There has been a cry for diverse books. People, both children and adults, want to see themselves represented in fiction. They want to see people like themselves as heroes, princesses, achievers, and romantic love interests (maybe not all in the same book). Not every hero in real life is a White, cisgender, heterosexual, attractive man without any disabilities. Why should every hero in fiction be that?
The cry is for authors to write main characters and families which are not stereotypical, and to include a range of characters that reflect the diversity that exists in the real world.
There is also a cry from activists within commonly oppressed groups of people for the authors of these stories to be as diverse as the characters. All authors are not White men, but most who find success in the current system are White men. Do we want White men to tell all the stories about Black mothers, Native heroes, or Autistic experiences? Or would we prefer to have a Native author find success in writing from a Native point of view?
It seems simple if you look at it from a distance. “If Blacks do not like the books that are on the shelves, why don’t they write their own?”
Well, they do. But in most cases, there are not enough personal funds to get those books on library shelves. This is true of most indie-authors. We can write all day, but it takes money to get the word out. Or we can rely on publishers to offer contracts and hope they offer them to those diverse authors. But publishers only care about diversity to a certain point. Ultimately, they have to make money, and they aren’t going to make money if lots of people don’t line up to buy the books they offer.
So it comes down to the demands of readers; and it must go beyond demanding to see yourself in the pages. This is an example of why:
When I wrote my first book series, Winter Seedlings, it was never intended to be a book shelved in the gay fiction section. It was an answer to the call for diverse characters and it was intended to be sold as general fiction. I wrote it for everyone.
But, with two female main characters falling in love with each other, it was easily mis-categorized. I put it in gay fiction, then lesbian fiction. My mind was on the cry from people wanting to see themselves in the pages. I wanted to say to them, “You are in these pages. I’ll put this book in your category so you can find it.”
Winter Seedlings didn’t really belong there, though. I moved it to Women’s Contemporary Fiction, then moved it out after observing how buried it was in erotica (which Winter Seedlings is not). It is currently parked in Coming of Age fiction and Psychological Thrillers. Truly, it hits a lot of topics.
Unfortunately, sales dwindled outside of the LGBT categories.
I have come to believe that most people buy books with the expectation that they will identify with the main character. It is obvious that a lot of heterosexual people DO NOT WANT under any circumstances to think they can relate to the experiences of a lesbian, gay, or bisexual character.
I have seen similar issues play out with cultural and ethnic diversities. Privileged groups like to see that privilege represented in stories, but not called into question. Even if the main character is unlike them in some way, they can still relate as long as the background noise hums the same as their own background noise. So, many non-Black readers might enjoy reading a story about racism and the harm done to Black communities, even if the hero were Black as long as it stayed compatible with the White narrative. But they would shy away from reading a book written by a Black author with an all Black cast of characters portraying the world around them without a nod to the White narrative. That kind of book would be labeled “African American” and shelved somewhere away from mainstream novels.
Maybe it’s okay to segregate our books that way so readers can “find themselves”. Do you think so?
The trouble is that in order for publishers to invest in minority cultures, the majority of people must be willing to read varying narratives. If not, there will be little money to be made.
This paradox plays out all the time. Authors struggle to find the balance of writing an honest story about an underrepresented culture in a way which will be appealing to a large audience without feeding stereotypes or oppression.
But at the end of the day, the ability to increase the diversity in books lies with the readers, not the authors. We have to believe that it makes us better people to place ourselves in the shoes of others by reading works created by groups we do not identify with. We have to believe the sky is not going to fall if we enjoy a book about two women in love. We have to believe that diverse books are not something created FOR oppressed groups, but for all of us.
As much as I strive to include a broad range of characters in all my books, and attempt to avoid sensationalizing them or making them tokens for consumption, I am still a White author. As much as I try to get right the various POV, I am still coming at the art of writing with my own privilege. I am not the one to speak for anyone but myself, nor do I attempt to do so.
My latest novella, Silencer, deals with racism, but the main idea of the story is how suicidal thoughts can be like a dangerous drug which can both comfort and kill those dealing with depression. I feel I have done justice to the issues of depression, suicidal thoughts, grief, and racism. And though two of the most important characters in the book are Black, this book does not qualify as being outside my demographic because it is mainly about a White woman’s POV.
As a reader, I search for books by authors writing about subjects close to their hearts, subjects which reflect their own experiences in life. I find them much more rewarding because they have a believability which goes beyond the typical White-author-looking-in-from-outside kind of fiction. That doesn’t mean that all authors should fill every book with people like themselves. But authors have a point of view which is going to come through no matter how they dress up their main characters. That point of view is going to reflect the culture in which they grew up and surround themselves.
Reading diverse books by diverse authors helps us, as authors, broaden our points of view. Reading books by diverse authors helps ensure those authors can afford to keep sharing their important perspectives. So, I challenge you, and myself, to seek out diverse authors, even more so than diverse characters. Value those perspectives which originate from within a culture. And most importantly, don’t be afraid of discovering that you can, in fact, relate to two boys being in love. That won’t make you gay, but it just might you a better human being.