On Diversity

This is going to be short and to the point:

We need more diversity in US publishing.  There is no question.  This is not limited to the very real need for more writers representing the full spectrum of the native and immigrant peoples of the USA, but we desperately, desperately need people from across a far wider range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds as editors, publishers and marketers.  Because it is only when the institutions that create the books that most people still buy and read change their composition that we will get meaningful, lasting and needed change across publishing.

I admit that when I first came to the idea of fairies in America, I did not set out to write a heroine who had African Americans in her immediate ancestry.  However,  I’d been struggling over the nature of the Unseelie Court.  I didn’t want it to be the court of monsters, as it frequently was in the older and more traditional legends.  I wanted it to be not just dangerous and powerful, but attractive, mysterious.  Glamorous.

I’d already settled on the idea that the Seelie Court was going to find its gateways in Hollywood.  After all, this was the 1930s.  Where was more intensely glamorous than Hollywood?  But what about the Unseelie?  Magic, in my stories, was going to be attracted to creativity, to beauty.  What was the flip side of Hollywood?

I was grousing about this problem to my husband, and he looked at me and said.  “You want a court?  Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lady Day…”

Of course.  Of course.  The Unseelie Court was jazz.  The quintessential American art form, one of the few forms of music that is genuinely ours.  The music that was insanely popular, roundly condemned, that opened doors, that changed the soundscape of the nation and the world for all time.  Of COURSE.  As soon as I had this in my head, new ideas and realizations started tumbling through my imagination.

One of them was that if I was going to do this, my heroine (I’m not sure if I’d even settled on her name yet), who was half-fairy, would also, as a daughter of the Unseelie court be half black.  This would change her, because it would change how she thought of herself and how the world treated her, because it does.

That was it.  More or less the whole of my decision process.  History and magic and story demanded that the character be who she was and I tried to make it so.  Is this a good reason?  Enough of a reason?  Should there have to be a reason?  These are questions I don’t have an answer to.   Did I do a good job with the character, her identity, her triumphs and struggles and friendships?  I hope I did.  I tried.  Maybe I failed.  Maybe because of my own background, and because of the stark, sad, complex  and ongoing history of cultural appropriation, I can never do well enough.  I don’t get to check out of history just because I’m a nice person.  Wish I did, but there it is.

What I do know is what I said up top, this profession that I practice and love needs a much wider range of participants at the very top than it has.   What I also know is this, if we as readers want to promote that idea, and that diversity, we need to take charge across the social media and talk about the titles and authors we love who represent the broad sweep of our culture.  This will speak to the publishers in most basic language they understand…money and sales.

So, folks, here’s the question that can be answered.  Who are you reading?

Duke Ellington



5 Responses

  1. Jonathan Waite

    Who am I reading? You won’t like it. Margery Allingham. G K Chesterton. Edmund Crispin. That kind of thing. In sf and fantasy, Jack Vance, James Hogan, Peter Beagle, Avram Davidson…I’m dallying with a Charles deLint, but it’s one I haven’t read before so I’m uncertain. Depression does this; it drives you back to the comforting, comfortable old favourites, makes the new scary and hard to get into.

    I agree that more diversity is needed; there should be shelves full of books by writers from other cultures than mine. There should be no difficulty at all about publishing such writers. Those writers who can evoke cultures other than their own in a respectful and accurate way should by all means do so. I hope it will happen, and soon.

    But please don’t be disappointed if troglodytes like me continue to read for pleasure what gives us pleasure. Maybe one day I will feel more adventurous again, and grapple with an experience totally alien to my own. I hope so. But the real point of diversity is to give those who feel marginalised and alienated by a publishing market dominated by my culture things to read in which they can recognise themselves, in a way to make the mainstream into a comfort zone for them as well as for me, and that, as I said, is something I definitely agree with.

  2. Sarah Zettel Post author

    We read what we read and we like what we like, and certainly in bad times, we take comfort from the old friends that come in the form of books (how many times have I run to Watership Down? Or Dorothy Sayers?) as well as those who come in the form of people. But there are other times, when we seek the new. The challenge, the entertainment, the ability to revel in the art and the ideas that will not just interest us, but expand our own inner worlds. This is what we lose if The Forces That Be (and there are many) force us into constant literary monoculture.

Leave a Reply to filkertom