5.28.2012

The Color of Fiction: Are Our Books Diverse Enough?

I'm no racist, but then I read articles like this and I start to wonder if I'm part of the problem. The article states that 90% of young adult books feature only white people on the cover. Hardly any minorities are represented, and forget about the disabled. In a few cases, books with black main characters had white people on the cover. That's even more disturbing.

I was saddened by this, to say the least. Imagine being a young African American (or Asian or Hispanic, or Arab, etc etc) wandering through the bookstore or library looking for something to read and seeing nobody who looks anything like you on a cover. As an overweight woman who rarely sees images of my body type representing anything other than "how NOT to look," I can say with some experience that it sucks. But the problem doesn't persist only for minorities. The lack of fiction being aimed at young males, whites and minorities alike, these days is absolutely appalling, but I'll save that post for another day.

Is it racism that causes this lack of diversity? Does one beget the other? Why is this happening?

This caused me to do a lot of thinking. I'm still thinking. I'm thinking out loud right now, actually, so if this seems disjointed or incoherent in parts, that's why. It's because I'm still trying to come to an understanding about my own role in this issue and how, or even if, I should try to do something to reconcile it.

First of all, I think the lack of minorities being represented on book covers speaks largely to a problem in the mainstream publishing industry. How many minority authors are working in popular fiction today? Probably a lot, but how many of them are widely known? Who is the black JK Rowling or James Patterson? IS there one? Sure, I can name a number of prominent black literary giants, dead or alive: (Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Alex Haley, Richard Wright). But what about contemporary authors? Off the top of my head, I can think of Octavia Butler, Zane, Omar Tyree. But none of them are household names. I guess unless you're black.

And that's the thing, isn't it? It seems that the work of minority authors is aimed specifically at minorities, while the work of white authors is aimed at... well, everybody I guess. And white authors predominantly write white characters. That isn't something to be ashamed of. That's just the way it is, just as black authors write black characters, Asian writers write Asian characters, etc. We all write from the best place of understanding inside ourselves.

But in the publishing world, is there some belief that stories prominently featuring people of color won't sell? I think there might be. What would have happened if Twilight were about a black or even bi-racial couple? Would it have even been published? I don't think it would have. I think there is an assumption that lies in the heart of this issue that minorities simply don't read enough to justify the effort to market books that represent them, and that frightens me most of all.

So now, as a writer, I'm forced to turn to my own catalog of work and examine just how little representing I've done of minorities. While I have written several supporting characters who are of different ethnic backgrounds, I have only one main character who is non-white, and that book isn't out yet. I have contemplated writing an African American main character on a few occasions, but I've run into a few obstacles that forced me to abandon the idea. Namely that I wouldn't be able to do it right.

To me, it isn't enough to simply describe someone as black or Asian, etc, without taking into account issues of culture and language. Maybe I could leave that out, but then I would feel as if I was whitewashing them, or of making someone a certain color just to score diversity points without having to do the actual work of understanding WHY I chose to make someone a specific ethnic background. And to insert minorities into a story strictly for commercial reasons really turns me off. I'm not into pandering.

But do I even have to have a reason to make someone black or Asian or Latino? I certainly don't think of that when I'm writing white characters. Because I don't think of my characters as "white characters." They're just characters, but maybe it's that way because I'm white. I've read several stories where I had no idea a character was a minority until halfway through when a few adjectives about their appearance were dropped.

Is that appropriate or not? I have no idea. I think some people would be offended by that.

And this is why I haven't strayed beyond what I know when it comes to the cultural backgrounds of my characters. I feel like any way I cut it, I'm damned. I don't want to make a character black to appease some quota or to just make myself look good, because I think that is almost as demeaning as writing a stereotypical Butterfly McQueen caricature (unless, of course, that was supposed to the be the function of the character--it's always a delicate balance, isn't it?). There is a black female character in my Shiva Paradox book, and I'm currently writing a Japanese femme fatale in my Colt Coltrane story, but I won't lie. I'm scared to death I'm fucking it up.

I don't know if it's going to be up to me to solve the problem of diversity in the contemporary literature marketplace. That's ultimately up to the publishers, I think. I'm certain there are plenty of minority authors writing stories featuring strong minority characters that would appeal to the mainstream at large, and it sure would be nice if the publishers were making them more widely known and available to readers and stop making outdated assumptions about what people expect out of good literary characters. But until that happens, I think it's going to continue looking awfully white out there.