Diversity in Fiction
Appropriate on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day that I offer some thoughts on diversity, in this case in the fiction world.
Let me open by saying that in no way does the level of diversity in fiction these days compare with the importance of Dr. King’s mission and the Civil Rights Movement. There are plenty of issues facing minorities even today that are more urgent than the documented “whiteness” of literature, the publishing industry, Hollywood, and so on.
Still, on this day, in addition to human and civil rights of all minorities, I also ponder visibility and access and influence of same in the arts.
Yet this isn’t an academic exploration of the topic. Searching online for phrases such as “diversity in literature” or “diversity in the publishing industry” will, I have no doubt, take you to multiple reputable sources on the subject, that will demonstrate how despite progress, such arenas in this country are still disproportionately influenced by Caucasians. They can site sources and studies and everything the professor in you loves.
Rather, this post is about a question I’m posing to myself. Do I personally contribute, as an author and a reader, to a lack of diversity in fiction?
Not intentionally, of course, and I would hope you would believe that. But do I do it subconsciously?
Let’s start with my own fiction. Going over all the stories and novels I’ve completed, I’ve estimated that about 85-90% of my characters were written with no race in mind. That is to say in most cases, there is to me nothing in the world that prevents most of my characters from being seen as at least a racial minority, and in many cases a sexuality-minority. Because most of my fiction to date has not dealt specifically with issues pertaining exclusively to folks of a particular minority, I’ve not put in specific efforts to highlight race. I see my characters in my mind when I write, but that doesn’t mean a reader is expected to see them the same way. I see no reason on the surface why Matt from Flowers of Dionysus needs to be white. I certainly designed no such reasons.
The key word here being “designed.” So the question becomes if I have made Matt or any of my characters “white by default.” Do my characters speak, eat, work in ways that would somehow make them highly unlikely to be a minority? (Or at least, not a realistic one?)
In general, though I can understand the question, I still don’t think so. I don’t tend to believe in such things as “he talks like a black guy.” This is a stereotype to me that I absolutely want no parts of. Many environmental factors go into the more well known vernacular of any given person, other than their race. I will perhaps cop to the notion that most of my fiction takes place in the type of situations or settings that breed certain life or speaking styles, but I bristle at the notion that my fiction is “white.”
Fiction directed toward the specific struggles and perceptions of minorities does exist, and must exist. We need more of it, in fact. The lack of a specific demographic in most of my fiction is not my way of dismissing minority issues. Rather my particular fiction usually doesn’t address those issues, and indeed I do not think I’m qualified at this time to explore most such issues in the emotional detail and authenticity they deserve. Should I decide to write such a work in the future, much research would have to come first. (There is a difference between my intellectual understanding and awareness of an issue facing a minority, and my ability to portray it through my fictional characters with any degree of sincerity.)
My hope is that for my “color blind” characterizations, there is nothing overtly ridiculous, nothing that flies in the face of a serious minority issue, or denies it’s existence simply because I am not writing about it. I don’t feel I am guilty of this, but I would accept thoughts on the subject from readers of my fiction.
Speaking of readers, what about my life as a reader? Do I impede diversity by patronizing only Caucasian authors that write Caucasian stories for Caucasian readers?
Once again, I obviously don’t do this on purpose.
A quick overview of my Goodreads list indicates that I do read work by women quite often. (Most of my non-fiction is by women authors for some reason.) Most of the authors do seem to be Caucasian, and that may mean that on a subconscious level, I am somehow “detecting fellow whiteness” when I read about the plot of a book. I won’t dismiss the idea completely. Yet unless there’s a picture of the author on the back of a book I pick up to read, I often have no idea what they look like. I’m one of those odd people that goes all over the place chasing fiction to read. I look for keywords and concepts, tone and nature of plot. Thus far I don’t often go looking for work by a specific author. I actually don’t even read the “about the author” section of most fiction I read.
So if a Muslim woman from Africa wrote a novel that sounded appealing to me, I would pick it up.
But what about a novel about a Muslim woman from Africa?
I’ve read books with women as protagonists, as well as African-Americans, and Muslims. Again, if the plot description intrigues me, I will read, and some plot descriptions about minorities have done so. However, (and I don’t know what it may mean) a quick scan of my book list from the last several years indicates more of the protagonists in the books I read are Caucasian. Again, I suppose this could in fact be a subconscious tuning-in to “fellow whiteness.” I think I’m probably better than that, but I won’t assume my own perfection here.
I don’t think it can be ignored, however, that walking into any standard library of bookstore, one is quickly surrounded by books written by Caucasians, more so than those of minorities. One can sling a dead cat in a book store and usually hit a book by a Caucasian author. It’s an ocean in which it is quite easy to swim, and therefore the sample size to which I’ve been exposed I think would make it easier to by hooked by such books written by such authors. Greater opportunity.
The final question is, could I make the effort to intentionally seek out fiction by/about minority people? The answer is less ambiguous this time; yes.
This is not to say I avoid them now. Still, as I said, if I spend an hour looking at potential reads in a library, I am statistically more likely to happen across “Caucasian” books as part of my sampling than I am any other race. If, however, I state the intention to read more novels by minority authors, I am then certain to at least be exposed to more of them, because I am looking for them. Instead of looking for a good read, I’m looking for a good read written by or about minorities. The book I choose could still suck, but I’d be making an effort to at least not look like I’m homing in on one particular race. (Or sexuality, or class or creed or religion, and so forth.)
The overwhelmingly “white” nature of fantasy fiction makes me think I might start there, as fantasy with a more ethnic component is very slowly starting to emerge. I’ve not been a fan of fantasy that I’ve read in most cases. Perhaps that could change…
But fantasy or not, I will change some of my searching from now on. I will in fact always be “does it sound interesting?” reader first, with all other things second. I’ll probably always read more “color blind” stories like my own (?) more often than not. But on this day, and in the future, I can do better with intent.
So in the end, I will say I am probably not biased on a subconscious level when it comes to fiction, but leave open the possibility that I sometimes am, if a different view were presented. I also find myself mostly not-guilty of seeking out “white things” to read. I find myself somewhat lacking in my intentional search for minority fiction.
What about you? How’s your taste in diversity?