Tuesday, March 29, 2016

What Makes a Book Diverse?

In each of my monthly wrap-ups, I count the number of diverse books I read. Normally, that's pretty easy to do. Occasionally, however, it isn't as simple as I think it should be. I have to think a lot about whether a book is diverse or not. Which brings me to my question: what makes a book diverse?

~ Warning: The next couple of paragraphs contain minor spoilers for the books mentioned. ~

Since I don't think I've been quite clear, let's look at a few examples from books I've read in the past few months. First, there's The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle. In this book, we have Alice and Bea. Bea almost certainly likes girls. At one point, she kisses the female protagonist. Alice also probably likes girls. At one point, while discussing her romantic interests, she says something along the lines of there having been someone all along. It's implied that this person is Bea. One of them might even outright admit to liking the other at one point - I do remember that it's brought up. But they get no resolution, and neither of them is identified as lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, or otherwise queer. On top of that, they're both supporting characters, and any romance is far from being a focus. Is The Accident Season diverse? I said yes in my wrap-up, but it's not a book that I'd suggest to someone explicitly looking for diverse books.

Another book that made me think about this was The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, which I read in school this month. This book has a mentally disabled character, a number of black characters, and two implied gay characters. Just with that list, I'd say that the novel is a lot more diverse than many of the books I read. But there's one more thing to consider: this book was published in 1929. Suddenly, the diversity isn't so nice anymore. The mentally disabled character is viewed as a burden and forcibly sterilized. The black characters are rarely respected and frequently referred to by the n-word. Even the implied homosexuality is condemned because it (among many, many other issues) makes the character miserable. There's also a major character who is outspokenly racist and anti-Semitic. Is this book diverse? Technically, yes, but it's not going on my monthly list.

~ End of spoilery section ~

So what constitutes diversity? What is representation? Is it just having a character who's from one or more marginalized groups? Does that aspect of their life have to be acknowledged? If so, how much? Does that character have to be treated well, or at the very least not treated badly because of their belonging to said marginalized group?

Maybe there are different tiers of diversity. I've been thinking in terms of "Is this book diverse? yes/no (circle one)," but maybe it's more complex than that. But then how does a book that's very diverse but doesn't treat those characters well compare to a book that isn't as diverse but has more positive representation?

I don't have answers to all of these questions, and I don't think there's one right answer for each of them. Personally, I like the different tiers of diversity idea, even if I haven't completely thought out the details. I just don't think that a book with all of its diversity belonging to one minor character should be in the same diversity category as a book where almost every major character is diverse in some way.

What makes a book diverse for you? Can you think of any books that fit into that weird possibly-diverse category? Do you have any ideas about categorizing how diverse books are? Tell me in the comments!

4 comments:

  1. To me, diversity in books means representing all types of experiences, whatever they may be. Maybe setting a book in the middle of Wisconsin on a small farm counts as diversity. It doesn't have to be only about the "major" things I think we associate with diversity: race and sexual orientation.

    I also think we need to have more discussion about whether a book has to be "about" being diverse. I've seen both sides. Does a book about a black character have to investigate something like "the black experience" or is diversity writing a book about a black character who just kicks butt in a dystopian world, without her race being a main part of the story? Personally, I think there's room for both types of stories, but I've seen many arguments that the diverse aspect has to be upfront. The book has to be "about" being diverse.

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    1. I definitely agree that all kinds of experiences should be represented. All kinds of people should be able to see themselves represented in fiction. At the same time, though, there's experiences that aren't usually represented just because they're rarer, like your Wisconsin example, and then there are experiences that aren't usually represented because of marginalization, which are very different things.

      You make a really good point about whether a book has to be about diversity, too. I think that there's room for both kinds of stories, but I also think that both of them need to be present. Both are important n different ways, because they're different types of representation. Books that are about diversity are important because they highlight the experiences of marginalized groups that are too often just brushed aside, but books that aren't about diversity are important, too, because they show that no one is just one thing.

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  2. This is suuuuch a good question, omg, and I really don't wholly know what I think about it either!! So this post makes me think WHICH IS GREAT. XD I think it counts as diverse if it's in there at all, like a LGBT secondary character for instance. *nods* That is diverse. But I think it's also sad when the diversity is so often relegated to the secondary characters? I mean, I think diversity in books is a VERY complex issue and I don't even know what I think about it all the time, buuuut...YEAH. I say it counts as diverse but I wouldn't, like you, recommend these kind of books to people wanting diverse-focused books.

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    1. I definitely agree about any diverse characters making a book diverse in the broadest sense, even if it's not as focused. And diversity being relegated to secondary characters is SO sad. Like, those books are diverse, and it's great that they are, but they're not the best choice for people specifically looking for a diverse book.

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