It fascinates me for several reasons.
Firstly, the number of people who don’t understand what ‘diversity’ means. It doesn’t mean inserting your minority of choice into everything you write. Homogeneity is homogeneity regardless of who you are writing about. If you only write, for example, sci-fi that takes place in a favela and features Hispanic characters, or fiction that only takes place in the Caribbean, or only features any one non-white ethnic group, then your fiction is as ‘diverse’ as any that features only white people. Case in point: whilst using Google to look for sci-fi magazines open to submissions I came across an online ‘zine that wanted diverse sci-fi presenting women in a nonstereotypical and empowering fashion, with a focus on bi and homosexual relationships. If that’s what you enjoy writing, then fine. If that’s what you want to focus on as a publisher, if that’s the niche you want to give exposure to, then great. The more writers granted a platform, the better in my view. It’s the pedant in me that objects to such a narrow, targeted market describing itself as “diverse” and “inclusive”. It’s neither. It shouldn’t pretend to be, and it has no obligation to be. If it was it wouldn’t be specialised, and those writers would likely have lost a voice.
It also doesn’t mean ensuring that people of colour, or women, or people with disabilities or any other group of people in your fiction have to be presented in an eternally positive light, as some commentators maintain. That’s unrealistic. People are complex. They are good, bad, aggressive, caring, greedy, ambitious and self-contradictory, and their gender ethnicity and sexuality have nothing to do with this. Cassandra is the lead character in Swarm, my next work to be released. She can be sarcastic, even caustic. She is loyal, but not foolish. She thinks Iain, her husband’s friend, is both shallow and stupid, and on occasion she lets this show. She is a strong lead female character, yes; but she’s not without her flaws. Rachael is the main protagonist in The Tor, but read between the lines of Rest and you’ll see she isn’t as all-powerful as she seems. She may be a negative force, but she retains some compassion, some humanity. Why else is she so reticent to lead Joseph along her dark path?
I get the need for diversity in fiction. People are all different, and all people can be found everywhere. In other words, to introduce diverse, three-dimensional characters into your work is to introduce a healthy dose of realism. Your ability to manage diversity is your ability to write realistic characters.
What I don’t get is the right some commentators think they have to impose their inaccurate ideas of diversity on other people. Yes, genres such as scifi and horror and action have an overabundance of male leads. Yes, roles for women in those genres tend to be limited in both number and scope, which is why characters such as Ripley and Janeway made such an impact on the screen. Can you name the literary equivalents? People of colour and people with disabilities are practically invisible in such roles.
In large part this has been due to the monolithic nature of the industry. White male publishers saw no market for non-white, non-male characters in these roles, which created no market, which in turn meant few stories were published. Yes, that’s a simplification, but the broad strokes are accurate. Certain groups of people were denied access to the market, whether that was due to a political choice on the part of the publisher; or due to a commercial decision, based on a mistaken belief that the market for certain types of fiction wasn’t big enough to show a return on investment.
However, the industry has changed. The market is both broader and more accessible than it was several years ago. Broader, in that more books are being sold to more people in more places than ever before. More accessible, in that books are cheaper to buy and to produce than they ever have been. Crucially, you no longer need a publisher’s permission to get a story out. I love to see the type of story traditionally considered ‘niche’ to find a place on the open book market.
It astonishes me how, in an age when anyone can write and publish a book on any subject for any market, people still expend time and energy lambasting authors for being too white, too male (phrases that some people use as pejoratives when discussing diversity, without any sense of irony). We live in a time of long-tail marketing, when every literary permutation has a market waiting to be tapped.
Now, I should clarify that I’m not saying that there’s no need for white male writers to fill their writing with a range of characters. Being able to do so is the sign of a good writer. What I’m saying is that we are not obliged to. And to those who read a stereotypical plot-driven novel full of white males and criticise it for being just that: move on. There are plenty of other novels available; perhaps you could even write your own. Are James Herbert’s early novels (I’m not a fan of his later works) any less entertaining for being white, plot-driven horrors? Of course not. Would it be boring if every horror was white and plot-driven? Definitely. Enjoying such novels for what they are does not mean you are against diversity in your reading.
The book market is becoming ever more democratised. Read what you like. Write what you like. And let others enjoy what they like.
What do you think? Do we worry too much about diversity in fiction? Is it a relevant debate given the nature of self-publishing? As writers, do you feel under pressure to be inclusive and diverse, or would you rather a diverse range of writers working in their own niches? Let me know in the comments.
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