If I were making a speech as opposed to writing a blog post in my pjs this morning, I would look around the room somewhat solemnly and say: “Raise your hand if you’re aware that diversity in literature is a problem.” I would expect a few bemused blinks and roughly half the room to raise their hands.
Did you (symbolically, metaphorically, mentally, actually) raise yours?
If I were part of the audience, beneath thoughts of wishing I were still in my pjs, I would dimly recognize, “Yes, of course I know that it’s a problem. Duh. Diversity.” But how much do you or I really get about this? Initially, this blog post was meant to be a discussion of how effective discussions about diversity in literature are, inspired by my friend Leonicka‘s attempts to start a weekly #DiverseCanLit chat . But the more I delved into the topic, the more I realized I didn’t know, and the more I realized how much I wanted to bring this grievous deficiency to light. The first productive step to entering a conversation is to realize that it exists. The second step is to become aware of what you’re talking about. So here goes, my first attempt at true awareness of the lack of diversity in Western literature.
It’s safe to say that diversity is a wide-set, all-encompasing term. Literature in the West, as it turns out, is not all-encompassing by any means. Here are some stats that disturbed my working knowledge of the industry I work in (links embedded for further, highly recommended graphics and statistics):
- Between 1994-2012, a collective 10% of children’s books have contained multicultural content.
- The highest number of children’s books with multicultural content to be published in one year: 12.
- In 2011, The London Review of Books published 186 males, 30 females.
- In 2011, The New York Times reviewed books by $520 male authors, 273 female authors.
- Overall, in 2011, The New Yorker had 613 posts about/by males, 242 female.
- In 2013, five middle-grade books were written with a black protagonist.
- I wanted to replicate ALL the facts of this brilliant and upsetting article, Diversity in ALA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults. Instead I will urge you to go and read it. Before reading this article, I was under the misguided impression that authors and characters of color were somewhat well represented in the literary community. False.
Safe to say, this is a big problem. While there is awareness, it’s minimal and clearly ineffective. So what are the problems that we should realistically tackle as readers, writers, publishers, and members of a rapidly changing society? Out of the dozens of articles I read for this post, it is clear that there is plenty of responsibility to go around. Writers of different races and sexualities are hesitant to share their work with bigger publishers for fear of rejection. They resort to self-publishing, which is nowhere nearly established enough to make an impact. The fact that a badly-written pile of erotica made it to the top when books of meaning are buried in the $0.99 pile is a problem in and of itself. The publishers claim that they do not receive many submissions from diverse authors but, articles have cited many times, publishers are not willing to take the risk on an unknown author with from a marginalized background. Why? The books won’t sell. This leads right in to the bookstores; if you don’t stock them, how do you know you can’t sell them? And this circles back to the readers: start buying books that matter.
A few excellent articles that tie in to this bottom line in a more specific manner are as follows:
“Here’s Junot Diaz: …To write, we must listen. To listen, we must shut up. And this isn’t the simple kind of listening, where you’re waiting for them to finish what they can say so you can jump in real quick with your point. Really, have a seat, take a deep breath, and listen to what people around you are saying. Listen to yourself, your quiet self. To your doubts and fears, the things you don’t want to admit. Listen to the things folks say that make you uncomfortable. Sit with that discomfort.” 12 Fundamentals of Writing The Other (And The Self)
“The social stigma attached to candid discussions of racial themes creates a silence preventing explicit talk about race, and this silence leads to further, subtle segregation—even within multiethnic, otherwise harmonious classrooms.” Straight Talk on Race: Challenging The Stereotypes in Kids’ Books
“The right resources can save lives. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and/or questioning teens are disproportionately at risk for being bullied, becoming homeless, and attempting suicide. Despite an increased representation of LGBTQ teens in the media (especially white, middle-class gay male teens), LGBTQ teens often feel isolated, confused, and without support.” Speaking Out
“Quintero also related an experience with the publishing industry that she said displays the pressing need not just for diversity but for awareness and cultural sensitivity. Quintero, who identifies as Afro-Latina, described having a Latina editor turn down one of her manuscripts. The rationale? Because the book’s protagonist was living in foster care instead of in a large extended family, her editor didn’t find her “Latina enough.”” Kid Lit Authors Discuss Diversity at NPYL
The floor is open for discussion. Let’s talk about these articles. Let’s talk about the multitude of obstacles in the way of diversity. Let’s talk about diversity in literature–as it stands and as it should be.