Diverse Or Not, We Need More Good Books

Christopher Fried Assistant Editor, Wisdom Crieth Without
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Those online are often encouraged to support various causes with hashtags such as #banbossy and #bringbackourgirls. Recently, there has been another hashtag movement afoot: #weneedmorediversebooks. The supporters seek both diverse characters in children’s literature and diverse authors writing such books. It seems innocent enough. Who would be against expanding the representation of varied characters in stories or publishing authors from different backgrounds? I believe that all individuals should have the opportunities to tell the stories that are of interest to him or her, or that they believe are of interest to differing communities. The problem is that this movement is focusing on the wrong issues.

Looking over the Tumblr and Facebook accounts of #weneedmorediversebooks, I understand why the movement has taken hold over the writing and publishing community. There are posts and photos of parents and children of various backgrounds explaining why they need more books that are diverse. People of various ethnic backgrounds, differing sexualities, and even individuals with differing ailments state that the books that they read just don’t have people like them as protagonists. I say protagonists, because there is also a complaint about children’s literature featuring non-whites only as sidekicks or tag-a-long characters. This complaint may be valid, but I fail to see how anything else, besides authors writing the best stories that they are able, will remedy what they view as defects in the publishing world.

Looking at the postings on blogs, Tumblr, and Facebook, one gets the impression that some individuals believe that the industry equivalents of George Lincoln Rockwell and George Wallace run the publishing industry today. That’s far from the truth. In fact, in shopping my novel manuscript, I’ve found that many agents are searching for multicultural and GLBT adult and young adult fiction for publishing. They just want quality fiction that will sell.

“Sell” is the magic word. Publishing is a business, and if your work is likely just to sit on the bookseller’s shelf, the publishers are not going to spend money to publish and market the title, even if they agree with the social viewpoints within.

The principal problem that I have is that nowhere have I seen as much concern for the quality of the fiction.  There seems to be a rush to put as many characters of differing backgrounds in literature with little concern whether people will end up reading the stories.  An anonymous poster states that in her proposed book there is a couple composed of a lesbian and a bisexual, a couple composed of a trans* woman and a non-binary pansexual and a couple composed of asexual males.  The story when it comes together may be interesting, or it could be a PC snooze-fest.  What authors sometimes forget is that there is financial risk in publishing books, and if you don’t have a potential audience, your book is not going to be published.  I’m sorry, but books that focus on genders that the majority of the population have never heard of aren’t likely to be picked up, especially if it’s just a “message” book, with a non-engaging narrative.

Cross-linked from the #weneedmorediversebooks website is an NPR story on First Book, a nonprofit that provides books to children in need; a noble effort. They have a new initiative called Stories for All, where they guarantee to buy 10,000 copies each of diverse titles that they select to distribute, in order to show publishers there is a market for diverse children’s literature. I’m skeptical of this tactic. One questions why this is necessary.

I understand that certain books may be more marketable and thus more easily distributed, but that doesn’t explain why already-published diverse titles are apparently not being bought by households, especially if there’s a hunger for such books. There is an explanation, but it’s one that the media tries to hide, although reports come out regularly exposing the problem. The fact is that black and Hispanic communities are less likely to be involved in book culture than whites. If significant portions of the communities aren’t taking the initiative to read diverse literature that is available, why would the publishing community devote more resources to that sector? Furthermore, it’s no good, except to the author, if an organization purchases thousands of their books and they end up being unread.

I chafe at the idea that children or young adults need diverse authors and literature in order to develop a love for the written word. If the authors are white straight males, good.  If they are not, good. If the characters are white straight males, good. If they are not, good. What would’ve become of the young Richard Wright, if he had decided that due to the (actual and not just perceived) injustices that he suffered, notable writers from the Western canon were of no interest to him, and that it was unfair there were few non-white authors to choose from? Would he have been able to tell the stories that he wanted to in his novel Native Son and his autobiography Black Boy? Not likely.

I don’t want to be sour on initiatives that help voices be heard that might have been overlooked, but I don’t want literature quotas either. That will lead to dangerous places. As C.S. Lewis once said, “The world does not need more Christian literature.  What it needs is more Christians writing good literature.” Similarly, the world does not need more PC, capital-d Diverse literature. What it needs is people — whoever they are — writing good literature.

Tags : books
Christopher Fried