Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Diversity As Trend? Please.

First, hi, long time no blog. I filter comments after a post is two weeks old or more—since I tend to get a lot of spam comments—but boy have I also missed a lot of sweet messages from people! If you're one of them, thanks for still reading this little blog though it's been much neglected.

Second, I've been thinking a lot about some of the things going on about diversity in books lately. There have been a recent string of articles by people of color asking white authors to please research and get in the shoes of a POC before writing, to be aware of issues, to really work hard to represent in a real way. These articles have been met with hostility in a lot of cases. And there have already been a lot of responses by the community as a whole. I don't know why I feel I need to contribute, but it won't let me go.

So here's my story with this. Take it for what it is.

I look white. I'm not all the way white. I have included a diverse cast in the majority of my work not because I'm on a mission or because I want to be on trend—it's part of my organic experience as a person and I wanted to see my world in my writing as I think we all do. As a person who passes as white, but comes from a history of people who've been marginalized, I have always been ultra-aware of the difference in how I'm treated because of how I look. And this is what I have seen:

My Books With POC As Main Characters Have Not Sold To Publishers. That is just straight up the reality. I have 8 published novels—the three with white main characters are published traditionally in the US (Transparent, House Of Ivy & Sorrow, My Little Brony). The I'M A NINJA series? FISH OUT OF WATER? Both we subbed for over a year and did not sell. Though I consider them quality work and on par or better than what publishers have bought from me.

While Subbing My POC Main Characters, I Noticed A Severe Uptick In "I Don't Identify With This MC" Comments. This is like code for "editor doesn't feel comfortable with the character being not white or not cis or not insert-whatever-here." That sounds mean, but with my white MCs rejections were "this plot didn't grab me" or "I liked the MC but I wasn't grabbed by the story." Always the story. Not the character. With my POC MCs...the rejections seem to be more often character-based for me and not story.

Also While Subbing POC Mains, I've Received Sometimes Flat Out Racist Rejections. And sometimes very "micro-agressiony" rejections. And sometimes half-hearted attempts to blame it on marketing. But the fact is, it happens. I'm not just imagining it, nor are POC authors nor are white-authors writing POC characters. I have real rejections from the industry that say these things, and I'm pretty sure the editors had no idea how hurtful those comments were, but they still happened.

I've Seen Dozens Of White-Washed Cover Comps. Just among my own writing circle. Some were changed before publication, many were not. And you know what? The most quiet, insidious ones are those where they just put no one on the cover rather than reveal that the MC is a POC. That happens a lot. Rather than "risk" a cover telling the market that this book is about not-white people, they'd rather have them find out after purchase or, in sci-fi/fantasy cases, just mentally white-wash them even when they read descriptions that contradict.

As A White-Passer, I Still Feel Huge Fear Over Getting It Wrong. I freak out about this all the time. All. The. Effing. Time. Even after all my research and knowing I'm not *just* white and trying very hard to live in the varying shoes of POC lives, I sometimes want to unpublish all my work and hide from those things I probably also did wrong in all my good intentions. That fear? It never goes away. I've been writing diversity before this was something we talked about online, twenty books worth, and no I don't feel like I'm an expert and I am positive I never will be. I'm also positive no one is.

As A White-Passer, I Still Get The Urge To Want Pats On The Back. This is where I become super aware of how white-privilege affects me. Because even knowing all I know, I still sometimes have those knee-jerk white reactions. Did a part of me squirm inside over these articles about white people doing it wrong? Yes! Yes, I squirm every time. I get a little frustrated and feel helpless because I want to change it and I can't really and I'm trying and UGH why does our world have to SUCK? I want to be patted on the back for trying, but I also know I don't deserve those pats. And that's okay.

I could go on, but this is long as it is. These are just some of my realities as a person whose been in publishing for, oh, six years now? And these are just MY experiences with the unfairness of the business when it comes to diversity. This isn't even all the accounts I've heard from others.

So when people talk of Diversity as some kind of trend, I get a little ragey. I'll admit it. Do you know what a trend is? It's something that helps a book sell. It's something popular. In all my experience in publishing, I've sadly never, ever seen someone have a leg up because they were a POC author or were writing a POC MC. In fact, it's quite the opposite—all I've seen is higher chances of disadvantage. I've personally felt like it was a strike against me, but I did it anyway because that was the story I needed to tell.

This stuff is hard to hear. I know. It's hard for me to say it. It's hard to have experienced it. But when we read these articles, I hope we can listen. Because no one is making these problems up. No one is over-exaggerating. If you see diversity as a trend, please think for a bit on how wildly cruel that is. Not only is it implying that POC are some kind of magical thing like a vampire or wizard or girl on fire or other passing interest, but it implies that somehow POC authors and books with POC are  successful at a time when it's still a serious struggle to get published and even sell those books.

Trend...sigh. It's more accurate to call it a liability in the eyes of most publishers whether they say it or not. That is the unpleasant truth we are trying to change.


  1. It's hard to hear, but it makes sense.

  2. You just said all the same things that I've been talking to my friends about recently. We may WANT it to be true, but it isn't true. Not yet.

    And, sadly, it might never be true if people don't change their buying habits.

    A publisher can publish a token book here and there to help their image or to do what's right, but this can't and won't be a trend until it starts making money.

    Publishers need to be profitable to survive. They have bills to pay. They have lights to keep on. They are, first and foremost, a business. And they're not a very risky business either, so they tend to go with the safe bet. They go with authors who've sold well in the past. And they go with protagonists who've sold well in the past.

    I read author's blogs, go to author's conferences, read the #MSWL tweets, and all of them are telling us the same thing, that everybody is looking for diverse main characters.

    Except that it just isn't true.

    When this changes, it'll probably be little by little and through quality works by self-published authors willing to take the risk that create the change. And sadly, I'm not sure there's much money in that for us authors who also want to keep the lights on.

  3. Thank you for this post, Natalie. I've also been grappling with this discussion, and with why I write the stories I write. I think it's an important discussion to have, and an important thing to grapple with.

    (And I wish this kind of thing didn't have to be met with all the defensive/indignant crap that makes it impossible to have any kind of discussion. We gotta grow, guys! Let's figure out how!)

  4. Great post, Natalie! I'm not familiar enough with the publishing industry to comment on those aspects, but I've definitely heard other writers say similar things and find it really sad. Having said that, I've definitely seen more agents that are open and trying to be more understanding of the movement (I don't know what the stats are overall so the ones I've looked at might be a skewed perspective, but I'm staying optimistic)

  5. I always get excited when a new post of yours hits my inbox. They're my favorite! This is a great post, and I love hearing your actual experiences with the diversity movement. I've had similar experience lately writing about disabilities--I love this, it's fantastic, no way I can sell it. It's sad, but hopefully if enough of us keep trying, we'll make it a reality. Thanks for the awesome insights!

  6. I didn't know that about the industry. I can relate to your fear of not getting it exactly right. Even when I worked as a ghostwriter and communicated directly with authors I still sometimes found it challenging to get their voice just right. And that's with having them to directly ask.
    Thanks for your honesty. Love getting your posts in my inbox!
    JL Gillham

  7. I have to say, I agree with David Hickenbotham. I wrote a post on my own blog questioning the trend of diversity, but not that IT is trending, but that the request for it is.

    I often think that the request for diversity is definitely....and yet it's barely around. While pitching my work, I kept seeing agents asking for diversity but no "token" POC and how they wanted "authentic" POC. And suddenly, EVEN as a black person myself, I actually started questioning if my characters were black enough.


    POC can have ordinary backgrounds just like their white counterparts. I rarely see white characters being defined by their heritage because white is normal. But so are POC. I hated that the agents requests made me feel as though I needed my characters to pass some kind of authentication. I am authentic, asking me or my characters to fit into some kind of mold is borderline stereotyping. I assume the agents were aiming their comments at writers from white backgrounds writing POC, but still, do they even know what they are really talking about?

  8. Thanks for sharing your personal story (linked) and how it relates to your professional life! This is fascinating. I am seeing a ton of fantasy agents now asking for stories about POC, especially written by POC, and it seems they are way ahead of the publishers. I wonder how quickly they will be able to chip away at the literary whitewash of centuries.

    My husband and daughter also "pass"--they're Asian, African, Native American, and European--and due to genetic lottery, they just look 100% white. All three of us grew up/are growing up in diverse neighborhoods and friend groups, so an all-white story feels unnatural to me, even as a person with no non-European heritage known to me. It is continually startling to me how weird other white people get about stories containing people of various backgrounds and skin colors--that it is possible to live a life that is screened from interaction with people who are not extremely similar in appearance and culture.

    Isn't that the whole point of storytelling--to allow us to transcend the world we know and visit someone else's reality? Is it that terrifying to imagine being or knowing non-white people?

    You're right, this is not a trend. White supremacy is a trend that I hope is passing, because not only is it oppressive and wrong, it's boring.

  9. Hi Natalie!

    Great post, and you are speaking right to my heart! I'm also worried about doing this wrong (we talked about this at WIFYR, it's something I think about a lot as a writer.)

    I want my (fantasy) stories to reflect the same rich diversity that my world does. Not because it's a trend, but because everyone is invited to participate in my fictive worlds. Because to me fantastic stories are beautiful and wondrous and that immersive glamour shouldn't be limited to white cultures and endless pseudo-european worlds. I want my made up fantasy worlds to draw inspiration from the supernatural traditions of many peoples, but with respect and inclusion, rather than cultural appropriation.

    Sometimes, though, the attempt feels like navigating a minefield. Are you following the latest news stories about JK Rowling and concerns of cultural appropriation? I'm still trying to sort out how I feel about it all.

    Love your blog, and I'm really enjoying Relax,I'm a Ninja!

  10. Wow, those are scary submission stats for your POC characters! Thanks for sharing. <3