Friday, October 17, 2014

Beautiful Strangers: On Writing Diversity (Pt. 1)

Originally, the plan was to make this one post. As I sit down to write, however, it occurs to me a single post would barely scratch the surface of this vast, under-discussed topic.

Hence the "Part 1" in the title.  Here, we'll get the ball rolling and identify what I see as a major problem in literature today: the marked lack of diversity. The next post (or two) will offer some suggestions and pointers on what we, as writers, can do about it. 

Thanks for reading! I'm looking forward to the discussion...

"He who is different from me does not impoverish me - he enriches me... For no man seeks to hear his own echo, or to find his reflection in the glass."
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Diversity, race, orientation, prejudice: all these are sensitive subjects for writers and non-writers alike. With that in mind, I feel I should start off with a few disclaimers:

Disclaimer #1:
I am not, nor do I claim to be, an expert on the subject of diversity in literature (or in general, for that matter). Way smarter people than I can and have tackled the philosophical, literary, and political aspects of diversity. 

Rather, the purpose of this series is to examine what diversity means for me as a writer, to encourage other writers to venture outside their comfort zones, and to offer some solid suggestions on how and where to start.

Disclaimer #2:
I will not attempt to comment on diversity in countries other than my own. I love you, citizens of the world, but let's face it, I neither know nor understand your particular cultural climate, at least not well enough to offer an opinion on it. 

For that reason, any anecdotes I use or observations I make will be drawn purely from my own experiences in the continental United States. Hopefully you will still find them useful, no matter where you live.

Disclaimer #3:
Some of what I say here may come across as politically incorrect. It's not my intention to offend anyone, and I sincerely hope I don't. 

That said, I believe overly-P.C. language has muddied the topic and left everyone confused. This subject is too important to sabotage with feel-good platitudes. I'm going for the jugular here. If that's a problem for you, I humbly suggest you utilize the nearest exit.

Still with me? Awesome! Now let's get real.

Confessions first: writing diversity has always scared the shit out of me. The reason for this (ready to get non-P.C.?) is that I'm white.

*crickets chirping*

As a conscientious modern white woman, I have trouble saying stuff like that. Hell, I even have trouble referring to myself as "white". It connotes painful images of race riots and people running around in bed sheets, things no one wants to be associated with.

Before you get the wrong idea, I'm not going to start whining about "reverse-racism", or anything like that (for an excellent article that sums up my views on that particular subject, click here). That's not my point, and it's not the point of this post.

My point is, I don't think I'm the only writer who has struggled with this, and rather than risk offending people, many of us have simply opted out of writing diversity altogether.

A quick scan of Amazon Kindle's categories for Fiction tells a depressing story. Of the major genres (Mystery/Thriller/Suspense, Science Fiction/Fantasy, and Romance), only Romance has sub-categories for non-white, non-hetero titles. On one hand, this isn't particularly surprising; the Romance genre has more sub-categories and sub-sub-categories than an IRS tax form.

Where it gets depressing is when you start looking at the numbers. I'll stick to Romance, both because it's the genre I write in, and because it's the only genre with any actual data. Here are a few numbers to consider (current as of Oct. 17, 2014). Please note, in the interest of simplicity, they have been rounded off: 

# of titles in the Romance Genre: 212,000
# of titles in the African-American sub-genre: 5,000
# of titles in the Multicultural/Interracial sub-genre: 4,300

The LGBTQ categories don't do much better, though the popularity of M/M romance has skyrocketed over the last few years: 

# of titles in M/M and Gay sub-genres*: 12,000
# of titles in the Lesbian sub-genre: 3,000

* On Amazon, M/M Romance and Gay Romance are categorized under the blanket heading "Gay Romance", despite the fact that there are significant differences between the two. For more information, check out Yaoi Research's article, On Defining M/M Romance.

If these numbers have gotten you thinking, I'm glad. They got me thinking, too. But even these don't tell the whole story. 

What about books not intended as African-American/ Multicultural/ Interracial fiction? Not all heroes/heroines will be --or need to be-- Beautiful Strangers (term coined -as far as I know- by SF author Nisi Shawl).

To me, the biggest problem isn't necessarily the dearth of culturally diverse sub-genre books. Rather, it is the insidious absence of any non-white, non-hetero main, minor, secondary, tertiary, or quaternary characters at all, period.

Which brings me back to my initial confession. 

We're all afraid. We're afraid of rubbing someone the wrong way. We're afraid of "getting it wrong". We're afraid that for all our research, care, and best intentions, we're still going to end up with this guy:

I get it. Believe me.

The problem isn't being afraid. The problem is being controlled by our fear. In our desperation not to offend, we've inadvertently created a literary landscape that is glaringly one-dimensional. It's time to own that. And it's time to change it.

If that scares you, awesome. It means you're seriously considering leaving your comfort zone. That's the first step, and you should give yourself a pat on the back for taking it.

I'm going to end this segment with a bit of good news: 


If anyone has the ability, the brains, and the compassion to take this issue on, it's us. We see more, hear more, feel more, and intuit more than your average shmuck-on-the-street. It's what makes us so good at what we do. 

It's why we do what we do in the first place.

So who's with me?


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