attended several different science fiction and fantasy conventions. At most of these events I have attended or participated in discussions about the representation of diversity in books. The conversations have gotten heated and frustrating because almost everyone in the room seems to agree the there is not enough diversity in books. And it’s not that I disagree and it’s not that I agree, it’s just not what I’m looking for in a book. Maybe it is because I’m white girl living in Middle America and the majority of my friends look just like me. I’m more concerned about reading a quality novel that grabs me and doesn’t let me go until the last word than I am that a particular character is black or white, gay or straight or looks and acts just like I do.

When I read The Hunger Games, I did not see Rue and her district as African-American or Black or dark-skinned. I saw them as oppressed farmers and Rue as a young girl fighting for her life. And then I saw the movie. Does it make sense that Rue’s District is assigned with this ethnic group? If Panem is America after a great catastrophic event, sure. Historically African-Americans/Blacks have fit this role in American history. Am I bad person for not seeing District 11 as a minority group? I don’t think so, but perhaps you are thinking that I am a horrible person for not seeing this especially if there were clues within the text of the novel to tip me off. But I’m not looking to identify with a particular race either. I’ve never struggled like others have with finding people like me or been oppressed or denied things because of who I am, what I believe in or what I look like. When I’m reading books, I’m looking for personality traits and experiences I can relate to, not the color of a character’s skin or their gender identity as a means to connect to the story being told.

What bothers me most about these calls for diversity is that books can’t be everything for everyone all the time. And that feels like what people are begging for. But not every book can have an equal balance of diversity, deliver a life changing, mind-blowing experience and still be a good book. That’s the Holy Grail. Sure it would be great if all the novels in the entire world could incorporate all the colors and beliefs of the world. But if every book contained this perfect recipe we wouldn’t have the diverse range of books that are currently on the market. Imagine our lives if every book were the same?

I believe there is diversity. We just have to be willing to search it out, and define what diversity means to each of us individually. That might mean one person desires more books with people of color and another might desire more books dealing with LGBT issues. For me, diversity in books, means being able to freely switch from fantasy to science fiction to chick lit and finding unique characters that speak to my soul. Looking for that hidden gem—that diamond in the rough. I like to be surprised and amazed. That’s the magic of reading.

We have to make an effort to find those books. Then we have to yell from the mountaintops (without spoilers, of course) when we find a book (or books) that strikes a cord with our personal definition of diversity. That’s our responsibility as readers. Making sure that the books that speak to us, get the attention they deserve. And perhaps, you feel your voice is tiny and not being heard. But if one even if one person listens to you, picks up that book and it speaks to them as well, your efforts have been worth it. Trust me. I know.


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10 responses to “What Does “We Need Diverse Books” Even Mean? | A Note from the Director

  1. I think the issue with diverse books is that the diversity isn’t there. The majority of books published are still by straight white people, and books by other people are still considered a “niche market”, or as if they can’t also contain a great story along with diverse characters — as if making characters non-white is something which might compromise the quality of the story. Why should that be? You say, “But if every book contained this perfect recipe we wouldn’t have the diverse range of books that are currently on the market”… that would only be the case if all readers suddenly had the same taste, anyway — and why would diverse characters make books less diverse?

    It’s a bunch of reasoning I don’t really get. Diverse characters aren’t linked to the quality of the plot as such — it can only enhance it to have people interacting with more people who aren’t like them, whose experiences are different, who can change the traditional plots by their presence.

    There’s this idea that people are shoehorning diverse characters into stories at the expense of the plot, I think — and I think that partially comes from seeing white people (etc) as a default. People keep claiming they don’t need to identify with the characters, etc, so why do we need a default? And yet authors are supposed to have “plot reasons” for making a character gay (but not making them straight), having them come from a particular culture (but not if they’re white), etc. Why must there be plot reasons for non-default protagonists if there is no default?

    • Nikki, this is a prickly discussion and I want to thank you for sharing your thoughts.

      In many of these discussions, I left the room feeling as though many of the readers in room wanted diversity in all the book in all the land. That’s not reality we live in nor is it possible. Should there be more diversity in books? Hell, yeah! But if all the books contain everything that all the readers in the world want then something is lost.

      Authors have also expressed a concern about adding diversity to their novels. For some, finding a natural way to do it is difficult. Sometimes they have to write about something they are not familiar with. If they get one tiny thing wrong, they are at fault for not doing enough research. It’s a double edge sword, right? Readers want it. Authors want to write it. But how can it be done correctly?

      If books that fit the mould of diverse books are still considered a “niche” market, what are we doing as bloggers and active readers to promote diverse books and diverse authors? Is it more than a hashtag or a week during the calendar year? If as readers we want more, we need to use our pull with authors and the publishing industry to express that desire. We need to review and push the books that speak to us and express the diversity we desire to see on our shelves. When we find that book or that author, don’t stop talking about it. Keep talking about it. Don’t let that passion die. Find ways to pass your love for that book or author on to others.

      It is in sharing our love for books that we gain so much from each other–a conversation is started, an open discussion is had. I learn from you and you learn from me. And in the end, we might just discover we have something in common.

      • “That’s not reality we live in” — I think this is the problem. Because it is the reality we live in. I interact daily with dozens of people who are different from me in many ways, some of which correspond to the various labels that fall under “diversity”. So do you. You may not even know you’re doing it, but I can assure you that you do. (You are right now.)

        There are so many different groups that I don’t think anyone is saying that you need to include a character that represents each in every book. That would be impossible, and to say that that is the case is to present a strawman argument. They’re just saying that it is almost impossible for people to genuinely exist in a world of people just like them, and it would be nice if books reflected that reality, because what we consume shapes our understanding of our reality. Some people are more vociferous about it than others, because their experiences of being ignored sting.

  2. Man, this is a tough topic, and I appreciate your willingness to tackle it. First, I want to say that in your comment above, you talked about writing diversity being hard for some people, and it is SO ironic because I was literally having a conversation about this with a few friends not even an hour ago. Basically, I am struggling with it. In my head, certain characters are of various ethnicities, sexualities, religions, etc. But how exactly do I bring that up? Or don’t I? I have no idea what the “right” thing to do is.

    I think that diversity is absolutely different things to different people. And people are generally more passionate about the causes that have a personal connection to them, of course. Ideally, I would LOVE to see every single culture, religion, identity, race, disability, and everything else under the sun be represented. But I think it’s hard to do, because let’s face it, we don’t know every other person’s struggles. I can guarantee that someone, somewhere is dealing with an awful discrimination that perhaps I have never even heard of. Do I want that person to be able to read about a character that they can relate to? Absolutely! You bet I do! But can I guarantee that they will? No.

    Is there more room for diversity in books? HELL. YES. There is so, so much more we could and should be doing as a society in general to represent more people. Think about it this way: white, cisgender, heterosexual men dominate virtually every media outlet there is. But are they the majority of ALL people? Not by a long shot! So why are the bulk of TV characters, movie characters, etc written to have a white male lead?

    The hard part, for me, is that there are so, so many things standing in the way of people who want to write diverse books, or promote any diversity, really. Because they’re already starting at a HUGE deficit. And it needs to change, absolutely NO question.

    But. I also don’t think that ANY author should feel pressured to write about a diversity that he or she feels ill equipped, or even unmotivated, to write. That isn’t doing anyone any favors. If I tried to write a book about something I had no idea about, I would be full of panic at every turn that I would be doing more harm than good.

    So, after my behemoth comment, I don’t really have any answers, sadly. Diversity is absolutely necessary. We have made some wonderful strides, but we need to make more. But we also have to probably look at the root of these problems, because ultimately we can’t make changes if the people holding the purse strings just keep pushing diversity down. My two cents, anyway 😉

  3. This is a great post about a touchy subject, Terri. I fully agree that diversity would be welcome in books. Heck, it’d be welcome everywhere. But it is a double-edged sword. I recently saw where a gay author of gay fiction was criticized for a tactic he used in his book. I’m sorry, you can’t get much more authentic and yet he was still criticized. Authors write what they know and I think some would criticize authors who were writing what they *don’t* know about in order to increase diversity. And you’re right in that diversity is probably defined individually. So authors won’t be able to make everyone happy. I don’t know the answer and it’ll probably be a long time in coming. But I appreciate you discussing it.

  4. This is such a tough topic, so it’s really brave of you to discuss this!
    I do get what you mean about this, and this sentence is one that really stood out to me – ‘books can’t be everything for everyone all the time’. It wouldn’t be possible to write a book that was truly diverse and catered to everyone, yet people seem to criticise authors all the time for not trying. Plus, I personally think that any book like that couldn’t possibly do anything other than turn all of the characters into token characters, which would be doing the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to be doing, which is portraying all kinds of people as complex and interesting.

  5. I do look for diversity of races and experience in the books I read. I actively seek out recommendations of diverse books. My reading for 2015 was still overwhelmingly white. That shows how hard it can be to find diverse books.

    Yes, Rue was described as black in the books. I was really surprised when people were upset when she was black in the movie.

    • Apparently, I need to be better at paying attention to details when reading, Heather. 🙂 What are some of your favorite books featuring diverse characters? I’m interested in reading more!

  6. I think that as another straight white middle class lady, it is super easy for me to assume that characters are like me unless specifically stated to be otherwise, and that is kind of the problem. Why are we the default in literature when we’re not the default in the world? I skimmed over Rue being black too, but when I saw the movie, I thought–oh yeah. Duh. Now there’s a furor over the casting of a black Hermione in a stage play. I’m pretty sure that Hermione was written as white, but there’s absolutely no reason why she has to be, so why not cast someone else?

    I keep hearing recently about books as windows (into other lives) and books as mirrors (of our own lives). It is so important that all readers are able to see themselves in books. And as the “default setting,” I learn so much about the world from books that include other perspectives.