It blows my mind that in 2014, I have to make an argument that we need more diversity in fiction. In fact, it makes me cringe. People want good stories, period. It doesn’t matter to them what the characters look like, where they’re from, or who they bone. I know this because I’ve been teaching writing and literature for well over a decade, and I’ve taught every demographic you could imagine. Readers want to be entertained, no matter whom the characters are or where they’re coming from.
And yet, we have an industry standard—one that continues to insist that people want to read fiction by mainly straight, white, male authors. You have only to go to the VIDA Count, which measures the ratio of male to female authors reviewed in various journals, to see that this is still the case. But what’s most absurd about the current lack of diversity in publishing is that straight, white males are not the largest group of book readers, or buyers. When I started writing, I was told that white women buy the most books. But since, I’ve read in several places, like the Atlantic’s the Wire, that it’s black women. And what about all of those Latinas/Latinos growing up to become the next primary American demographic? What about a Native kid like me, growing up on the outskirts of Denver, who, like the majority of her peers, is looking for a book like mine, to show her the world that she’s known?
The question of whether white or male writers are able to write complex minority characters isn’t even relevant. I’m not interested in engaging in that argument at all. What’s relevant is that, compared to their straight, white, male counterparts, writers of color, women writers, and queer writers are seriously underpublished. And yet they’re getting M.F.A.s in droves. They’re everywhere, marching their poems, essays, stories, and whole manuscripts up to magazines and presses. I’ve read those poems, those stories, those manuscripts.
So when I hear that there just aren’t that many of us, or that perhaps we’re just not as good as our white, male, straight counterparts, I think two angry things. First, I know that isn’t true, because I’ve been a writer and a professor for 15 years, and while I’ve seen some bad and mediocre work from authors of color, I’ve seen so much good work. And second, I think about what I’ve been told by agents and editors and reviewers: “We’re really interested in books by Native Americans, but can you talk more about the characters from the reservation please?” Or, “Your voice is really strong, but your character’s decision about getting an abortion just isn’t empowered enough.”
We like reading about complicated, troubled people, and we like complicated, troubled stories. And since human beings in America are brown and queer and complicated and troubled, it stands to reason that there should be stories out there that reflect this—this big, weird, lovely, complicated America that we’re already living in.
I’m not here to determine whether white writers should write minority characters, or to talk to you about the ones who I think are good or bad at this; I’m here to tell you something else—something not boring. Because I don’t like being boring.
America is bursting with young, talented writers of color, and with readers of color who are anxious to read books that mirror their worlds. Yet many of those writers are being turned down by publishers. Why? I guess it’s because the industry is gatekeeping, and because it’s gatekeeping in a way that takes the art that reflects our America away from us. We should all be mad. We should all not want to be bored. At the least, art should not be boring.
So why do we need more diverse books? Because they are written by our artists, and they reflect our complicated human characters, and someone is taking that America away from you.