Since its conception in May, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign has exploded online, renewing discussion about diversity in children’s and young adult literature with new force. What had previously been a mere buzzing on forums and blogs became what Ellen Oh and her colleagues had intended: big.
A Korean-American YA writer, Oh was frustrated by the lack of stories that featured Asian protagonists, let alone LGBTQ characters or characters with disabilities. The frustration reached its boiling point during the BookCon children’s lit panel controversy. The publishing industry made it clear once again that only certain types of books and authors will be marketed, and that diversity is of little importance where money is concerned.
Books by white authors are better marketed. When publishers do publish books with diverse characters, they market the books only towards certain marginalized readerships, providing no support for the book to reach a larger audience. This is a problem for all readers, everywhere.
Let’s look at some sad statistics: in 2013, only 7% of YA bestseller authors were people of colour; 6% of all YA bestsellers featured characters with disabilities; and the same low percentage featured LGBTQ characters (Publishers’ Weekly data). Here at The Spectatorial, we are particularly concerned with diverse representation in speculative fiction. In the decade from 2003 to 2013, the fantasy and science fiction genres contained only 10% of LGBTQ characters, while 80% of LGBTQ representation was found in the contemporary fiction.
Speculative fiction is a literary space that transcends reality. However, writers often limit the extent of their imagination by writing characters and worlds that fail the diversity litmus test. Think about the last time you read a high fantasy adventure (such as The Lord of the Rings). Chances are you instantly pictured the characters as white, even though you yourself might not be white.
Some writers dismiss the idea that they have erred by not writing characters of colour or LGBTQ characters or characters with different levels of ability. After all, they are concerned with the quality of their writing, not its diversity percentages. However, diversity and quality are not mutually exclusive. An author’s reluctance to write out of their comfort zone speaks of their inability to expand their skills beyond what is known and comfortable to them. A poor workman blames his tools. In genres where the whims of the imagination are the most important, the lack of diversity is not excusable—it’s bad writing.
Characters of colour, LGBTQ characters, and characters with visible and invisible disabilities introduce new experiences, emotions, and challenges to literature. Frankly, they are more interesting to read about because their stories are not cookie-cutter stories—they speak to a grander, truer reality that underlies all fiction, including speculative fiction.
Fiction is an echo of the world we live in, no matter in which galaxy the plot takes place. The attitude and nature of the speculative fiction available for readers today reflects a more archaic version of our society. In this society, not everyone gets their own story. Only white, straight, able characters win the battle, and get their dragons too.
This needs to change.
Over the next few weeks, our staff will write a series of posts discussing the appearance (or lack of appearance) of themes of sexuality, gender, disability, and race in popular speculative literature and media. In the spirit of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, we seek to raise awareness about diverse representation in speculative fiction. We hope to open up a discussion among readers, writers, and speculative connoisseurs. Stay tuned!
If you are still asking yourself: why should a white, middle-class, able young person care about diversity? The answer is simple: because we should all be uncomfortable when, even in fiction, we can’t achieve equality.
-contributed by Anna Bendiy