A Reader’s Responsibility

A Reader's Responsibility (1)

As you guys know, I am a part of the #DiverseBookBloggers initiative that Naz and Demelza created a little while ago. The purpose of the tag is to find book bloggers that focus on reading and promoting diverse books. I’ve had the opportunity to meet with so many wonderful book bloggers that are non-white/cis/het/able- which is so great. 

A couple of weeks ago, someone used the tag to ask this question: if a book is great but has no diversity would you rate it according to the greatness, or according to lack of diversity?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question isn’t simple. The truth of the matter is, the default still remains white/cis/het/able within traditional publishing industries. Does a book have to check-off all these “diversity” requisites to be a good book? Probably not. However, I find it difficult to believe that your literary fiction story exists in a space filled with only the white/cis/het/able people. And if it is a fictional world, it seems like the only space you have for non-white/cis/het/able folks are for the trope-y versions of these characters. Or caricatures. Or enslaved, oppressed, erased. Or an item off a checklist. We have the one black dude and the one Indian dude, so yeah, uh, give us diversity brownie points. Yeah, no, that’s not how that works. Also editors, please do not force your writers to write trope-y characters please, because the only thing worse than a book with absolutely no diverse characters is a book filled with stereotyped characters. That’s just plain disrespectful. Stereotypes are not how people want to be able to see themselves in books.

Another really valid point that Sherman Alexie talked about in a diversity panel at BookCon: When you only have the one diverse character in your story, that character is automatically forced to have to be representative of all manner of diversity, which is simply not possible, and leads to the book being about the glaringly diverse character about their diversity and what it means to be diverse instead of the story itself. A single character should not have to bear that burden. 

But, that’s a whole other discussion by itself, which is not the focus of what I want to talk about in this post. However, something from that discussion that stood out to me:

It seems like the word “diversity” has become synonymous with “POC”. Yes, POC do fall under the umbrella of diversity, and so do LGBTQ+ and non-able bodied people. And fat people. And people with mental illnesses. Basically, anybody that isn’t cis/white/het/able dude. Also, intersectionality is a thing, and it seems to be even underrepresented in the publishing industry. 

If you’ve stayed with me so far and have not yet abandoned this post and this blog, I have finally arrived at my point, so hang in there. Even if you are a reader in a non-white country and reading a lot of local authors, that does not mean that diversity in the publishing industry is irrelevant to you. If you are a reader that values diversity in publishing, these are things to remember and consider:

Books by white authors are still more famous, easily accessible, and more widely read in non-white countries too. 

There’s a reason the topic of diversity and #ownvoices in publishing keeps coming up: because it is a struggle for diverse authors to make it. Hell, it’s still hard for cis women authors to make it. 

Diversity is as much the reader’s responsibility as the writer’s, maybe even a little more so, given the power of the internet. The only way for a book to exist is to have readers for those books. 

What are ways in which you can contribute, as a reader, towards supporting diversity in publishing? Read diversely. Promote these books via social media, your blog. Allocate your book budget towards books written by and about marginalized people and #ownvoices. That includes supporting authors like N. K. Jemisin or artists like Katie Schenkel on Patreon, if possible and within your means. 

I refuse to buy that there don’t exist excellent books by #ownvoices. Actually, they do exist, and so many of them exist, which is why people are pushing to make them more accessible and create a space for authors to keep writing.

Just because you cannot find a book written by/about a specific marginalized community does not automatically mean it does not exist. Go beyond page 1 of Google, people. Or ask around. The internet is your friend on this one. My two favorite resources are the Get Booked podcast by Book Riot and the #AskALibrarian weekly twitter chat, 12-1 p.m. EST. All you have to do is use the hashtag and submit your request during that hour, and a librarian will respond to your specific request. Worship your librarians, they put page 2 of Google to shame. 

If you have actively sought out books by/about marginalized people and have been disappointed, or have read books that are mediocre or off the mark in terms of writing technicalities, please do not assume that their writing is representative of said marginalized group of writers. GO ASK PEOPLE ON THE INTERNET FOR SUGGESTIONS. If you can tweet funny GIFs, you can tweet asking for help. The availability of social media book recommenders is the best thing about social media. 

Yes, the publishing industry is a broken system. Something’s gotta give. We may not all have the power to individually make significant changes from outside the system, however, as readers, the least we can do is take responsibility for our reading. 

I really did mean for this to be an insightful, thought-provoking, well-researched piece yada yada, but it has just turned into a me spewing all of my semi-coherent thoughts on the subject. What I am really hoping is for this to spark some conversations among people who value diversity in publishing- what does it mean to you? How do you go about looking for books by/about marginalized communities? If you work in the publishing industry, do you have any tips/knowledge about how to push for diversity from within the system? If you are a non-cis/het/able/white male author, what does diversity in publishing mean to you, how do you incorporate it in your writing, and what are some of the roadblocks you face?