Talk to me about diversity in fiction

14286336764_72335521ac_oLast week I heard rumbles of dissatisfaction on Twitter from some of my romance author friends at the RWA conference.

And although I followed the Stupid Puppies fight no closer than scanning some headlines, I expect that’s still being fought in the SFF world too.

Are Romance and SFF the only genres where diversity is discussed? Click To Tweet Maybe they’re just big and loud with a tendency to turn housekeeping into performance art.

No. Diversity is a global forest fire that flashes up sporadically into public awareness, but it’s been burning for years, regardless of whether the public sees it.

Diverse: showing a great deal of variety; very different. Oxford Dictionary

So, diversity in fiction.

As it affects personally, or doesn’t, or is perceived and acted upon, or not, by readers, authors, and publishing professionals.

 

First off, what’s it got to do with me?

The glaringly obvious answer is that I’m human, and by its very nature diversity is about all of humanity.

Then there’s my 24 years as a chronically ill spoonie. I’ve been experiencing diversity in life for far longer than I’ve been writing diverse characters in my novels. Not dying with it: living with it. Spoonies are the quietest lobby group you ever won’t hear shouting.

Most importantly, I have many friends of all ages who are women, and/or persons of colour, and/or LGBT, and/or physically disabled, and/or mentally disabled, and/or chronically ill with any number of physical and/or mental conditions, and/or people from ethnic minorities and/or from classes, cultures and countries that place them at an undeniable disadvantage in terms of economic difficulty and/or human prejudice.

 

So many

Because, despite the opinion held by some that diverse means other, the fact is that diverse is normal.

Compared with the huge numbers of people who are disadvantaged in all those various ways, the group of mainly middle class, mainly well-educated, mainly white, mainly straight, and normally healthy people who tend to enjoy freedom from prejudice in life and relative ease of passage in the UK/US publishing industry are actually a small minority.

That’s life, I hear someone say.

Yes it is, but life can be changed. Life should be changed when it’s shitty and unfair.

 

Read this

It’s the definition of diversity used by the University of Oregon’s Steering Committee on Diversity. It’s beautiful.

The concept of diversity encompasses acceptance and respect.

It means understanding that each individual is unique, 
and recognizing our individual differences. These can be along 
the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, 
political beliefs, or other ideologies. It is the exploration 
of these differences in a safe, positive, and nurturing environment.

It is about understanding each other and moving beyond 
simple tolerance to embracing and celebrating the rich dimensions of diversity contained within each individual.

I love that. In the spirit of it, my definition of diversity is:

The inclusion and celebration of the full range of humanity in fiction.

 

What do you think?

How does my definition work for you?

What are your experiences of diversity in fiction? Your views? Will you share them with us?

How do you think we can move our industry to a place where everyone will have a fair chance of being published?

Or of writing diverse works for publication?

Or of buying and reading books with characters who reflect our own lives and identities? And our children’s?

What about, for example, white people writing characters of colour? It’s a step, but in the right or wrong direction? If it’s a problem, is it still a problem when an author rejects tokenism and cultural appropriation, researches well, and writes her characters well?

In self-publishing, there’s an evident freedom to write and enthusiasm to read diverse characters. Will that freedom be a tipping point that’ll bring big and small presses sliding inevitably into the real world?

Or are the old ways so entrenched there’ll be no changing them, no matter how many people are shouting for diversity and for how long we shout?

Will mainstream publishing continue to be a mainly white middle class industry with magical access for privileged kids via unpaid (or at best inadequately paid for their big city location) internships that most young people can’t afford to contemplate?

 

Is there hope?

Are there already some real changes happening?

Are some small presses leading the way?

Is the YA world’s enthusiastic support for the #weneeddiversebooks campaign a birthplace for a better future throughout the industry?

Or does the call for diverse books carry within itself a potential for danger, in that it’s likely to maintain the view of an exotic otherness rather than embracing the normality, the universality, of human experience?

 

Oh, and this business of the UK/US publishing industry that I mentioned earlier

That isn’t a privileged mindset at all, is it?

How about, as well as encouraging and promoting diversity in Western publishing (which includes Canada, Australia and New Zealand, of course) we make it easier for books written and published elsewhere in the world to be visible and available here?

Non-English markets are flooded with translations from English, but the tide doesn’t flow the other way. Why is that? Can we change it?

Are translation services too expensive? Why is that and how can we change it? I hope we can get beyond The Market in this.

(The Market isn’t a god. At best it’s a lazy excuse used by privileged people who don’t want to act to change something, and at worst it’s an aggressive shield used to stop what they feel is an attack on their comforts. When people like that trot out “The Market” as a conversation stopper I tend to want to slap their silly privileged heads.)

 

Over to you

What do you think? What do you know? Talk to me. Tell us about it.

 

If you’ve enjoyed this post, you might like this one too:

Why I’m writing a novel with a chronically ill heroine

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10 Responses to Talk to me about diversity in fiction

  1. Thought-provoking post, David; thank you!

    I’ve been a member of a minority my whole life, as a bi-poly-Wiccan. I am blond and blue-eyed, and live in the U.S., so I don’t look like any minority. I also have PTSD and am a trauma survivor, also invisible.

    I find that the mainstream view that the diverse among us should just be quiet, and stop being so dramatic, deeply offensive. It’s been a subtle theme I’ve experienced my whole life. The surprise was how unfriendly the LG community is to bi people. That’s changing, slowly, but I’ve been accused of being on the fence by both sides.

    I’m glad that there’s more discussion of these issues. I particularly like discussions around illness and PTSD; those were forbidden subjects when I was in my 20’s and 30’s. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told to “just get over it” – once by a psychiatrist! No kidding. I went for treatment for anxiety-induced dermatitis (meaning that I was scratching my skin into welts). He refused treatment, saying I needed to get over it, and gave me a tape to listen to on autogenics (a meditation technique). The irony is that I still use autogenics today, so in a way, he helped me. 🙂

    I look forward to continuing the discussion with you, David. 🙂

    • David Bridger says:

      Thank you for describing your experiences, A.

      The invisibility always makes things more interesting, doesn’t it? Even after 24 years of a constantly painful and crippling condition, I’m still surprised by people’s surprise when I struggle physically. Especially if I’m on a good day, mental energy-wise, and we’ve been talking beforehand. Apparently I don’t sound crippled. 🙂

      That view that we should be quiet and not dramatise is deeply offensive, isn’t it? I see it as a frequent symptom of the “wish all this stuff would go away and let me get on with my life” syndrome.

      I’ve seen something of the LG community’s attitude to bi people on Tumblr, and it surprised me too. Naively, before I met people in that community I supposed it would all be rainbows and friendly acceptance. I’m glad you’ve seen some changes in that dynamic now.

      And please don’t get me started on stupid doctors. Clever, emotionally intelligent, good ones, I can’t praise too highly. Stupid ones, I won’t waste my breath on these days.

  2. Rhonda Helms says:

    As an editor, I try to do my part by actively seeking diverse submissions. As a reader, I try to do my part by buying and reading diverse books. As a writer, I try to do my part by including diverse characters in my stories.

    As a white, able-bodied, straight person, I must acknowledge and analyze my privilege, and work harder to ensure I am thoughtful and caring toward others.

    You ask a lot of good questions. All I know is I want to ensure my works and efforts continue to aid in the diversification of fiction, in order to better reflect the world we live in and to celebrate who we are–unique people with feelings and thoughts and beliefs.

    • David Bridger says:

      As an editor, a reader and an author, you do those things very well, Rhonda. And as a person, you’re wonderful. 🙂

      I agree about the importance of us acknowledging and evaluating our own privilege, and keeping in mind our need and desire to be thoughtful and caring to other people.

  3. Ashe Elton Parker says:

    I am transgender, gay/asexual, and bipolar.

    I have been unable to find many traditionally published works which have such characters even as secondary/side characters who are well-written. As a result, and because I’m a writer, I’ve decided to write stories which have, primarily, LGBT and asexual main characters. These are characters I wish to see in the publishing world, and I think they are characters who are needed.

    I’m still working out how to include mentally ill characters, because while I’ve done some research, I know I haven’t done enough to portray them well. I’m also doing the best I can to include characters of other races/ethnicities in my stories. And, sadly, most of my MCs are male; I’m having difficulty with believing I can portray strong female characters and it takes a lot of work for me to do what comes naturally when I draw up a male character, though I’m getting better, as my more recent conceptions of female MCs have been much more reasonable (meaning, they aren’t either Mary Sues or Wilting Wallflowers); it’s just taking practice.

    • David Bridger says:

      Thank you for describing your experiences, Ashe.

      I know something of your situation and have deep respect for you.

      I’m glad you’re writing those characters, because you’re right. We need them.

  4. Madison Stevens says:

    Hummm this is a hard one. I think it’s sorta like the gay marriage debate in the states. Progress is being made and from my stand point, in a shorter amount of time than I ever expected. But still there are moments when it feels like no progress is being made at all. I think we have to look at the over all with these things.

    Romance has really come a long ways. The fact that you can have POC as main characters and use them on the cover and have them sell is just proof of the market. I still think we have some steps to make in disabilities and encouraging more LBGT writing. No matter how small the niche, it’s always worth encouraging.

    Anyways, I’m pro it all. I may not read everything out there but I also realize that my tastes don’t make up the whole market and diversity is always a good thing. 🙂

    As for SF…yeah, I’m not so sure there’s much to be done there. Some of the community seems to be firmly plated in 1950 and we can all stuff it in their opinion. *sigh*

    • David Bridger says:

      Hi, Madison.

      Yeah, the reason I got no closer to the Stupid Puppies debacle than scanning a few headlines, is that over the years I’ve developed a selective block against that sort of idiocy.

      It never seems to end. I suppose it will one day, when the dinosaurs die off. Unless their chosen haunts continue to be hotbeds of privilege and foolishness so that others continue the tradition.

  5. “Non-English markets are flooded with translations from English, but the tide doesn’t flow the other way. Why is that? Can we change it?”

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but I would LOVE to see more books translated into English, rather than out of it. Maybe if we keep buying the translations that are available, and start making more noise on social media and other places, the idea will pick up steam with publishers?

    • David Bridger says:

      Absolutely, Nicola! I would love to read more translations too.

      Let’s start making a noise about it. 🙂

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