For the past few years, I’ve taken a look at my own writing to see how I’m doing in the realm of diversity and representation. I check out my major character rosters and break them down to see whether I’m not falling into the trap of writing primarily straight white cis people.
This year I’m not going to engage in that practice because it’s come to feel rather smug and self-congratulatory. Oh, hey, look at me, the straight white cis man writing characters not like me. I’m so progressive. Go me. All I’ll say about that is I remain dedicated to maintaining a strong sense of diversity in my work.
But I’m not enough. Literature, especially genre fiction, needs more women, more people of color, more writers from the LGBTQ community to tell stories I can’t, represent perspectives I will never fully understand and appreciate, and relate experiences I will never have. We need more diverse voices in fiction.
Further, writers like me need to be more diligent about presenting diverse characters in their own work — and if they can’t see fit to do that, they at least need to stop actively trying to oppose diversity, and yes, this is a problem. Over the past few years two organized groups of genre fiction authors, the so-called Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies, have tried to game the Hugo Awards to undermine efforts to acknowledge diverse authors and works (it failed spectacularly, by the way).
Why would they do this? you might wonder. I’ve wondered that myself, for quite some time. Why would any author be so vigorous in his or her efforts to snuff out representation?
Because that author fears obsolescence.
Genre fiction has long been the domain of straight white cis men, both on the writing and the reading side of things. People like me are the default. But over the last several years there has been an increase in diversity — among authors, among characters, and among readers who have shown that there is a powerful appetite for such material. Women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, they all want to read stories about people like themselves written by people like themselves.
So where does that leave the traditional straight white cis male genre writer?
Well, really, it doesn’t leave him any worse off than before. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center has since 1985 charted the presence of authors of color and children’s books featuring lead characters of color, and the statistics show a steady increase over time — steady, but the increases are incremental and there is still plenty of material out there written by and for white people.
If that’s any indicator — and I’ve been unable to find a similar source for YA or adult publishing to confirm or refute the hypothesis — it’s not like white guys are getting muscled out of the game. There is still a demand for their stories, and it’s not like we’re all playing in a zero sum game in which one writer loses sales every time another writer gains sales. Readers are not, for all intents and purposes, a finite resource.
But that’s not the way the old-school genre writer sees it. In his mind, if readers are buying books with diverse casts written by diverse authors, they’re not reading his books. That means he’s becoming irrelevant.
Faced with that prospect, the “endangered” author has a few choices. He can accept his fate and be content to continue practicing his art, knowing that there are still plenty of people out there who want it. He can adapt and start injecting diversity into his own work to capture readers outside his standard demographic.
Or he can pitch a fit, blame the success of others for his own real or imagined failure, and dedicate time and energy to fighting against diversity — and that is what happens far too often. You see that pointless, fruitless resistance every time a writer makes a disingenuous comment about the evils of “pandering” to an audience — and I call it disingenuous because those writers are not acting in anyone’s best interests but their own. They might say, “Pandering to diverse audiences is nothing but a transparent cash grab! Publishers just want your money! I’m trying to protect you from these exploitative capitalists!” but what they mean is, “I view your buying habits as a threat to my livelihood and I’d like you to go away now.”
You’ll of course note that straight white cis male authors who churn out nothing but the same-old same-old are, somehow, not pandering to their demographic.
I take it as a powerful indicator of a writer’s skill if something as relatively simple as injecting more diversity into their work is such a daunting challenge they feel compelled to shut the whole concept down. As storytellers, our whole job is creating characters unlike us. If a science fiction writer can create realistic alien races and sentient robots with no problem but finds the challenge of writing a lead character who is a woman or black or gay or — gasp! — all of the above too great, he’s failing at his job.
And if you can’t do your job anymore, it’s time to step aside and let those who are capable of doing it take over.
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