We are writers. We focus on reading and writing. Many of us pay attention to market trends in order to find a published home for our work.
However, sometimes there is a manipulation in those trends. Publishers are the ones who decide what they think will and won’t sell. They, like writers, look at the trends, but they also mediate the trends. Because they are the say in what gets published, they are the gate keepers.
This can prove to be a problem, as so many BIPOC people, disabled people, LGBTQ+ folx, etc., have been saying for years.
The Problem with Gate-Keeping in Publishing
For some, reading is a way of simply escaping. What is escaping if not experiencing another life in order to know a world different from the reader’s? This might mean experiencing a character in the same professional line as the reader but with different strengths which help the reader understand how to develop that state of being, or it might be something completely different like an alien working against the human space army to save their solar system’s sun.
In every piece of fiction we read, we have a curiosity about the plot and the character. We want to experience their world, their reality, in order to escape from our own and maybe learn something along the way. This might not be the conscious aim for the reader, however, when we put ourselves in another person’s shoes, fictional or real, we are extending ourselves into another way of thinking and into another way of living.
“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”~Rudine Sims Bishop
When we extend ourselves into another way of thinking and living (and this is the beautiful part), we stretch our empathy muscles, and we understand the world just a little bit differently than we did before.
Lee and Low Books wrote a January 2020 blog post on the importance of diversity in publishing, which fueled their 2019 Diversity in Publishing survey.
“Why does diversity in publishing matter? The book industry has the power to shape culture in big and small ways. The people behind the books serve as gatekeepers, who can make a huge difference in determining which stories are amplified and which are shut out.”
A very long and detailed example of publishers shutting voices out was outlined in a letter from RaceB4Race’s letter. In this outline, they explain a set of proposals were rejected from literary publication on the topic of Medievalists of Color. I’m likely to do a poor job of summarizing this article, as there is a lot to it, though the organization created RaceB4Race in a response to a rejection of
“a set of proposals for sessions on race and antiracism.” They found that “By creating a space to engage with premodern critical race studies, RaceB4Race fulfilled a long unmet need. RaceB4Race proved that premodern critical race studies is not a niche field!”
After trying to publish their findings, they were met with a reject which stated that while the content was interesting and valuable, it lacked opposing perspectives.
“We were disappointed and confused by this rejection, especially by the suggestion that the range of contributors was ‘constrained,’ given that our contributors’ expertise ranges from the history of medieval studies to slavery in early modern England to 17th-century French court ballets. In what sense could our range possibly read as ‘constrained’? Perhaps ‘constrained’ in that we did not include some older, more established white men to validate our calls for antiracist methodologies and pedagogies? But even more troubling was the suggestion that the editors were expecting and imagining ‘opposing perspectives’ to an antiracist collection. What kind of ‘opposing perspectives’ were imagined exactly? The cluster’s intervention pointed towards an entirely new direction for premodern studies, and its push for a radical transformation of the field was dismissed with a one-liner that hinged on ellipses and illogic. This second rejection felt eerily similar to the first by the International Congress of Medieval Studies.”
Examples like these can go on and on and on.
So, what happens when our access to media is formed for us because of gate keeping in the publishing industry? Well, a few things.
Lack of Representation
What results is that there is a lack of representation books, both in characters and in voice. This is massively important. One of the reasons will be gone over in depth in the second part of this post, but the most important point is that it alienates those whose voices are non-able-bodied, non-white, non-cisgendered, or non-straight.
I am writing this from the perspective of a white, able-bodied, bi woman’s perspective. So whereas I have the right to talk about bi representation and the representation of women’s voices, I don’t have the right to talk about perspectives of those with disabilities or from BIPOC folx.
Because I don’t have that right, I want to share words of marginalized authors’ voices.
Debora Dixon writes in her article, “Representation in Literature: Why It’s Important & How to Handle it,” about the importance of writing representation. She writes:
Seeing people who look, act, and experience life like them in media makes a person feel included in a society, and it reinforces positive views of themselves and what they can achieve in society. Also, members of other groups, especially majority groups, base their ideas of groups on what they see in the media. For example, a hiring manager who watches too many police procedurals might view candidates of minority races as having criminal tendencies.
For people who exist outside of these marginalized and underrepresented groups, it can be hard to imagine life with the experiences and hardships that minorities experience. Without those experiences, writing characters of diverse backgrounds can seem daunting.
The importance Dixon is putting forward is that what we see and read in the media can inform and develop biases. As writers, we need to watch out for that and make sure we’re representing people correctly. Likewise, and most importantly, it’s about inclusion and making sure everyone is seen and heard.
In this article, she goes on to talk about what writers can do to make sure they aren’t harming while they’re writing a character from a marginalized group that the writer doesn’t belong to. To learn more and in greater depth, be sure to read her page, Diversity in Literature here, and check out the article as well as her publishing house, Shalamar.
K. Tempest Bradford
“For readers and viewers, seeing themselves represented on the page or screen can open up to them what’s possible. For some, it’s a lifeline.”
“Seeing oneself reflected in fiction, even if partially, is important for people from marginalized communities and identities. It’s also important for people who align with the dominant paradigm as well. It allows them to see and understand that people who aren’t like them exist outside of narrow stereotypes and also outside of the confines of their own narrow understanding.”
This article is beautifully in depth with wonderful explanations of the importance of representation in literature as well as how to do it right. I strongly encourage everyone to read it from start to finish.
“Representation is key to good writing. This is true whether you’re a novelist, a playwright, or a screenwriter; whether you work in television, in game development, or new media. All narrative has the power to impact culture and individuals in a positive way or a negative one. It’s up to creators to choose.”
Ask yourself when the last time you read a book where the main character was LGBTQ+, BIPOC, or disabled whether mentally or physically. If you bought it in a bookstore, what section of the bookstore did you get it from?
In most, though not all, these books have their own category in bookstores. There is an LGBTQ+ section where fiction is muddled with non-fiction on anything to do with the LGBTQ+ lifestyle, experience, community, history, etc.
When “normal” is white, cis and straight, then anything else becomes a niche market. And that is a problem.
In publishing, if something is niche, then it means that a writer who has main characters who fall into the “other” category need to find an agent and/or a publisher who specializes in that niche. It narrows the ability to publish quite a bit.
When publishers decide that these stories are niche, then they continue the thought that only people who are specifically interested in reading about characters with disabilities, or only interested in Chinese trans characters will want to read them. However, all that’s doing is further perpetuating the divide.
If these books aren’t filed or considered “normal,” then they will always be seen as niche, which they aren’t. They aren’t their own genre because they have non-white, non-disabled, non-straight, and/or non-cisgendered. They are still stories about people who experience life in their own ways.
What You Can Do About This
Read writers who are “other” in all genres. Read Afro-science fiction, read a fantasy novel where the MC has cerebral palsy (I really hope that exists because I think that would be awesome), read a western with a cross-dressing cowboy or saloon girl.
If you are white, cis, straight, and an able-bodied person and you read these books, then you are voting with your dollar. You are showing the publishing industry that these books are in demand and they are not niche. You are showing that the main character’s racial background, their sexuality, their gender identity, their disability is a part of the diverse world we live in.
This is called normalizing. The only way to un-niche these voices is to normalize them. And the only way to do that is to buy and read books by these authors.
At the end of this post, I’ve included a list of diverse fiction authors and their books. I know that I, personally, want to read books with LGBTQ+ characters that aren’t romance. They are hard to find.
Check out the books that are from an author who is different from you. If you’re cisgendered, read a book from the perspective of a trans person. If you’re white, read a book by a Native American or Indigenous writer. If you’re able-bodied, read some fiction from someone who is disabled. If you’ve never experienced anxiety or don’t understand it, read fiction about someone who has anxiety.
And if you find it difficult to find these books, write to your favorite publishers and demand that there be more available. Confront them on this point.
A group called the Black Writers Guild has already sent out an open letter to the Big 5 publishers with a call to fix the racial disparities in the publishing industry. A way to support this is to add your voices and your money to this call. By “your money,” I mean investing in books by marginalized voices.
Demand publishers to unlock the damn gate.
Some Publishing Statistics
In a 2019 article put out by Publisher’s Weekly, it relays the publishing data gathered from a Lee and Low diversity survey.
The survey found that in the publishing industry:
- 76% were white
- 74% were cis women
- 81% were straight
- 89% were non-disabled
Statistics like this suggest that there is likely to be a bias when it comes to manuscripts that cross desks for publication. Thus, there is a call for a more diverse publishing industry.
The British children’s reading charity, BookTrust, found that
- Fewer than 5.8% of children’s authors and illustrators in 2017 were POC
- 1.98% of the 5.6% of the above authors were British people of color
- An average of 4 books per white person were published compared to an average of 2 books per person of color from 2007-2017
- Overall, between 2007 and 2017, 8.62% of children’s books creators were people of color
You can download and read their full report here.
The Importance of Normalizing
Have you been outside in the world…at all? Have you noticed that not everyone looks the same? Have you noticed that not everyone acts the same, or thinks the same? I mean, if you turn on the news and watch the talking heads at all, you’ll see bickering over opinions which shows right here that not everyone thinks the same.
One thing that we accept pretty readily is that there are divisions in thinking. We can wrap our heads around that because almost all of our discussions are communicating with a mind that isn’t our own. You can’t escape that. It’s normal because it is literally all around us.
You know what else is all around us? All the rest of the world which is created of a rich tapestry of individuals. So why isn’t that reflected in our media? What’s more, is that making the general heteronormative population more biased because we don’t experience those who are different through the media we consume?
The answer is yes. Seriously.
Recently, I’ve started watching the Netflix mini-series Hollywood, which is set in the 1940s. There is regular discussion about what will and won’t sell. A particular story which is outlined is Anna May Wong, who was a Chinese American actress. The story depicted in the show is that she tried out for a part in The Son-Daughter (though in the show, the movie was titled something else), a part she was perfect for, but was turned down because no one would accept a Chinese face on screen, despite the character actually being Chinese. The part was then given to white actress Helen Hayes.
The show has countless examples of how Hollywood was gatekeeping diverse media, including a wonderful line from character Archie Coleman who says, “I want to take the story of Hollywood and give it a re-write. So maybe someday soon, you ain’t a half-Asian director who feels he has to hide it. You’ll just be a director. I won’t be a black writer writing about some white lady. I’ll just be a writer.”
While that was 80 years ago, there is still a level of that today. After all, writing Afro-science fiction is seen as niche.
The way to combat this segregation in the media is to normalize it all. Allow more books to be published from marginalized voices and by wider consumption of that media, then we accept it as normal. Because it is.
Who is Reading?
In a 2019 Bustle article by Kerri Jarema, Jarema outline a study which says white people read more books on average than non-white folks. Jarema then makes the claim that it is up to publishers to change this.
I personally would put the responsibility on both reader and publisher. I am in no way defending publishers and gatekeeping. However, an argument I recently saw on Twitter (I know, I should research better) stated that publishing houses are businesses first, that they have to invest where they’ll see a return.
That is true. That also leads to a much bigger problem of capitalism overrunning and drowning out what’s right, which we won’t get into here.
Seeing as capitalism isn’t likely to change any time soon (though we can hope!), then we need to speak the business language to the publishers and show them that disabled, BIPOC, LGBTQ+ main characters sell just as willingly as white, straight, cis, and able-bodied characters.
This being said, I do recognize there are likely other factors that might play into how much different groups of people are reading, from accessibility to time available, which can be down to a variety of factors that I won’t get into here.
Read! Check out some of the books below, or find some other authors who write characters who are not like you. Then, read another. In fact, challenge yourself to read ten books this summer, from now until September 21st along these lines.
Not only do this, but see if you can find these authors on social media and give them a follow. Be sure to also recommend the books you read and liked.
Finally, continue learning. I provided a list of articles and resources below the list of books for you to continue exploring. There was a lot of good content that I didn’t include.
Fiction Books by Marginalized Voices
I struggled with this list. Not so much with finding BIPOC and/or LGBTQ authors writing BIPOC and/or LGBTQ characters, but with finding fiction with disability representation, either learning or physical disabilities by authors with disabilities.
As a result, I admit, because I was really struggling, there are some books listed where I couldn’t find the information about the author or just flat out the authors are not represented by their characters with disabilities.
This just goes to show, there is a gap.
Sherman Alexie, Flight
Mia Alvar, In the Country
Barrett Rose Baum, Perfectly Flawed
Louise Erdrich, LaRose
Bernadine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other
Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues
Angela Flournoy, The Turner House
Nancy J. Hedin, Bend
Helen Hoang, The Kiss Quotient
Julie Iromuanya, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor
B. L. McGrew, We Are Immeasurable
K. A. Moll, Coming to Terms
Susan Nussbaum, Good Kings, Bad Kings
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Yong Takashi, The Escape to Candyland
Michelle Tea, Valencia
Jennifer Tseng, Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness
Hilary Zaid, Paper is White
Leigh Bardugo, Six of Crows
Sarah Rees Brennan, In Other Lands
Octavia Butler, Kindred
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer
Celeste Harte, Conquest
N. K. Jemmisin, The Fifth Season
Thomas King, Green Grass, Running Water (note: this book is actually Magical Realism, though for simplicity sake, I put it under fantasy)
Malinda Lo, The Huntress
Alex London, Black Wings Beating
Day Al-Mohamed, The Labyrinth’s Archivist
Rebecca Roanhorse, Trail of Lightning
River Solomun, The Deep
Scott Tracey, Witch Eye
Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing
Marguerite de Angeli, The Door in the Wall
Elaine Castillo, America is Not the Heart
Kathrine Dunn, Geek Love
Fannie Flagg, Fried Green Tomatoes
Vet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer
Elizabeth McCracken, The Giant’s House
Chinelo Okparanta, Under the Udala Trees
Leslie Marmon Silko, Gardens in the Dunes
Alice Walker, The Color Purple
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
Jacqueline Woods, Red at the Bone
Virginia Woolf, Orlando
Omar El Akkad, American War
Storm Constantine, Wraeththu
Esi Edugyan, Washington Black
J. Fally, Bone Rider
Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds
Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon
C. T. Rwizi, Scarlet ODyssey
Rivers Solomon, An Unkindness of Ghosts
Tade Thompson, Rosewater
“Representation in Literature: Why It’s Important & How to Handle It,” by Deborah Dixon, Writers Helping Writers
“Publishing Statistics on Children’s/YA Books about People of Color and First/Native Nations andv by People of Color and First/Native Nations Authors and Illustrators” from Cooperative Children’s Books Center School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“The Black Writers Guild’s Open Letter Asks for 8 Much-Needed Changes In Publishing,” by Neillah Arboine, Bustle
“7 Stats About Diversity In Book Publishing That Reveal The Magnitude Of The Problem” by Kerri Jarema, Bustle
“A Woman Hasn’t Won The Pulitzer Prize For Fiction Since 2014 — And Only 30 Women Have Won In Total,” by Kerri Jarema, Bustle
“New Lee and Low Survey Shows No Progress on Diversity in Publishing,” by John Maher, Publishers Weekly
“Where is the Diversity in Publishing? The 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey Results” from Lee and Low Books
“Diversity in Publishing Statistics” from Midnight Publishing
“It’s Time to End the Publishing Gatekeeping!” RaceB4Race Executive Board
“The Major Built-In Bias of the Publishing World” Jennifer Baker, Zora
“Representing Me: Seeing Yourself on the Page” by Alex Laffer, Book Riot
“The Power of Seeing Ourselves in Literature: Gabby Rivera’s Debut Novel Offers a Life Raft for Queer Youth” by Arial Gore, Psychology Today
“Why It’s Important for Kids to See Themselves in Books” by Jodie Rodriguez, Scholastic
“Diversity in Book Publishing Isn’t Just About Writers—Marketing Matters, Too” by Jean Ho, NPR
“The Alienating Lack of Disability Representation” by Grace Lapointe, Book Riot