The Problem with Diversity in Books

A notable readers’ convention, BookCon, has come under scrutiny for its lineup of children’s writers. Thirty of the featured authors are white. A coalition of bloggers, publishing professionals, and authors came together to create #WeNeedDiverseBooks to protest BookCon’s whitewashing (forgive the pun!) of children’s fiction.

First of all, let me say this: I believe in and support good writers. Period. I don’t really care what background an author is–whether they’re people of color or LGBTQ or a different ethnicity or faith than me. I’ve often thought of myself as kind of a blank slate for writers, judging each on the merits of their work.

But it doesn’t work that way. I’m wrong when I think that, and I’ll tell you why.

I can’t be a blank slate when the book industry doesn’t publish people of color. I can’t be a blank slate if a LGBTQ writer gets a smaller ad budget than an equally (or lesser) known straight author. I can’t be a blank slate if white authors aren’t inclusive with other characters. My only caveat is the writing, right? Well, if that’s so–why are my shelves lined with 80 percent white male authors? Why are there only a few dissenting voices on my bookshelves: Khaled Hosseini’s brilliant novel The Kite Runner, Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man?

That’s not enough.

Do I read white guys because I am a white guy? Do white guys largely tell the stories I want to read? Is it nature, or is it nurture? I don’t really know. This is a multifaceted topic that makes me question authors, the publishing industry, convention organizers, and my own motives. As a guy who writes, and who wants to be inclusive in his own fiction, I think about this a lot.

One of my literary idols, Robert B. Parker, was very good about being inclusive in his fiction. Forgive Rob, if you can, for being an old white guy. His novels were filled with blacks, whites, Asians, gays, bisexuals, racists, bigots and sexists. In other words, he pretty much had the American experience down pat. Sometimes the “other” that Parker wrote about was the villain. Sometimes the “other” was not. The type of character played no role into defining the character as good or bad. It depended instead upon the story he told. He shaded his characters as individuals, and did it very well. It probably helped that both of his sons were gay. He had an intense understanding of what the “other” in his life was, but it didn’t matter to him. He loved both of his sons dearly, from all accounts, and their sexual orientation did not matter to him. They were simply his sons.

I found Parker to be inclusive in his fiction. It’s a wide world out there, and there are millions of unique voices crying out to be heard. There are writers who deserve the chance to tell their stories–to encourage others like them that they are not alone in their experience. That’s important, and the organizers of BookCon should have seen that to begin with. No one should have had to call them out on this.

As a writer, I try to set aside my ethnicity. I try, but I can’t do it completely. I’m currently writing a novel about a black moonshiner in 1931 Alabama who reluctantly begins a love affair with a married white woman. It’s incredibly challenging to write, but I think the challenge is worth it. The hardest part is to be true to all of the characters.

So this is the author’s problem. Sometimes we forget to put in other viewpoints than our own. We reset to the things that are like us. If we’re white, we often write about white people. And because white authors are published about 10 times more frequently than people of color, white characters–main ones and supporting ones–abound. That troubles me and reminds me that I would rather be more like Robert B. Parker. I can’t say Parker celebrated diversity, because I didn’t know the man. But I knew him through his books enough to know that he was inclusive of people who weren’t always exactly like him.

I wish BookCon could say the same thing.

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