One reason often cited for the persistence in diversity issues in fiction is that publishing houses are not yet hiring more non-white faces. I think there are two more potent reasons.
Fiction is beyond any doubt more diverse today than it was twenty years ago, but we’ve still a long way to go. How do we explain the lack of diverse characters and particularly diverse main characters? By diverse, I mean voices that are often marginalised or non-existent in stories; in particular, along the dimensions of race, sexual orientation, religious beliefs and physical and mental abilities.
I don’t blame authors who aren’t writing diverse characters. After all, it’s hard to write what you don’t know. And those who attempt it can easily get it wrong. The consequences can be severe, not least because we live at a time when our publications and social media posts can come under intense scrutiny, but also because everything we do or say is political and will be treated as such. Adding to this, not many people want to be eaten alive by the ever-increasingly hungry social media bullies.
My fundamental belief is that most people mean well. But the lack of diversity in fiction is because we as human beings are intrinsically self-preserving and, even when we know right from wrong, we are primarily driven by fear. It could be fear of losing our status, jobs, friends, family, money, and ultimately, fear of death. This fear means we carry on writing and developing characters that come most naturally and most comfortably even if we leave some of the readers that desperately need us behind.
Yet, I dare say there should be no excuse. Authors must try, and try even harder.
One way to counter our self-focused individualism is to venture outside of our bubbles, which are where we feel most comfortable. These bubbles are groups and friends that are just like us—they are the people that eat like us, socialise like us or share our childhood memories. If we stay inside our bubbles, it’s much harder to appreciate other experiences fully, let alone write about them.
Literature is a gateway out of ourselves. Extensive and reading help, especially reading non-fiction books about real-life issues and biographies from people who don’t look, think or talk like us. We can absorb a great deal from lives of people from all sorts of backgrounds. There are also enough writing forums that can help guide us if we get stuck, and authors should make sure they research thoroughly. That doesn’t mean we’ll get everything right, but we have to start somewhere.
Rosa Parks once said, “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.” I encourage authors to take the first step.