We Need Diverse Books…

I came across the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign recently. Two thoughts sprang to mind:

  1. I really hate this use of the word “diverse”. Hate it hate it hate it.
  2. This is not as simple as people who start campaigns think it is.

The word “diverse” means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “showing a great deal of variety, very different.” We already have diverse books. There are books on quantum physics, geology, embroidery, vampires, sailors, aliens… how much more diversity do you want?

Of course, the campaign for Diverse Books doesn’t use the word “diverse” in that way. They have limited the definition of “diverse” (stripping it of most of its diversity!) to mean only racial, sexual or disability diversity. This annoys me because it seems to imply that the only diversity that counts is racial, sexual or disability. And, following from that, that a book character’s race, sexuality or ability status are the only important things about them – and hence, about real people. Whatever happened to the concept of concentrating on a person’s character rather than their race?

It seems to me that by saying “we need more black characters so that black people will identify with them”, we are one step short of saying “black people only identify with black characters”, which is one step short of saying “black people aren’t like everyone else”, which is one step short of saying “segregation is better because then people will spend time with people who they feel comfortable with” and then just “segregation is better”. (Insert whatever “group” you like.)

It’s worrying to think that we are being encouraged to concentrate on differences rather than similarities, and to think that differences overpower similarities.

On the other hand, books are an important way of introducing people to things they haven’t encountered before. And since a book allows you to look into a character’s mind, you can find out things about being someone else that you could never learn by  talking to a real person (because there are some things you don’t ask even if you know a person very well!).

Which brings me to the second point.

It’s not as easy as the people running this campaign seem to think.

Taking race as an easy example, you can’t just take a character in your story and decide “OK, I need a black character… I’ll make her black.” If you make a character black, then you are not just changing hair, eye and skin colour: you are changing her family background, her culture, and probably her outlook on life as well. And what will that do to how she relates to the other characters and how she acts within the plot? If you change a character’s race, you could end up wrecking your whole storyline (and the same applies to any other characteristic with a major impact on a person’s life). For instance, if your main character is a wizard, then your character’s cutural baggage will become very important. A white person from the fairly secular UK would react differently from a white American from the Bible Belt, or from a Catholic Nigerian or a West Indian Episcopalian or an Asian Muslim. Even if a person does not practise the dominant religion of their culture, the cultural baggage will still inform their reactions.

Then, of course, there’s the avoidance of stereotypes. If you’re writing fantasy, you have an easy ride here, because culture is what you make it. If you’re writing in this world, you need to get it right. The more important your character is, the more detail you will have to give on their background and worldview – and the more chance you’ll get it wrong if that character has a background you’re not familiar with, or that you’ll end up writing a cringeworthy stereotype. And if you get it wrong, even slightly, you will not be given the credit for trying – you’ll be savaged. You will not get “Thanks to the author for attempting this” – you will get “This is patronising/insulting/demeaning”.

I’m relatively lucky in that regard; in one of my jobs at the moment, I’m the token white girl in the office so I’m exposed to Indian, Pakistani, West Indian, and Kurdish culture, plus a range of takes on Islam. In a previous job, one of my colleagues was an African nun (Catholic). But even so, I’d hesitate to write a main character who was black or Asian, because I just don’t know enough to be sure I’d get it right. I’d have to do an awful lot more research, and it would be the sort of thing that reference books wouldn’t tell me – the day to day detail of life.

Then, of course, there’s the story-believability of adding in characters of multiple races. If your book is set in a contemporary rural English community, a non-white character becomes less believable. Not only is 90% of the population of the UK white, but the non-white 10% is mostly concentrated in the cities. That’s not to say you couldn’t have a non-white character in a little English village – but you’d need a better back-story to explain it than you’d need for the same character in London.

If you’re writing medievalesque fantasy, the problem is different again: you’re writing about a period when travel is difficult. Immigration is likely to be rare, so your communities are going to be racially homogenous – unless there’s a very good explanation why not.

Even writing historical fiction, you have to be careful; if you are writing a character who is not native to the setting, where would your immigrant have come from, and why? And what opportunities would be open to that character, as an immigrant, in that time and place?

Moving on from race, there is the problem of sexuality. I tend to take the view that a person’s sexuality is only important if you actually want to have sex with them. Otherwise, it’s irrelevant. Likewise, in books, the author knows which way a character swings – probably – but a lot of the time it just isn’t relevant to the story, so why include it? In real life, you don’t know the sexuality of everyone you meet. Taking a real-life example, I’m doing a univerity course; I’m in the second year now. Only this year have I discovered that the guy who runs the coffee shop and (I think) one of the lecturers are gay. Not because they “look gay”, or because they said “by the way, I’m gay”, but because – in conversation – both mentioned their “partner” and used a male pronoun. And I’m not sure about the lecturer because he could have meant “partner” in a business sense.

We tend to make assumptions about people – usually that they are like us. I’ve had someone assume that I was male, for instance, because I was using a non-gendered internet handle and talking about swordplay to a guy. Alternatively, we assume someone conforms to the majority unless proven otherwise. However, we should bear in mind that assumptions are not reality. If a character’s sexual orientation isn’t specified, then why assume they are heterosexual? In fact, in the author’s mind, that character might be gay.

And there are problems with revealing a character’s sexuality. Whatever you do, whenever you do it, people are going to complain. If you make it known in the book that the character is gay, then it’s accusations of putting in the “token gay”. If you only reveal it later (should you be so lucky as to get a media interview) you are accused of keeping it secret to protect sales, or, conversely, revealing it – or making it up – to increase sales. If none of your characters are revealed as gay, then your book is not “diverse” enough.

Moving on to disability, this can be even more problematic than sexuality. In some ways, a disability acts like Chekhov’s gun – if it isn’t important to the story, why include it? And if you do because you want to be “diverse”, then you get accused of being patronising by including the “token disability”.

However, if you’ve decided your character has some kind of disability, this means more research if you are going to do it right. How do blind people make coffee? How do deaf people know when the postman is at the door? Then there’s the logistics of being wheelchair-bound – when travelling, do you ring the train station in advance so they’ll know to have one of those ramps ready? Or do you just buttonhole someone when you get there? How does it feel to self-propel a wheelchair, and how difficult is it to learn to do it?

The invisible disabilities are even more difficult, because they’re usually not something you could experiment with. It’s one thing to try to make coffee wearing a blindfold, but how can you really understand depression unless you’ve experienced it – or had a very detailed discussion with someone who has? How do you understand way someone with Asperger’s Syndrome sees the world?

Then, of course, there’s the difficulty of emphasis. Are you writing about a guy who saves the world (who just happens to have a disability), or are you writing about the disability? If you’re not careful, your story ends up like one of those awful Improving Books that adults give to children, to teach them what adults want them to know about death and divorce, and why Drugs Are Bad – all preaching and no entertainment.

But, of course, in the final analysis, none of this is as important as the fact that a story come from the writer’s imagination. If in the writer’s mind the character is white and male and heterosexual, making that character black and female and gay is unlikely to improve the story. In fact, forcing the character into a shape that doesn’t fit the author’s vision is likely to damage the story because that character will no longer be “natural”, and it will pull the whole story out of shape. I’ve experienced this myself: I had one character that I simply couldn’t make come out right. She always seemed to be slightly out-of-focus, and she didn’t fit into the character’s assigned place in the plot. Then I reimagined her as black – and suddenly, she fit perfectly. Not only did she come into focus, but her entire family did too, and so did her timeline going forward. That character is black not because I wanted to include a black character, but because it was right for that story.

So, in conclusion, “diversity” is all very well and good, but it’s not as easy as “just add some black/gay/disabled characters”. Characters are part of the story, and the nature of the character affects the nature of the story. Every author has a right to tell their own stories as they see them – however they see them.

Yes, “diversity” can help people to understand other people’s lives and experiences. But we also need to take care that the emphasis on “diversity” does not become an emphasis on “difference”, and then an assumption that the colour of a person’s skin is a measure of their worth as a person, or that the gender of a person’s life partner is more important than whether or not the relationship is a loving one.

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