“People are the stories they tell”: On the importance of diversity.

/“People are the stories they tell”: On the importance of diversity.

Today I’m over at Book Country with a post on diversity. This was originally supposed to be one of those “listicles” issues but, well. It’s me writing it, so it turned into this, instead. Also, for the record, I wrote this a few months back, prior to the whole blow-up with the 2015 Hugos. Rest assured that there would be… a few changes to the text if I’d been drafting it now, shall we say.

One of the most fascinating things to realize about the (Western) publishing industry is that it’s been around, in some form or another, for something like 500 years. That is one oldindustry. It’s also an old industry that’s seen an enormous amount of disruption, to the point where it seems every year brings something new to shake things up.

If 2014 rattled anything on the manuscript-stacked table, it did it via talk of diversity, a.k.a. the way marginalized and other non-majority authors are treated and their stories told. This is particularly relevant as we enter April, which marks the one year anniversary of the#WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. Originally intended to spotlight the lack of diversity in children’s literature, over the past twelve months it has since grown beyond its original mission statement, spawning conversations in every corner of the industry.

And for good reason. There’s plenty to talk about when it comes to publishing’s relationship to diversity and, to set the scene, let’s begin by pointing out that…

1. Publishing is super, super homogeneous

No matter where you look–from fictional characters to their creators to their producers–the consensus is that the publishing industry is white and it is (with some exceptions) male and it is middle-class. “Write what you know,” says decades worth of well-meaning writing advice. Which, according to a quote attributed to US sci-fi author Joe Haldeman, is “why so many mediocre novels are about English professors contemplating adultery.”

Plenty has been written about this topic already, noting the homogeneity of characters appearing in genres as disparate as children’s lit and erotic romance. Employment wise, the publishing industry as a whole isn’t much better than the fiction it produces, with indications things are getting worse as publishers poach executive talent from the notoriously white and male tech sector. Meanwhile, white male authors are not just more likely to gain critical acclaim–particularly when they write in genres traditionally considered to be “for women“–but to get sympathetic pats on the head from prestigious media outlets when they do “lose out” on literary awards in favor of women or people of color.

Not only that, but plummeting advances for novels mean that “author” is fast becoming more of a side project than a day job. Sure, self-publishing is on the rise, but self-publishing is notoriously cost and labor intensive, making it prohibitive for large segments of the community. Ditto for writing in general, for that matter, and there’s been a lot of chatter recently about the so-called “death of the creative middle class” in countries such as the US. This is a phenomenon that is almost always both phrased and derided as a very white, very privileged sort of thing to complain about. People are dying because they can’t afford health care, and poets are whining that they have to get day jobs? Get real!

But the reality is that the people hit hardest by the de-professionalization of writing as a career path aren’t white middle-class Arts majors. They’re segments that are so disenfranchised they become invisible to the entire debate. The second shift is a well-observed phenomenon and affects more women than men; where does a “third shift” of writing fit into that? (Hint: supportive partners help a lot.) Poverty disproportionately affects people of color compared to white people; when families are struggling to work multiple jobs just to survive, where does the energy come from to produce a novel? Ditto for people with disabilities and mental illness, and for people in the LGBT community. If writing is a privileged person’s hobby, and writers write what they know, how many stories are we missing out on simply because the authors who would’ve written them never even got a chance to start?

The reality is we don’t know what we’re missing out on. And that matters because…

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2018-04-27T13:50:21+00:00 22nd April, 2015|Tags: culture, guest blogs, xp|3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. yellingintothevoid 22nd April, 2015 at 12:20 am
  2. Janet 22nd April, 2015 at 7:34 am

    Thank you for your brilliant post!

    • Alis 22nd April, 2015 at 7:35 am

      Thank you for giving me the opportunity to write it!

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