Thursday, May 22, 2014

Who's afraid of diversity in books?

This gritty cyberpunk novel stars a
woman of Central American descent
My theory is: writers are. And marketers, of course, but everyone knows that.

Well, let's start with them, since their reasoning is obvious. Marketers know that we live in a Western country where Straight White Able-Bodied Male is considered neutral. So anything else, except maybe a book a Straight White Able-Bodied Female, is considered "niche." Marketers are afraid of diversity in books because they worry about limiting their audience and therefore the amount of money they can make. 

A modern-day retelling of Cinderella with your usual white beauty in the lead is considered mainstream because in our society, white is normal. A retelling with a black or Hispanic or Asian beauty is suddenly an "issues" book. And Lord help you if you decide to have her dance with Princess Charming. Your market suddenly shrinks from The Whole Universe of Fairytale Lovers - a.k.a. Pretty Much Everyone - to People Interested in Issues Books. So... Frou-Frou Lefty Liberals.

Or so the thinking goes. Luckily times are a-changing, and we, the people, can vote with our wallets.

Now, here's another issue: what if we, the people, want to but have nothing to vote for? What if we go to the bookstores with our handy little credit cards, aiming to go totally colorblind on our purchases so long as the premise sounds interesting, but find that all the stories we're actually interested in star the usual milky suspects?

This being 2014, I like to think that a publisher wouldn't not publish a book because it starred a minority if the premise was good. Would Harry Potter be any less magical if Harry - or even Ron or Hermione - was of Indian descent? Would the Hunger Games be any less suspenseful if Katniss were bisexual and Gale were Gail? Would Percy Jackson be any less adventurous if Grover happened to be black? I guess not, since they cast a black actor as the character in the movie version and no one complained (well, they complained, but not about that).

So perhaps the issue starts with the source: the writers. 

The first piece of advice any newbie writer gets, after "stop before you hurt yourself," is "write what you know." Sound advice, so long as it's not applied too literally. Now, take a look at the population of writers, especially bestselling ones, and... Wellp, I think you know where I'm going with this.

My sword-wielding Asian teen.
A stereotype? Whatever.
I think there's an underlying nervousness with writers, especially new ones, when it comes to writing diverse characters. For those trying to break in, the fear might come from the thought that their book won't be marketable unless they cast a Jennifer Lawrence lookalike as the lead. Even for those already established, I think there's a worry that they'll do or say something that offends someone somewhere. And in the world of hypersensitive Internet opinions, it's a valid fear. Would someone accuse you of writing a racial stereotype because you envisioned your character as an Asian martial artist, even though you thought of her as a martial artist first? [I use this example because I just know I'm going to get flack somewhere down the line for making my character Aurelia a double-sword-wielding fighter of Chinese descent.] 

So, to avoid the perceived future accusations of racism, many writers default to the norm... Straight White People. Can't offend them! [Well, you can, but only if they're real kooks.]

Part of the problem also lies in the fact that we are surrounded by Straight White People in media, and so we've subconsciously absorbed the credo: This is normal. Anything else is an "issue."

This historical mystery stars
a biracial girl, with a Chinese boy
as the romantic lead. Oh my!
Some writers try to add color to their books by adding minority supporting cast members to their stories, but this kind of tokenism doesn't help much; in fact, it can harm. Because it says, "Minorities can't be the lead. But they can be decorative." Argh.

The fact is that we live in a diverse world, and no one should have to feel invisible or shunted into the category of "niche." It's hard to change the ways of marketers, since they're working toward a Corporate-Ordered Bottom Line, so let's change the market.

If books starring minorities - and not just "cultural" books like Amy Tan's repertoire - start flying off the shelves, the marketers will get the hint. Unlike the noisemakers who fret about anything different from themselves, they don't care about politics - they just want to sell stuff. I would know... I am one.

And to help that along, writers have to give readers more options. It's not fair to ask readers to buy books just because they star a minority. Books are about good stories first.

So, are you afraid of diversity in books? No? Prove it.


  1. I have never given this much thought until recently. It was more of an 'oh wow non-white hero, that's uncommon but interesting' but I never went past that. It never even occurred to me to go past that because where I come from, we're not as diverse at all. But recently I started to notice it and I always love it when the book has a non-white hero, makes me want to read it even more. :)

    "Minorities can't be the lead. But they can be decorative." totally agree!

    1. Right, in parts of the world that are more homogenous, it's understandable that the books would be too. But the US is a very diverse nation... yet the bookshelves aren't reflecting that. I think it has to do with the fact that writing is a career for people who come from privileged backgrounds for the most part. And those people tend to be white in this country.