By Laura Zats
I don’t know if you know this, but I’m super into representing, reading, and advocating for diverse books. It may be the blatant request in my representative categories, my tweets on #MSWL, or the content of the blogs or classes I teach, but it’s pretty easy to do minimal research on my professional persona, and say, “Hey, this lady looks like she wants to read about books with characters who aren’t just middle-class, Christian, cisgender white dudes.”
And you’d be right.
I’m into books about all kinds of diversity, not just the kinds you can see, because I like my books to represent the way the world really is, which is full of people DIFFERENT from you.
Diversity in books includes (but is not limited to) race, gender, religion, socio-economic class, ability, and sexuality. Clearly, there are lots of ways to be diverse with your characters, the same way that there are many ways to be diverse in real life.
We live in a lucky time. The internet and social media has allowed for messages and events to go viral, which means that things that use to be shoved under the rug (like police brutality and the institutional bias against black people in America) is no longer a badly-kept secret. Instead, it’s on the forefront of everyone’s mind.
Not everyone believes there is a problem with the way we as a nation treat people of color, queer people, non-Christians, disabled people, people living in poverty, or any other type of “diverse person.” However, there are a LOT of people who recognize that this is an issue and are seeking to do their part.
For writers, this means writing in a way that represents the world as it really is, in giving every reader a chance to connect with a character that looks, lives, and behaves like them. For publishers and agents, that means making a point to champion these books, and trying to make them the norm.
This is especially important because books are the place people to go educate themselves, expand their minds, and become more empathetic. Words, if strung together to create resonant, important ideas, literally have the ability to change the world.
A big place where ideas in publishing shift from wishes to reality are conferences. With so many creative minds and industry professionals in a single place, we are all given the opportunity to learn from one another and shift the way we see the world, and subsequently, do our jobs.
As a new-ish agent at an agency that focuses on education, I go to a LOT of conferences. Even in the two years since I’ve started, I’ve seen an uptick in panels, classes, and sessions on diversity in books.
This is how I initially responded:
Then I went to these panels. Heck, I was even on a bunch of them. And that’s when I discovered something important:
Talking about diversity in books is NOT ENOUGH.
- Most of the people who go to panels or discussions on diversity are already aware there’s a problem.
- They’re already on the bandwagon, chugging along, being as anti-racist/classist/ableist/homophobic/etc. as possible.
- And preaching to the choir isn’t going to change a lot of things, unless the presenters give actual resources, support, and information to said choir that allow them the confidence to go out there and make some non-bandwagon people uncomfortable, nothing is going to change.
Here’s how most of the diversity panels I’ve seen go:
Presenters: Arrrgh! —isms are bad! People suck! Except for me! And you! *pats everyone on the back*
Attendees: Yes! I agree! I love diversity! *pats everyone on back*
And I say this calling myself out. I have been guilty of adding my voice to these discussions, but not saying much more than the above.
As I’ve grown my list of diverse authors, spoken to readers who want representation in the books they read, and paid attention and learned from amazing authors that are vocal about diversity like Justina Ireland, I know now that talking doesn’t do much. Patting ourselves on the back doesn’t do much.
We can talk about how important diversity is until we are blue in the face, but unless people are promoting diverse books and books by diverse authors, expanding the definition of what “normal” is in their writing, and opening themselves and their work up to a learning, workshop process where they constantly revise and refine what being a champion of representative literature is, it’s not going to make our readers happy.
Instead of panels where writers, agents, and editors sit around and talk about diversity as an important concept, I’m going to push for classes and workshops to be a safe space for writers to learn how to be an ally and avoid stereotypes. I’m going to support #weneeddiversebooks and continue calling for diversity in my books and authors. And I’m going be strategic about the books I read and the books I sell so the number of diverse books grows.
What are you going to do?