[Cam’s Bookish Tales] THE DIVERSITY BLANKET: When Representation In Books Become Problematic

Lately, I’ve noticed the sudden burst of diverse books being published. It’s such an exciting time to read about characters who are just like me in one way or another. When I was young, I don’t think I ever had such an advantage to my writing, and now that I have I’ve been devouring one diverse read after another. However, as much as I wanted to celebrate this revolution in the publishing industry, there was something that troubled me deeply.

This troubling feeling grew deeper as I would read certain reactions from the book community, feeling a bit in the minority. I didn’t feel comfortable voicing my opinion because I, honestly, wasn’t sure if it was because I was reading the wrong books or misunderstanding.

But, of course, how can I understand if I don’t talk about it?

So, here I am, messy hair and messy thoughts.

But firstly, what I write is not based on research but is simply my experience. My opinion does not make it a fact. What I’m looking for are intelligent discussions to help me have a better understanding.

April 2018 Text Divider

PAPER-THIN CHARACTERS

A person’s race, religion, sexuality, disability, mental illness, and so on is not the entirety of their identity. However, it does play a part in shaping the choices they make and their personality. I come across many books whose character when stripped of their diversity is indistinguishable. We’ve got authors tooting their trumpets about how diversely rich their books are but once I get a read, there is a glaring lack of research.

Seriously, why even write a diverse book when you don’t respect your diverse characters?

Culture falls back on harmful stereotypes and the “diverse character” is as bland as cardboard. It troubles me to know that authors can get away with this?

This is why it’s SO IMPORTANT for authors to invest in sensitivity readers. Not being a part of the diversity but writing about it puts your work at a risk of being harmful. It won’t save an author to say it was unintentional.

NARROW DIVERSITY

There should be a proper term for this. Firstly, diversity isn’t an exclusive club for skin tones. Many of the new releases book celebrate diverse ethnicity but sorely lack in transgender representation, people with disability, gender-fluid people, characters who have autism, characters with vitiligo, characters with tourette’s, and so on. I’m not asking authors to include all of these in a single novel or in future novels, in fact, what I’m saying is that we need to recognize how limited the resources are. Diversity should be inclusive of all. It shouldn’t be a label for what we consider acceptable right now.

DIVERSITY FOR THE SALES

This is my own perspective and you may not feel this way at all, but I have come across so many diverse books with terrible writing. Whether it’s with their treatment of the diverse characters or the simply bad writing, I really don’t think “diversity” should be enough of a reason to have a book published.

GLOSS OVER PROBLEMATIC THEMES

In our rush to celebrate diversity, I find there’s a tendency to turn a blind eyes if there’s anything problematic in the book. Either that, or we’re too excited about our representation that we don’t even notice it.

Representation matter, yes, but not at this cost.

KNOW YOUR SPACE

If you choose to write a diverse novel, firstly, take into consideration whether you are the right one to be telling that story. Authors may unwittingly take up space that could be given to an own voices writer. In this way, readers also have an obligation. I’m not saying that we should boycott non-own voices writers but, instead, seek out own voices authors and support them. As a blogger, we have the most resources at our very fingertips.

THE DIVERSITY BLANKET

This one irks me the most! It annoys me when authors, out of blue, claim that character X or Y is AB ethnicity – all this without making it clear in the novel!

This literally boggles me. Why is it that hard to have it shown in the book? I hate it when authors throw a diversity blanket over their novel and then – radio silence. For me, this comes across as a cheap ploy to boost sales. I’ve seen a few authors do this and it has put me off from reading their works ever.

Whenever an author writes in diversity, it’s always assumed that this means they support the community. It’s not enough to write the story and be done with it, because the story is a promise. It’s a promise that you, as an author, will work to help the community. If not, don’t write it. Don’t exploit cultures to get your book into more hands.

It may seem like I have high expectations of diverse writers. It’s not perfection that I expect but an accountability from them. Diverse books are not a fad or something to be taken lightly; it’s a hard theme to write on.  One book can change a child dramatically.; so how do you, as an author, want your book to be remembered?

April 2018 Text Divider

Have you felt the same as I do? Or are your thoughts more different? Do you hold diverse authors to a higher standard than the majority?

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37 thoughts on “[Cam’s Bookish Tales] THE DIVERSITY BLANKET: When Representation In Books Become Problematic

  1. Daniela Ark says:

    I totally agree that’s why I try to read and promote as many own voices as possible!

    When Rowling said “Dumbledore is gay we just don’t show it” I was like WTH???? are you kidding me??

    Excellent post Cam!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. becandbones says:

    This is a great post. So many of these things are valid concerns but also can feel so difficult to address.

    I always want to call out problematic rep but can’t help feeling super cautious because when you finally get rep for a minority do you really want to shut it down? It’s so difficult.

    I think it comes down to authors being responsible in their writing. It’s important that they recognise that poor rep can be damaging and upsetting for readers and they need to employ tools, like sensitivity readers, to ensure they are doing everything in their power to accurately rep diversity.

    But I think it’s also important for reviewers to consider that just because a rep doesn’t fit with THEM that doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate either.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ireadthatinabook says:

      Perhaps we should also be extra careful when we call-out problematic rep of minorities we don’t belong to as it makes it really hard for the author to answer it. If the author knows that a reader was hurt by how their group was represented the author has someone they can reach out to and apologize and have a reasonable chance of figuring out what went wrong. Even if they disagree they can listen.

      But if it is from someone on the outside it is much harder for the author to know if someone was actually hurt and if the criticism is valid, they can’t even be sure who they should apologize to. Of course we should still act as allies in those cases but perhaps we could do so in a less confrontational way, by offering constructive criticism or by broadcasting those who actually were hurt, not by demanding apologies on behalf of someone else who might not even want it?

      Like

      • becandbones says:

        That’s why I always reference #ownvoice reviewers when I’m speaking about/reviewing diversities that I don’t identify with, like Cam said. Similarly, if I do have personal grievances that I really want to speak about I always try to be transparent about not identifying with the minority and therefore my opinion does not speak for the group being represented at all.

        I think more than anything it’s important for people to just be clear and respectful when talking about diversity/minorities in any form, including lit representation.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Cam @ Camillea Reads says:

      Ah yes, I feel the same as well. And considering that a majority of the diverse books I’ve read aren’t my community, I back away from being too judgemental because it’s not my place. I tend to look into #ownvoices reviewers for that.

      Mmmm yes…I think publishing companies should consider having a department just for sensitivity reading, you know?

      Liked by 2 people

      • becandbones says:

        Yep for sure. It’s something that is becoming more and more important with the rise of diversity in lit. I feel like some authors are “jumping on the bandwagon” and they really need to do what they can to write responsibly.

        Like

  3. Ally Writes Things says:

    Yes to everything you said!!! I also hate when the book is diverse, but only the side characters. Like all the side characters are queer or POC, but the main characters are still cis/straight/white and so is the love interest and antagonist. It’s not actual diversity, it’s just making your book seem diverse. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves!!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. thebackwardsbookshelf says:

    Okay, so I apologize in advance because this comment is pretty much going to be a novel, but I just really loved this post, so.

    1) A person’s race, religion, sexuality, disability, mental illness, and so on is not the entirety of their identity.

    I find this is mostly a problem with authors who are not actually members of the race/ethnicity/religion or whatever community they choose to place their characters in. Yes, those circumstances affect a persons’ decisions, beliefs, choices, etc. but that is not the be-all and end-all of their personality. I remember reading another blog post (that for the life of me I cannot remember) about it that said, “It’s kind of like how I would not wear pink because I’m a redhead, but being a redhead isn’t the entirety of who I am.” Writing diverse characters as wholly consumed by their ethnicity, sexuality, disability, etc. results in flat, one-dimensional characters that are absolutely a disservice to the community the author is trying to represent.

    2) Diversity should be inclusive of all. It shouldn’t be a label for what we consider acceptable right now.

    This is something I hear a lot from the trans, disabled, and genderfluid/agender communities on twitter, so good on you for mentioning that.

    3) I have come across so many diverse books with terrible writing. and I find there’s a tendency to turn a blind eyes if there’s anything problematic in the book.

    This is where I think I have to disagree with you slightly. I do agree that diverse books with terrible writing should be reviewed accordingly, and that diversity on its own is not a good enough reason to publish an awfully written book. I also agree that anything problematic that happens in a diverse book does need to be called out.

    However, I think the frequency that diverse books are called out versus the frequency that books written by white people are called out is vastly unfair. There was a thread about it on book twitter a couple weeks ago (I have to find it, but I remember that it got quite big mostly because a lot of POC authors and reviewers could relate to it) but the gist of it is that POC books are often held to a higher standard than white books are. Which isn’t to say that it’s a bad thing that they are (because well-written books with multidimensional characters, yes?) but it’s high time that books written by white authors are held to the same standards as well.

    ETA: I can’t find the thread anymore but I do remember @xreadingsolacex wrote it. She has a ton of really eye-opening threads on diverse books!

    4) If you choose to write a diverse novel, firstly, take into consideration whether you are the right one to be telling that story.

    YAS KWEEN. THIS. Even if it’s well-written, I can’t help but side-eye diverse books written by white people. All I can think is, ‘This is a space in publishing that could have been taken up by an actual member of that community.’

    5) It annoys me when authors, out of blue, claim that character X or Y is AB ethnicity – all this without making it clear in the novel!

    J.K. ROWLING AND HER FAKE DIVERSITY/REPRESENTATION, COME THROUGH!!!

    Anyway, in conclusion, this post was really great and I just want to share it everywhere. Thank you for writing this. It’s amazing.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Cam @ Camillea Reads says:

      Hiiiii thank you for this comment!! Yes, I agree that we hold diverse books at a much higher standard! It’s tough on the authors and a bit sad because sometimes readers just want to enjoy a read without scrutinizing every aspect of it?? Thank you for pointing that out to me! I’ll need to re-consider my own diverse reads. I’ll need to explore more to find my own fit 😀

      OMG yessssssss, I hate, hate when authors get so fake about this diverse character or that…and the fact that she mentions it casually but then erases it? It annoys me and has put me off from reading her work, unfortunately.

      Thank you, thank you for this comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      • thebackwardsbookshelf says:

        Reading diverse is always a learning process so it’s great that we have this community that discusses the issue and listens to commentary! ♥

        HAY JK ROWLING. I’m so disappointed. Did you also see that twitter kerfuffle where she faved a whole bunch of TERFy transphobic tweets and then her publicist tried to defend her by saying she has awkward thumbs and accidentally pressed the like button? Ugh.

        Like

  5. ireadthatinabook says:

    Great post! I’m wondering if the definition of a diverse book might not be too broad and that’s one reason why they keep disappointing. A book about white straight people fitting into every norm but with diverse side-characters isn’t really a diverse read, it is a realistic read about people fitting to the current norms but living in a diverse world. That would be my standard expectation from norm-fitting authors writing about the world they know, something I find neither worth praise nor blame. Perhaps we should instead praise the truly diverse books and call-out truly undiverse books (with which I mean books set in a setting where diversity would be logical but still managing to completely erase it) and discuss the books in-between based on their other merits or lack thereof.

    (Also diversity is to some extent local, a norm-fitting US writer might still add a tiny bit of diversity to my reading if they write realistically about their world as they would be writing about life in a country I’ve never even visited).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Cam @ Camillea Reads says:

      What a well thought out comment! I agree with you on this! People think if they sprinkle different ethnicities into their story, it’s suddenly a diverse read? For me, a diverse read, would include showcasing the characters background and how it affects them. Even as a side character authors have plenty of opportunity to write it.

      And yes, we should do more to promote and celebrated diverse books! Thank you for this comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      • ireadthatinabook says:

        Yeah, “sprinkling ethnicities” should really be a minimum bar for passing (assuming the context is such that diversity would be expected), not something that gives the author extra credits.

        Like

  6. Elizabeth says:

    Such a great post! I love diverse books, but it does bother me when an entire character is practically nothing more than they ethnicity, religion, or sexuality. That’s just not realistic and is harmful.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. tasya @ the literary huntress says:

    This is a very well-written post Cam! I agree, I love the increase of diverse books in the new release it, but we often turn a blind eye on the problematic aspect. I noticed a lot of authors treat diversity as “check box”, or the aspect is not well written at all, or the diverse identity became all the character is. It’s disconcerting to read and I really wish that we call those out instead of support everyone that only treat diversity as some kind of ingredient for popular books :/

    Liked by 2 people

    • ireadthatinabook says:

      Do you find it worse with check-box diversity than no diversity? I’m a bit worried that if we spend too much effort calling out those who try but partly fail fewer will try. Of course a lazy effort doesn’t deserve any praise or support but perhaps it is better to just ignore those who tried to make an effort but failed to make it count? And just save our praise for those who did it well (and our call-outs for those who don’t try or mess-up badly).

      Liked by 1 person

      • tasya @ the literary huntress says:

        I can’t say about other people, but yeah I do, especially if it’s talking about my culture. As a PoC, it’s really hard not seeing yourself in media and when you do, only for people to do it as “check box” without any research and bordering on offensive. Those people who treat diversity as checkbox usually only wants to write about it as an “recipe” for popular books, instead of telling the story of the diverse group they are representing. At least people who tried will do a little bit of research, even the barest one, but checkbox usually did the minimum and lashed back when being called out. You can feel the difference in the book’s tone, from people who tried but failed, people who treat it as a check box, and people who actually wants to tell the story. I mean, if you don’t want to tell the story, don’t even bother to do the research about the group, then might as well don’t tell the story and let other people do the story, rather than “forcing” yourself to write about it but treat it like it was another plot element or characters quirks.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ireadthatinabook says:

        That makes sense, and I would probably feel the same way. I did assume that even a check-box approach would mean a minimum of research but considering that my experience is that almost every time a Swedish person shows up in an non Scandinavian novel their names tend to be wrong and it’s mostly just weird so I’m not sure why I though authors in general would do better when it comes to other ethnical groups or nationalities.

        I guess my division should be between true diverse books that want to tell a diverse story and which should be praised as such, books that are not trying to tell a diverse story but which includes diverse side-characters and have done a minimum of research to do so in an ok way, and books that doesn’t even try.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Aimee (Aimee, Always) says:

    Ahh awesome post, Camillea! Although I don’t think that because a diverse book is written badly means that it’s just there to boost sales, I totally agree with your last point! It ESPECIALLY annoys me when a book character’s said to be Asian, but aside from a mention of that here and there, the character’s personality/way of life doesn’t reflect it at all.

    I felt this way when I read Hello, I Love You (I think this was a 2015 book). The main character was an American who went to Korea, but if the author didn’t explicitly say that the book took place in Korea, you wouldn’t even notice it. There was no culture representation whatsoever, and it pissed me off so much!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Cam @ Camillea Reads says:

      Yes, I suppose, bad writing is a subjective opinion. I know!! I hate when books are promoted and celebrated for having X type of character but when I read, somehow, I’m like – where?

      That is so disappointing 😦 Honestly, if authors want to write in diversity, they need to consider getting editors with a good experience and knowledge of said diversity.

      Like

  9. Heidi says:

    Very thought provoking post. I am so glad you shared your thoughts. Yes, they are trying to make it better but it still isn’t right. Let’s hope they more authors will step up and do it right.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Rebeccah @ The Pixie Chronicles says:

    Thought-provoking post! I admit, I have my own post waiting among my un-published draft on my thoughts on the problems with “diverse” book and #OwnVoices, but I’ve been way too afraid to actually post it. So I definitely commend you on putting this out there. Truthfully, I think the book community is still going through some major growing pains when it comes to how they’re handling the rise in books featuring more realistic characters.

    Sometimes I feel like we’re TOO harsh on diverse books because we expect that book to cover every person in that community’s experience, and that’s just impossible. Someone in the same minority as myself might feel a diverse read showcases their thoughts and feelings perfectly, while it doesn’t even come close to mine. But that doesn’t make it an un-authentic book or that my feelings aren’t valid. I don’t know, its difficult to articulate, but I think people are sometimes a little too quick to judge or get angry when I genuinely believe most authors are only doing their best.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Cam @ Camillea Reads says:

      Thank you, Rebeccah. It took me a long time to gather the courage to type up the words and even then I re-read sentence after sentence to make sure nothing would come off as offensive.

      Yes, that is true! I’ve noticed #ownvoices authors coming under a lot of fire because their writing isn’t true enough…? Or if they write happy, fun books, suddenly they are ignorant of their community’s struggles. It’s tough on them, really. Thank you for sharing your thoughts ❤

      Like

  11. Markante Korenwolf says:

    What a great post and such interesting thoughts in comments as well!
    I try to read diverse books (both diverse content and diverse writers) but I found that in mainstream media, it’s harder to come across reviews and the like so I have to look for them more actively.
    I agree with the points you made and some of them are even things i haden’t even conciously thought about.

    Like

  12. Mattie @ Living Mattie says:

    Wow, this was a great discussion post! I completely agree with you – I do feel like diversity has become a little bit of a tick box, and I’ve seen a few cases where a book has been like “this character is this ethnicity/race” and then shown absolutely no evidence of it in the rest of the book.

    Do you think it’s more harmful for authors to write “paper-thin” diverse characters, possibly misrepresenting an ethnicity/race and treating diversity almost like a tick box, or to not bother including diverse characters at all?

    Like

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