Therese here to introduce a new series here at WU, and explain its evolution. I recently visited the WU Facebook group and opened the floor to pitches: If you could write a post for WU, what would it be and why? Replies poured in–too many great ideas to use this summer, in fact–and in short order a theme began to emerge. Maybe it was inspired by the recent Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriages, but many of the pitches were tied to DIVERSITY.
We don’t talk about these issues as much as we should, do we? But we’re all very different, and those differences go beyond age and race and sexual orientation. We do not all have the same emotional experiences or voices or passions or fears. We are not all looking for the same experiences as writers–or as readers–and that’s ultimately a great thing.
So let’s start talking.
It’s my honor to host this series on Writer Unboxed and to introduce our first guest.
Grace Wynter is a blogger and writer of romance and women’s fiction. She spends much of her non-writing time tinkering with WordPress websites and working on completing her professional editing certificate with the University of Chicago. When she’s not alternating between the Marvel and DC universes, she resides in Atlanta, Georgia.
“I wanted to address the issue of diversity on WU because I believe it’s a community created by and consisting of the kinds of storytellers and writers who can lead the charge in bringing the issue of diversity to the larger writing community.” – Grace Wyter
Why Diversity in Publishing Matters
Diversity’s a topic that’s being floated around a lot these days. For those on the “outside” of the conversation, all the diversity talk can seem like much ado about nothing. In fact, on a romance writer Facebook page I follow, when an admin recently posted a survey about diversity in romance novels, one of the first commenters responded with, “Oh, come on!” Apparently, she’d had her fill of diversity talk. That this reader would have such a frustrated response to something so important is disheartening, especially when you consider that at its simplest, most organic level, those of us seeking diversity in publishing desire something very basic: to see words, images, and stories that are inclusive in nature, in the very mediums that helped shape our lives.
Toni Morrison Made Me Do it
Toni Morrison said, “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”
It was only about three years ago that I realized I wanted to write fiction, but I’ve been reading it for as long as I can remember. Specifically romantic fiction with its star-crossed lovers and impossibly happy endings. As a teenager and later as a new adult, I devoured romance novels. But as much as I enjoyed those stories, something was missing. I read about blondes and brunettes, blue and green-eyed girls who, in the end, always found love, but there were no stories about girls who looked anything like me or my friends. In my school library and at my local book store, there were no stories about nerdy, fat, black, skinny, Latina, Caribbean, or Asian girls getting the guy. There were no stories where girls like me got to be the heroes. Where just for a little while, in the pages of a book, someone’s world revolved around them.
So although Toni Morrison didn’t say those words directly to me, she might as well have. And now, about a half a dozen first drafts later, I’m close to completing one of several novels featuring women who are underrepresented in the genre I love so dearly.
A Unique Perspective
Almost from the day I decided I’d start writing fiction, I began researching the publishing process. From traditional to self-publishing, from writers groups, to conferences, I studied everything I could find about the industry. And the one thing I learned early on is that for someone writing mainstream contemporary romance with a black female protagonist, the road is long and narrow.
The following is some of what I’ve learned over the past few years about diversity in the industry, through my own observations, and conversations with other writers, readers, and agents.
This feels like a good spot to include a disclaimer of sorts. The opinions expressed here are my own. I don’t speak for all black women writers, or women who write black female protagonists. I also don’t speak for all the non-cisgendered persons underrepresented in “mainstream” writing. This is my take on the world from my unique perspective as a reader and writer of color.
On Imprints and Shelf Space
One of the reasons I’m actively pursuing the hybrid route to publishing (a combination of traditional and indy-publishing) is what I perceive as the industry’s tendency to “shelf” writing that features non-white protagonists into narrow categories. Case in point – Harlequin Romance. Harlequin imprints include Blaze, Desire, Heartwarming, Medical Romance, Historical, and at least a dozen more. The imprint titles are all indicative of the type of romance you’ll be reading.
Then there’s the Harlequin Kimani imprint.
As far as I can tell, Kimani is a township in Malaysia, and maybe the name of a Kenyan tribe. It may also mean strong warrior, or honest man. The point is, the name Kimani doesn’t provide the reader with many clues about the type of romance they’d be reading if they selected a book from that imprint. The one big clue is that the name sounds “ethnic” enough to send a message that “black women, these novels are just for you.”
The issue isn’t that the imprint exists, because there’s obviously a market for it. A big one. I’ve read and enjoyed Kimani imprint titles. As a reader I know that if I select a Kimani title, the protagonist will bear some physical resemblance to me. And as a reader who wants to see her image reflected in the stories I read, this is important. The larger issue is that when I write a novel with a black female protagonist, it’s a good bet that my novel will end up shelved in an area designated as African American or multi-cultural, and not general romance or themed romance. This designation immediately limits my potential audience and my earning potential.
Narrowly shelving books with black female protagonists says, “Black women this book is for you, but the rest of you probably won’t be interested in this title because the protagonist doesn’t look or act like you.” It says, “These experiences are so far outside of the norm for you, that we had to give the category its own name.” Never mind that the novel might be a western, might be historical, or might feature a multi-cultural cast of characters. Segmenting in this manner tends to gloss over the most important point: These books are about the universal romantic themes of broken hearts, the pursuit of love, and the happily ever after.
And when it comes to actual shelf space in large chain bookstores, it’s even more challenging. If you’re not an internationally known author like Maya Angelou, Pearl Cleage, or Alice Walker, you’re not getting on that small shelf dedicated to African American authors. And forget about getting on the general romance shelf. But as an aspiring romance author that’s exactly where I want to be because when most women visit the bookstore looking for romance novels, they’re not going to the one African American shelf they’re going to the romance aisle. Side note: Indy bookstores are much better at featuring diverse authors and stories than big box bookstores and retailers.
On Writers and Readers
A couple of years ago I created a Meetup group for romance writers in my area. The women in my group are excellent writers and avid readers who select their next read from a mix of recommendations from friends and the carousel of books that rotates on their Amazon books page. During our most recent conversation about diversity, a couple of the women brought up a great point about why they haven’t read more ethnically diverse titles. It’s not that they’d actively avoided reading books with non-white protagonists, it’s that they’d not been exposed to them.
The Shonda Rhimes Treatment
Shonda Rhimes is a screenwriter and producer. She currently has three ratings juggernauts on ABC: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder. She’s a black woman whose shows feature some of the most diverse casting on television, and two of those shows star black women as their leads.
I call it the Shonda Rhimes treatment – when black women are portrayed as layered, multi-dimensional women who just happen to be black. Rhimes also does this for the Asian, Hispanic and gay and lesbian characters she writes. These women have lovers of all races. They’re strong and weak. Shonda Rhimes has proven that these stories can garner high ratings and advertising dollars. I’d like to see more of the Shonda Rhimes treatment in the writing and publishing community.
Stereotyping and Diversity
There are risks involved in portraying characters outside of your own experience. I understand this first hand. I remember a friend once complaining that the black male character in a television dramedy about three men, was the one with daddy issues. I reminded her that the other two characters were equally flawed – one a gambling addict, the other a womanizer unable to hold down a steady job. Which flaw would we rather? We must be willing to see flawed, multi-dimensional characters of color on TV and in our books.
There’s a quote attributed to author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that says, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Shonda Rhimes (for the most part) can write without worrying about stereotyping because of the sheer number of people of color and LGBTQ she writes. Increasing diversity in our books and TV shows will free flawed characters from the burden of representing an entire race, religion, or ethnic group.
What Writers Can Do to Promote Diversity
Seeking diversity in publishing isn’t about being politically correct, it’s about ensuring that all stories are told. It’s about having people who love to read, being able to pick up books by their favorite authors and see their images weaved into the storylines, plots, and scenes. As readers and members of a large supportive writing community, there are things we can do to embrace and lead the charge of diversity in publishing.
- One of the best things we can do to encourage diversity in publishing is to read books by authors we’ve never heard of, or wouldn’t have sought out on our own. As members of a large, diverse writing community, we can solicit book recommendations from friends in our professional and social networks.
- When we get book recommendations and read the books, if we enjoy them, we should spread the word about these books and their authors, just as we would any other book we enjoy. We can leave reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, and other platforms. Note: It’s important that we only recommend these books because we enjoy them, and not because of a desire to help promote something simply for the sake of diversity. In the long run, doing that only diminishes the efforts of talented authors.
- Incorporate diverse characters in our own writing. Most of us write about the world around us, and if we’re not around certain ethnic, racial, religious groups, or LGBTQ it might feel inauthentic to write “their” stories. But we write about murderers, adulterers, and the mentally insane. We practice diversity in our writing in so many other ways, surely a few of us can step out of our comfort zone and add characters whose emotions trump their race or ethnicity. Start small – secondary characters – the barista at the coffee shop, the neighbor, the cop, store owner, etc. The more we write and portray diverse characters, the more we can successfully present people without fear of stereotyping.
The ultimate goal is to have someone read a novel and say, that was an amazing story. I loved that. The characters appealed to me.
Our written word should reflect the larger society around us. We can get to a place where diversity isn’t an afterthought. It won’t be easy. We will step on some toes. We will get it wrong.
But if the story tellers and story lovers don’t do this, who will?
Thoughts to share on diversity in publishing? The floor is yours.