A very interesting question, with no easy answers

Over at Janet Reid’s blog today:

This summer, I joined Twitter and followed several agents. I kept seeing the hashtag “we need diverse books” and/or diverse authors. Some advice I read even said to put your ethnicity into your query as a qualification. But I’m confused about what to do in my particular case. I am African-American and live in the rural South, but my book has nothing to do with my experience of being a minority in the South. Heck, my main character is Caucasian, and only one black person appears in the book at all.

But more and more, I’m seeing beta readers say things like “I will only read diverse books and/or diverse authors,” and I’m confused about where I would fit into all of this….

Yeah, that’s thought provoking. Or I think it should be.

Janet says: This is a really interesting question and I’m not sure if there is one answer, let alone a right answer. … I think right now I’d be more likely to look at something if the author wasn’t white, simply because I want publishing to look more like my neighborhood and less like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir….But it feels weird to me to tell you to list your ethnicity, because I certainly would not tell a writer to say they are Caucasian. Yet, my own desire to have more writers of color seems to mean you should.

Click through to read the rest of the post and the comment thread. The person who posed the initial comment does show up in the comments, whereupon you will learn that she has written a paranormal zombie novel. Hah. That certainly does suggest the story may not draw too extensively on the personal experiences of the author.

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5 thoughts on “A very interesting question, with no easy answers”

  1. I don’t know, I think it’s not really helpful to focus on the race of the author. I never check that when reading books. My main criteria for a story is: does it sound interesting? There are probably some people who will read/avoid a book based solely on the author’s race, but is that really something to encourage?

  2. I typically have no idea about an author’s race or even gender when I read a book; I usually hardly glance even at the name. If I love the book and want to find more by the same author, then I usually end up discovering some of their personal details, but I don’t usually go looking for them.

    I do look for diversity in the stories I read, though. I’ve gotten to the point where only a handful of my auto-buy authors get a free pass on having all-straight casts, and I DNF secondary world fantasies that are only populated by white people. I’m just really, really tired of hardly ever seeing people like me having the kind of adventures I love, or inevitably dying at the end.

    So diversity in-story matters more to me than the author. But I can see that encouraging diverse authors is very necessary – even if I can’t quite see how to do that, exactly, as Reid’s post said.

  3. Count me among those who don’t care, and don’t understand those who do. I do trust they know their own feelings, I just never reacted that way, happily reading and imagining as a boy, mature male, mature female, girl, horse, dog, blue tentacled alien, brain ship…. Didn’t matter to me. May have something to do with how non-visual I am, I suppose.

    On another angle, given how the publishers sabotaged Kris Rusch’s mystery series (web search) Smokey Dalton, which featured a black male detective in Memphis and Chicago in the 1960s(ish, I haven’t read them). This is part of what she had to deal with:

    These are the novels that the publisher sent me on book tour for—book tours that had no books, because no one in sales bothered to send them to distributors or bookstores. I got repeatedly invited to book fairs in Chicago because the later books were set there, but couldn’t get a guarantee of books to be sent to those fairs from my so-called publisher.
    I talked to the head of the sales force about this (it would have been in 2005 or so) and he told me that the reason they felt Chicago was not the place for me because he said seriously, and I quote, “there are no black people in Chicago.”
    I am still stunned by that statement. It was profoundly racist and unbelievably untrue. It also assumed that the only audience for a book about a black detective were black people who, according to that screwed-up industry, did not read. And, I was told by this self-same person that he had tried to get my books in the African American section of the chain bookstores “where the series belonged,” but the chains wouldn’t take the books for that section because I’m white.
    … The Smokey Dalton series had good books, readers clamored for it, got fantastic word of mouth, award nominations and more. It got starred reviews on multiple books. Readers demanded copies. Bookstores told me that they had ordered the books and the publisher had not fulfilled the orders (!). Libraries wanted the books. I kept hearing from people all over the country that they wanted to buy the books and couldn’t get them..”

    IOw I wouldn’t trust the publishers anyway, even if they’re supposedly trying to be ‘diverse.’

    Personally with stories like this going around, and Andrea Host’s ten years of dangling on the publisher’s ‘we like it’ but never sending a contract, I am astonished that any publisher lasts more than a few years.

  4. I think one reason to care about the race of an author (or their gender) is that it stops other people filtering for you. Like, if you rely on word-of-mouth reviews, or what’s getting lots of promotion, you get suggestions that are unnaturally skewed to white, male authors. (Journal of Seen It Somewhere Studies: I’m sure I’ve seen that men recommend male authors. Women recommend male and female authors. I bet that would generalize to white readers reccing white authors, readers of colour reccing POC and white authors.) You can see it yourself- Years Best lists or whatever aren’t objective, unless objectively 90% of the best of the genre is by white males. So by deliberately looking for things from POC you’re trying to get round that filter bubble. You’ll find books that are just as good, (they aren’t ignored because they’re bad but because they’re from less powerful voices) and possibly stranger and more mind-expanding and sense-of-wonder-ful because the author’s experiences aren’t what our society calls default.

    (James Nicoll keeps statistics of who writes the books he reviews for exactly that, so he can check he isn’t just defaulting to reviewing white men all the time, and his stats for who is getting reviews at the big SFF zines are quite noticeable. Like, SFX spends 29% of its reviews on women, 6% on POC, levels of noticeable. http://jamesdavisnicoll.com/post/december-2016-and-2016-in-general-in-review )

  5. Certainly I wouldn’t trust the sort of gatekeepers who think ‘there are no black people in Chicago’ to choose a good ‘diverse’ book. Odds of getting a better book from word of mouth about indie published work go up a lot. I think for indie writers it pretty much as to be word of mouth.

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