A group of authors concerned about the lack of diversity in children’s literature launched a campaign on social media recently to raise awareness and influence decision-makers in the publishing industry. On Twitter, their hashtag,#WeNeedDiverseBooks, trended for several days. They had a big presence on Tumblr as well (http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/), where numerous contributors posted pictures of themselves holding signs explaining why we need diverse books. I encourage you to visit it; many of the entries are moving and thought-provoking.
The State of Diversity in Publishing
There’s no doubt that minorities of all kind are underrepresented both as writers and characters in children’s literature and fiction in general. The School of Education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, tracks the number of books about and/or by people of color published in the US. In 2013, out of approximately 5000 children’s books published, only 93 were about black people, 69 about Asians, 57 about Latinos, and 34 about Native Americans. (If there is a similar survey of LGBT characters, I don’t know of it, but I think we can safely assume the results would be similar.) These numbers were substantially worse than the results 10 years ago.
Publishing has contracted in general, but it seems as if a disproportionate number of the voices forced out were minority writers. American publishing lags behind the other arts and media in its representation of this country’s diversity. Not so long ago it was taken for granted that all political TV pundits were white males; this is far from the case now. Racial and gender diversity is the norm on television dramas and comedies; shows that lack diversity (“Girls”) are singled out for criticism. Music has long transcended class and racial boundaries. And yet publishing still skews overwhelmingly white.
When I first started working in publishing, many years ago, the industry was progressive in that it employed many women in senior positions; but the only black employees I ever met worked in the mailroom. It was a big deal when Random House hired a black editor in 1979. Most opening positions were filled by Ivy League graduates from families who could subsidize their offspring’s pittance of a wage. When you walked through the editorial and executive floors, the faces you saw were overwhelmingly if not exclusively white.
If that were still the situation in publishing, it might explain the paucity of books by and about people of color; but it is no longer true. A great many young editors still seem to come from the Ivy leagues, but those schools themselves have become more diverse. Why, then, have books become less so?
Publishing Economics 101
The answer, I believe, lies in a basic understanding of the economics of the industry. Publishing is a profit-oriented business, even though the profits tend to be relatively small compared to other industries. All the large houses are owned by corporations. Publishers of imprints are judged by their bottom line; consequently they judge their editors the same way. An editor whose books do not make money will not thrive in commercial publishing. As for literary agents, having been one for many years, I can tell you how they think. They ask themselves two questions about everything they read: Do I love it? Can I sell it? If the answer to the second question is no, the answer to the first is irrelevant.
As long as editors believe that books by and about LGBT and non-white people will appeal only to “niche readerships,” that belief will factor into their decisions and those of their publishing boards. The best way to dissuade them of this belief is by proving it wrong. Awards are nice, but nothing garners respect like sales figures that exceed expectations. Books about people of color that break through to wide popular readership — books like Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale or Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner — probably open more doors for other diverse writers than anything else could. But the odds of such breakthroughs shrink to insignificance when so few diverse books are published to begin with.
Remedying this situation will take concerted action by publishers, writers and readers. But before I get into that, I want to take a step back and talk about the goal itself. What is diversity in fiction?
What Diversity Is and Isn’t
Let me start with a true story. Years ago, I wrote a novel called A Heartbeat Away, a modern adaptation of my favorite book in the world, Pride and Prejudice. The novel was set primarily in a large inner-city ER, secondarily in a number of jazz clubs. The two main characters were black, and many of the secondary characters were black or Latino. When the book was finished, my agent sent it to my long-time editor at one of the Big Six publishers, who called me a few days later to tell me I had just written the best book of my career.
I expected that an offer would follow soon. In fact, six weeks passed before we had any further response. It came in the form of another call from my editor. She said she had shown the book to others in the company, who all agreed it was a first-class novel. Some, however, wondered whether I, as a white writer, should have been the one to write it. There had been some debate, but eventually they had agreed to publish.
I was astonished. If they had said the characters were unconvincing, that I had failed in that way, I could have accepted it. But to say in one breath that I had succeeded in creating true and affecting characters, and in the next that I did not have the right to create such characters, seemed to me a total misunderstanding of what fiction does and how it works – and this from publishing people.
The characters in that book were black or Hispanic because they had to be for the story I wanted to tell. For a long time I had been looking for a modern setting with the extreme class stratification of Jane Austen’s world. One day, a very long day spent with a sick child in a grim Brooklyn emergency room, I found that highly stratified microcosm. I spent some time in the cafeteria and noticed that the groups at various tables were segregated by rank, not race. Doctors sat with doctors, nurses with nurses, aides with aides. There were doctors of many races and ethnicities, but on the lower rungs of the hierarchy, the employees were almost all black. Since my story, based on Pride and Prejudice, was about a love affair that crossed class boundaries, I chose as my protagonist a woman whose housekeeping job put her on the bottom of the ladder. Her lover was at the top: the director of the Emergency Department. Given the novel’s setting, the housekeeper pretty much had to be black, which meant her lover must also be black. If he weren’t, the novel would come to be about the crossing of racial boundaries as opposed to class boundaries, which was my interest.
I didn’t want to be published halfheartedly or apologetically, so we took the book away and sold it to Morrow. It came out to wonderful reviews, was optioned by MGM, and published in five languages, so my story had a happy ending. Not so for a writer friend of mine, who wrote a wonderful folkloric novel set in what seemed to be but was never identified as a Native American village. She submitted to multiple literary agents, a number of whom liked the book very much but told her that they didn’t believe publishers would buy a book about Native Americans written by a white woman.
Does diversity refer only to the race or sexual orientation of the author? Must that race or gender identification match that of the book’s subject? Should writers restrict themselves to their own race, class, nationality, religion and gender?
I understand the objections of some Native American writers to those who “appropriate” a culture that is not theirs. When that culture is distorted in the resulting work, the distortion itself is legitimate ground for criticism. But I disagree with the concept of appropriation, because it implies an ownership that does not exist. This is, of course, an old, ongoing argument. When William Styron published Sophie’s Choice, many people criticized him for “appropriating” the Holocaust – as if anyone could own that.
One of the goals of diverse fiction is to allow all readers, especially young ones, to find people like themselves in books. But another is to allow readers to experience lives very different from their own, to see through the eyes of characters different from themselves. Diverse fiction expands the reader’s world, dissolves barriers and promotes empathy. Stories transcend boundaries in their origins as well as in their effect on readers. Writers are most fairly judged on how well they succeed, not on what they attempt.
Publishers, writers and readers all have a role to play in creating a more diverse pool of literature.
Publishers are the ultimate gatekeepers, which to my mind imposes a positive obligation to seek out and publish diverse literature, instead of taking refuge in notions like “niche readerships.” Designations like that can result in lowered expectations and consequently less support.
Writers need to broaden their spectrum. “Write what you know” doesn’t mean stick to your own backyard. It means doing what actors do: finding a commonality with diverse characters and working outward from that common core. Of course, writers need to populate their stories with characters appropriate to the plot and setting; I’m just saying they shouldn’t automatically default to the writer’s own race and gender. If you have a group of kids in the story, why not put one in a wheelchair? Why not mix it up a bit racially? Why not give one of the characters two Dads instead of a Mom and a Dad? That level of diversification can in itself be effective; and it needn’t be the focus of the story unless the writer wants it to be.
Readers need to seek out and support excellent diverse books, and by support I mean buy, review, discuss and recommend. Reading endless variations of genre books may be comforting, but it’s mac and cheese for the soul. We need to challenge ourselves more. Ursula Le Guin once said that, “First sentences are doors to worlds.” Readers are adventurers by nature. With so many worlds to explore, why limit ourselves to Planet Vanilla?