Unfortunately, it’s become the expected norm for any group fighting for change to receive pushback of some kind. Apparently those nice things we want cannot be had. With the brilliant news that #WeNeedDiverseBooks has announced several major initiatives to promote multicultural reading and writing to a wider audience, and the welcome increase in media attention the movement received as a result, some dissenting voices felt the need to crawl to their Twitter accounts and into the comments pages to complain. As an avid supporter of the campaign and an extremely privileged voice (I’m white, cis, able bodied, non-religious, from the UK), it felt right to offer a few rebuttals to some of the sillier and more offensive comments.
“If you want more diverse books then just go write them”.
Gasp, none of us ever had this idea before! We were all just sitting around grumbling and hoping such books would appear out of thin air. Thank you for correcting us all, oh anointed one. But seriously, this is the same kind of defence lobbied at anyone who dares to dissent with the accepted norm. You didn’t like that movie? Go make one of your own. The meal you ordered from the restaurant is undercooked? Get in the kitchen yourself. The government is putting damaging policies in place? I don’t see you running a country any better. It’s pure deflection at its best. People have been writing these stories for a very long time. Stories as diverse as the authors who tell them have been told for generations. The issue here is the lack of visibility given to them. The books published are by and large focused on white characters, on cis characters, on straight ones who are practically interchangeable with one another. This doesn’t in any way reflect the make-up of the world’s population, especially in the USA and UK. If our art doesn’t reflect us in some way then there’s a big issue, and the publishing industry should be working actively to rectify that.
“It’s all just political correctness gone mad.”
Ah yes, “political correctness gone mad”. Also known as “basic human decency”. If you are so personally offended by the idea that some people would like to read stories about characters who aren’t white or cis or able bodied then that says way more about you than it does about the campaign.
“Publishers should publish the best books, not just the ones with diverse characters.”
Funny how “the best” stories, authors or people in general always seem to be straight cis white men. That’s why there are so few women leaders and people of colour working in STEM positions and Hollywood is overrun by the same sea of white bread. The idea that any industry is run in such a truly democratic way is naïve at best. Generations of favouritism based on race, gender, sexuality, etc, runs rampant in basically every field, including publishing. Don’t think there isn’t a connection of some sort between the lack of people of colour in executive positions in publishing, editing, agents, etc, and the lack of authors of colour getting exposure. Besides, publishing isn’t run based on what stories are the best. It’s about profit, as it is with any business. Hey, it’s capitalism. That’s not to say that diverse books aren’t profitable, but the general (and extremely outdated) consensus amongst the industry is that the most profitable demographics are the least diverse. Not true, of course, but fighting to disprove that can be tough when so many won’t listen.
“I’m so bored of this campaign.”
It’s not all about you. Get over it.
“I’m sick of seeing authors just plug their own books here.”
A lot of authors have been promoting their own books through this movement, that’s true. You know why? Because their publishers probably didn’t. The publicity budget can only stretch so far, and it’s usually midlist authors that suffer as a result. So many great books slipped through the cracks because we just didn’t know about them. It’s an expected part of the business for such sacrifices to be made but that doesn’t mean authors should shut up about it. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of the work you do and letting other people know about it. If you don’t, who will?
“They’re just books. They’re not the real world. Why does this matter so much? I’m not racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/etc, I just don’t see what the big deal is.”
I know the term “check your privilege” is reviled on certain corners of the internet (usually by those who have bag-loads of the stuff), but seriously, check your privilege. It’s not a “big deal” for you because the chances are you could pick up any book and find a character who resembles you on a base level. You don’t have to scour the internet for book recommendations featuring a protagonist of your ethnicity who isn’t a cheap stereotype or grossly sexualised or quickly bumped off in order to progress the plot for the white heroes. You’ve never had to deal with watching cis man dress in drag to play a trans* woman and be revered for it. You’ve never struggled to find a character who shares your religion who doesn’t spend 300 or so pages being labelled a terrorist.
The daily struggle to be represented, to be visible to the world, is something that a lot of people can ignore because it doesn’t affect them. But it shouldn’t be ignored. White readers need diverse books to open up their closed off views of the world, especially as kids. Stories do make a difference, as studies have proven time and time again. They change perceptions, they break down prejudices and they help make progressive change in our society.
The stuff you read as children, along with the films you watch and the games you play, make an indelible impact on you, for better or worse. The stories publishers send out into the world help shape that because the implications they make with the books that they decide are important enough to be published run deep. You cannot be what you cannot see, so when a good chunk of the population are only present in less than 5% of the books on sale to the child/teen demographic, that sets in place a harmful precedent. Everyone deserves their own stories. They’re not just books; they’re huge effing deals.