Tamara Woods, an author I follow on Youtube, put out a video today on a super fascinating topic: the issue of diversity in books.
She offers a thoughtful counter-opinion to the idea that the more diverse a book is, the better, saying it can be super awkward when authors drop random minorities into their storylines for the sake of diversity, only to play into popular stereotypes.
First of all–shout out to Tamara, or @penpaperpad on Twitter. I really like her videos centered around her life as a writer, despite the fact that I have never considered writing anything as ambitious as a novel. I like getting a little peek into the world of an author through her channel, y’all should check it out.
I pretty much agree with her assessment. Do I think writers should never write about things other than what they know? Absolutely not–some of the best works of literature and journalism made commentary on aspects of society that were from the outside looking in. But I do think that A) writers who do want to write about people and lifestyles they’re unfamiliar with should resist all temptation to base characters off of what they assume they know, including extensive research on whichever community it is they have chosen to write about, and B) even after any writer thinks they have a demographic figured out, they should poll at least a few different people within that demographic to give an honest opinion of how they are being portrayed. Ultimately, it will boil down to whether or not the “minority” characters are humanized, and not caricatures of stereotypes, but still true to whatever identity the author is trying to portray.
It’s a lot of work. But I’d argue that any author worth their salt would do the same level of research about any town they set their story in, or if they’re writing something science-related, they would extensively research and vet their story to be sure that what they’re saying is at least plausible (giving very liberal leeway of course, to imagination). If an author were to write a historical fiction story, set during the great depression, it would behoove that author to research living conditions, clothing, and other characteristics of the time, no?
Having other people read it is key, because there are some things that certain people take for granted that others don’t. That’s what leads to those jarring moments–not just in books, but in movies, TV shows, etc.–when you can see a writer was trying to achieve something, but fell flat because they didn’t realize they were coming from such a narrow point of view. To give the example I left for Tamara on her video, I just finished reading a GREAT book, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Without giving everything away to those of you who haven’t read it, I will say the book was thoroughly enjoyable. But (and obviously, I could be wrong about Cline’s intentions) there is a part of the story that builds up to a big reveal about one of the characters, designed to shock (and perhaps delight) the reader by turning any assumption of that character’s appearance, demographic, etc. on its head.
I, however, was dismayed, not delighted, perhaps because I was coming from my own very narrow experiences. Up to that point, I’d been imagining a colorful, futuristic world painted by Cline in which there were people of all identities. But that strange and jarring buildup revealed that I was very far off base, because Cline’s world was actually a homogenous one, in which the only non-white characters up to that moment were the two Japanese guys who lived by samurai code. To be blunt, it was a let down.
Was it wrong for Cline to include this character? I don’t think so. But it could have been unwrapped a bit better, not like a cheap “SURPRISE! Gotcha didn’t I, I bet you didn’t expect this person to not only be THIS, but also THIS, and THIS. Bam.” It gave me even more of a jolt because of its sharp contrast with the voice of the story was overwhelmingly white, male and Generation X–something I’d say actually made the book better overall, because it really got you inside the protagonist’s head. (Did I mention, I loved the book?)
Personally, I think the key to #weneeddiversebooks is more diverse authors. It isn’t fair, or smart, to expect white writers to write diversity into their books. We need platforms for more diverse writers to have the opportunity to write, and act, and perform, from their point of view. And we need for the many great authors (and filmmakers, and comics, etc. etc.) of color to get the funding they need to tell REAL stories, not stories that feed into the stereotypes of their demographic which sell better–because there is no better way to humanize a “minority” character than to have that character come from the imagination of a minority.