Yes, yes, I know. Diversity in Bath generally means something like whether you would allow people to have Merlot with Sunday lunch rather than the more traditional Claret. However, yesterday the Bath Children’s Literature Festival ran a “Daily Telegraph Debate” on the subject of diversity in children’s books. “What could possibly go wrong?” I wondered. I was also pleasantly surprised.
Although the event was billed as a “debate” it turned out to be anything but, at least to begin with, because all of the members of the panel were convinced of the need for more diversity in books for children. We live in a very multi-cultural society, and it is just plain daft that the majority of books published for kids cater to middle class white children from wholly cisgender, hetero-normative backgrounds. The situation is even more stark in the USA. A recent Nielsen survey has revealed that only half of child readers under the age of nine are white.
The panel was made of of Lorna Bradbury (Daily Telegraph book reviews editor, Chair), Liz Kessler (author, also lesbian person), Shannon Cullen (Random Penguin, Kiwi) and Bali Rai (author, also non-white person). Basically Lorna asked the questions, Shannon tried hard to convince is that that the publishing industry was doing all it could, Liz was kind and conciliatory, and Bali did the Angry Brown Person thing. Bali was awesome.
There were some slight mis-steps, most notably when Bali appeared to give the impression that sexuality was a choice. When called on it he immediately realized his mistake and apologized for his poor use of words. Aside from that you might have come away with the impression that all was rosy and multi-cultural in KidLit land. Certainly the Bath Chronicle did.
It wasn’t until we got to audience questions that we actually got some debate, and mostly that centered around what doing diversity actually means. If you have read my essay on writing trans characters over at Strange Horizons you’ll be aware that there can be a great deal of difference between writing a trans character and writing a trans character that trans people are actually likely to identify with. That sort of problem doesn’t just happen with trans folk. It can happen with just about any “minority” group if the books being written are all written by, and intended to appeal to, middle class white folks.
Where I got involved was when the panel started talking about “universal stories”, because so often that is a code term for “stories that white people can relate to”. Of course things like falling in love, having parents die, and so on can happen to anyone, but the way we tell those stories can be very different. Someone mentioned that if you have a story about aliens visiting Earth, why couldn’t they drop in on a Somali family rather than a white one? Well, there’s Lagoon, a book that I dearly love. It is a book about an alien invasion that happens, not in New York or London, but in Lagos. Nnedi has made no compromises in writing it. It is a book full of Nigerian people and full of issues of interest to Nigerian people. I’m delighted, and somewhat surprised, that it got published in the UK and USA. It is not what most people would think of when they talk about “universal stories”.
Bali made a very similar point when he noted that he’d been taken to task by white editors over the language his characters use. He knows far better than they do how kids of South Asian ancestry living in Leicester actually speak.
Of course it isn’t easy making diversity happen. We are very lucky to have people like Shannon championing the diversity cause within publishers, but she can’t just publish what she wants. She has to work withing the constraints of the industry. Go back and listen to Kristine Kathryn Rusch in the Coode Street podcast I linked to yesterday for an industry insider’s view of how changes in the structure of the book industry have resulted in an obsessive focus on best-sellers.
As a publisher myself, and as someone with a lot of friends in the business, I know a bit about how things work. When you ask publishers why they don’t publish more of a particular type of book they’ll probably note that they don’t get enough submissions of that type from agents, and that they have trouble placing such books with the major bookstore chains. Let’s look at both of those issues.
Yes, publishers could go out and look for the books they want, but they use agents for a reason: it saves them lots of time and effort. Agents, of course, may have fixed and erroneous ideas of what publishers actually want. And they may not have the right clients. Bali made the point that most of the non-white writers he knows are self-publishing rather than going through the traditional publishing route because they assume that the overwhelmingly white publishing industry won’t be interested in their books. Shannon was impressively voluble on the subject of helping writers who are not from white, middle class backgrounds to navigate the gatekeeping process so that people like her get to see the sort of books they want to publish.
At the other end of the process, failing to impress the buyer from Waterstones or Barnes & Noble can be the kiss of death for a book. That’s less of a problem if you are Random Penguin and can offer to throw a fortune at marketing a book, but a real issue for smaller publishers. The bookstores, on the other hand, will say it isn’t their fault. They know what sells and what doesn’t, and they have to make a living just like anyone else. If the only people coming into their shops are middle class white people, they will only stock books aimed at middle class white people.
Now of course the reason other people don’t go into bookstores might just be that the shops only stock books aimed at middle class white folks. However, some of those middle class white people claim to be pro-diversity. Here’s Lavie Tidhar:
There is a HUGE gap in genre between people talking about the need for diversity to people buying The Apex Book of World SF 4–
— Lavie Tidhar (@lavietidhar) September 16, 2015
He has a point. It is all very well campaigning for more diverse books on Twitter, but you have to buy them too. Six weeks ago I re-issued Colin Harvey’s novel, Damage Time. The lead characters are a Muslim man and an intersex woman. Colin could have done things a bit better, but how many books do you know of with intersex characters who are key to the plot and have agency. I wrote a blog post about why I was republishing the book. Want to guess how many people bought the book on the strength of that?