People will tell you that all it takes to be a successful (as in lots of people have read your book and paid you decent amounts of money to do it) author is to tell a great story. They will say to you, “Authors cannot claim readers won’t support diverse books. Readers will support any well-written story.”
Why do people tell us that all we need to do is write a “great story” when in reality that’s absolute bullshit?
- Willful ignorance. They’re afraid to see it any other way. They might screw up their worldview about how all people (readers especially) are not bias. “Bias isn’t a thing. Anyone telling you bias is a thing are just making excuses for their crappy work.”
- Profit. They are self-promoting and optimism sells better than the truth. Telling authors that everything is going to be fine gets more RT’s and less vitriol in response.
- Manipulation. They want authors to write diverse books, so they’ll say whatever makes that sound like a good idea.
Just a reminder: I write diverse books. I have written and published books with many different characters: gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, Black, White, rich, poor, autistic, and with mental illness. I do not like to write expected, cookie-cutter stories. I prefer to write about interesting people with lives not usually represented in fiction. This is a choice I make because I *want* to write these stories and am privileged not to need book sales to feed my kids. I do not write these stories because I believe every reader will welcome them.
I have been booed whenever I’ve said, “If you want more diverse books, you have to be willing to read books that are not about you. Authors can not afford to write books if only people like their main character will read them.” I get told “That’s a cop out.” Well, I’m not copping out of anything, am I? I am actually still writing diverse books. I am actually doing the thing people beg authors to do. And I promise, my own experience shows that some people refuse to even read my books because “two girls together doesn’t do anything for me.” Well, uhm… I guess if the only reason you read a book is to get turned on, then… I mean, what is there to say to that?
So, I know first hand what happens when you write diverse books. People who identify with the main character read them. My friends read them, friends who usually never read LGBT fiction. They loved my stories and it didn’t matter that the characters were gay (or whatever). So, it is actually true that a great story will be great regardless of what label is attached to the character. I do not dispute this part of the argument. But in order for someone to know a book is great, they have to be willing to read it in the first place.
Getting mainstream readers to buy diverse books is a challenge when bookseller categories already ostracize such books into their own little group. LGBT fiction gets put into a category all its own, often with subcategories separating gay from lesbian as if books can’t have both. These are categories most straight people seldom wade into. There is an idea that LGBT characters are written for LGBT readers, each letter for itself (L for L, G for G, etc). Sorry, but my books aren’t written that way. They are diverse in their entirety. So, where do I place them? Can I convince gay men to read my story with lesbian characters? (On rare occasions, yes I have). Can I convince lesbians to read my story about bisexuals? Do Whites think of books with Black main characters as “Black books” for “Black people”? There are many questions just like these, just interchange the labels. We are a society of separations and booksellers make it easier to keep the walls up than to tear them down.
When people say, “I need diverse books so that my Asian son can see himself as the superhero.” I understand this need. I agree that such a book, (actually many books), should exist for him. But the math is fairly simple here. If you write a book with a minority main character and the only people who buy the book are people within that minority, then the profits are going to be very small. To be a “successful” book, readers of all races must want to read it. Regardless of our wishful thinking, it isn’t going to matter if the story is good or bad if a large portion of readers will not even pick it up to give it a shot.
People in minority groups have been reading characters unlike themselves all of their lives. I don’t need to tell that Asian mom that she should be willing to read characters unlike her son in order to support the diversity movement. She already does. And so do members of the LGBT community. They read the books that big publishers publish, which are mostly centered on white, straight, cisgender characters.
Of course not every reader does this. There are readers who read a variety of characters and appreciate the diversity. Of course this is not meant as a scolding of “all you people”. I’m only pointing out that there are things society needs to do better. Honestly, if you have found your way to my blog and are even reading this, you probably aren’t the problem.
So what *is* the problem? The problem is that expectations are too high, both writers’ and readers’, and frustration ensues. Writers think that because “Diverse Books” is such a big movement that they are going to find a huge readership waiting for them if they just write a great story about a minority character.
Readers, for their part, want books with characters like themselves to be more than simply written. They want those books to be bestsellers, to win awards, and be in the hands of their peers. They don’t want to have to sift through an ocean of books to find the indie-author writing what they’ve asked for. They want the book they want, but they want it to be popular, easy to find, and mainstream. Authors alone cannot make that happen, not even with a kick-ass story.
There is a lot of work involved in changing our world into one with diverse books. Authors begin that work by creating the stories. But that is only a tiny part of what happens next. The people holding the most power are the readers begging for diversity. Our success depends on whether or not they are willing to seek out, support (as in pay money for), and promote the stories they want. Are they willing to suggest a book with a minority character to someone not in that same minority? I hope so.
I hope we all grow as readers. I hope, as an author and a reader, I push a few hesitant folks into enjoying stories about characters not like themselves. I hope more authors will create diverse worlds in their books, worlds which reflect our own reality. I hope this movement grows until there is no longer under-representation of any group.
But I will not lie to you and say good stories will sell no matter what. I will not tell you, readers, that you have no role to play here. Slowly, we authors will gravitate toward diversity as the mainstream audience slowly comes to meet us halfway. It takes both of us and it won’t be easy for either. But we’ll get there.