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Why Diversity in Our Writing is So Important - "The Danger of a Single Story"

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by A. E. Lowan, Oct 19, 2014.

  1. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    A while back we had a discussion thread going where we discussed diversity in our work and why it's important.

    http://mythicscribes.com/forums/writing-questions/10373-what-im-saying-search-equality-pretty-messy.html?highlight=diversity

    Repeatedly the question was raised - "Why?" And we tried to answer, and I think in many ways we did a decent job, but there is a writer, Chimamanda Adichie, who did a Ted Talks where she gets to the heart of this issue, and eloquently illustrates why representation is so important.



    And for those of us who, like me, sometimes have a hard time focusing on what we hear, here is the transcript - https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript?language=en
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 10, 2017
  2. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    Here's the thing, talking about more diversity in books is all but pointless.

    The problem is not a lack of writers who want to write about all kinds of people and experiences. The problem is that publishers choose what gets published and bookstores choose what gets stocked and for the most part all they are about is what they think they can make the most money on and what they think they can make the most money on isn't diversity. No amount of stirring speeches will change the fact that they really only care about the money. And good luck convincing them that more diversity will lead to more book sales, Amazon with all their sales figures can't even convince them that lowering their ebook prices to 9.99 for most books will lead to higher profits.

    The only thing that is going to change things is authors no longer needing to write what they are told to write just to make a living, authors not needing to kowtow to publishers over every book, authors not having to just sick back and take it while their books are given over into the control of a large corporation who only cares about the bottom line.

    Self publishing, allowing author control, allowing authors to go more directly to readers, is what is going to change things. The change will happen naturally, with time. There's no point trying to guilt authors into writing more diverse books. Authors should only be expected to write the books they want to write and are passionate about and want to find an audience for. If they are actually allowed to do that, then there will be plenty of authors writing about all sorts of experiences.
     
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  3. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    So, I'm trying to suss out what you're trying to say, Mytho. In the midst of randomly attacking traditional publishing (not entirely sure why you chose this thread for that, but okay...) what I've bolded seems to be the take-away, and also, not surprisingly, phrases we hear repeated over and over again in the conversation about representation. "It needs to happen naturally." "Don't guilt trip me into this!"

    Two thoughts.

    One, no, change doesn't happen "naturally" because that idea implies no effort, no growth. Just go with the flow. The path of least resistance leads us to right where we are, where we have been, and nothing changes. It's a very conservative, lazy, easy, path. Do you think this is how change happens?

    Second, interesting that "guilt" gets brought up so much. What to think about that?

    So, if self-publishing is the answer, because apparently traditional publishing is such a lost cause as to not even be considered, then why the "don't push me, I don't wanna, and you can't make me" tone?
     
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  4. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    I believe what Mytho was trying to say was that the demands of traditional publishing are more to blame for the diversity problem in spec. fiction than the writers. In my opinion she has raised a valid point. For all we know, there could be millions of writers out there working outside the standard mold, but traditional publishers don't green-light their material out of the belief that diverse fiction doesn't sell as well.
     
  5. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    Not to co-opt your topic, but the beginning of that talk reminds me a lot of things I've tried to express on Mythic Scribes. I just don't have an ethnic backing to it. If I want to say "I don't feel like the stories I've read about little white kids reflect my experiences growing up," I can't add "because I wasn't a little white kid," because that would be misleading.

    When I try to express how alien a lot of conventional stories feel to my personal experiences, responses on Mythic Scribes tend to boil down to "What on Earth are you talking about?" I guess what I'm asking is, do I need to have a minority backing to make this kind of statement "valid"? If I want to say "I don't identify with the little white kids in stories," do I have to add something like "because my mother raised me in Mexican-American culture," or can I get away with just saying "because they don't feel like me"?
     
  6. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    Ironically, I have seen social justice bloggers espouse sentiments about diversity that seemed the polar opposite of what posters like saellys (remember her?) would advocate. Back in my tumblr days, I had a brief conversation with a blogger who said she didn't trust white authors writing non-European characters at all. Her rationale was that white writers would be bound to get these characters wrong or misrepresent their culture. That ties into one reason I've come to mistrust social justice bloggers: they all seem to believe that their particular views are the conclusive authority on morality which everyone ought to respect, yet they seldom see eye-to-eye on what is and isn't acceptable. They're like competing sects of religious fundamentalists.

    That said, I don't think my correspondent's argument was completely invalid. In theory so-called people of color should not be any harder to write than white people, but on the other hand, writing characters outside your own cultural background can be difficult if you don't have firsthand experience with their cultures. This isn't such an issue in standard other-world fantasy where you make up the cultures yourself, or in historical fiction dealing with cultures that have long since passed away or evolved. However, if I were to write, say, urban Maasai teenagers in 21st century Kenya, I'd be rightly bombarded with criticism for an inauthentic portrayal of a culture that is still around to correct me.
     
  7. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    I'd like to give one example of someone who wrote a diverse book on multiple scales: Kameron Hurley. If you don't know her or haven't heard of her latest book The Mirror Empire, it's what I think future fantasy and SF might look like if everyone decides to write more diverse fiction. She writes for Angry Robot books, a traditional publisher, but a daring one that takes risks on radically different approaches to the genre. She does a lot with race and gender in her books, subverting traditional ideas and doing loads of world-building in the process. It's fascinating to read from the stand-point of a straight, white male. Everything is completely foreign to me, but in a good way. It's also Angry Robot's fastest selling book to date. So there's that.

    I think one thing I've tried to find in fantasy is difference. I don't read fantasy to read about people like me. Not typically anyway. I want to read about weird places, fantastical creatures, forbidden magic, and characters bursting with personality. My normal life doesn't involve these things, so I'm attracted to stories that utilize them.

    While I'm an advocate of more diversity in books, I can only really do my part and encourage other people to do the same. I fear that the call for diversity just makes people shoehorn ideas into their novels to appease a certain group. I'm not sure that's the right approach. The only way to truly get diversity into SFF is to write good books that include these ideas. If they sell, then we'll get more of this. If they don't sell, then we'll be looking at the same old, same old. Not that the same old is necessarily bad (I still love medieval fantasy no matter what), but I think fantasy has a lot more growth to experience as a genre. I'm excited to see where it goes.
     
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2014
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  8. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    I'm going to try this again later when I'm more rational.
     
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2014
  9. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I haven't had a chance to watch the video. I'm taking a note and will make an effort to watch it later.

    I've talked about this before, but I'll try to boil it down. If you're talking to an individual, the attitude you should speak towards is this one:

    Don't tell me what to write; tell me how to make the story I'm writing better.

    That is, everyone here has a story in mind that they already want to write, and it's normal to come to a discussion like this from a fan perspective, "I want to see more diverse characters!" But this isn't a fan site. This is a site for writers. This is a site you go to in order to improve your stories.

    So I have story X, what are some tips I can use to make it more diverse, and do so without over-extending the boundaries of my story or my own ability to identify with these characters?

    It's a difficult question to answer. But it's the one that needs to be answered in order to make real progress.
     
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  10. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I don't buy the "it won't sell" argument. That argument boils down to baseless assertions and circular reasoning. You end up with some variation of:

    A: Publishers don't publish books with diversity because they don't sell.

    B: How do you know they don't sell?

    A: Because look at what's being published!

    When it comes to the landscape of traditional publishing, we have a sample size of n=1. You'd need a mirror publishing regime in place wherein everything else was equal except for diversity v. lack thereof to make any kind of assertion along the lines of the "it doesn't sell" argument, and we don't have that. The reason you'd need such a system is also to isolate variables, because unless you isolate the variable of diversity you can't make a reasonable statement about the success or failure of any given book that includes diversity being either a success or failure because of it.

    I also don't buy the argument that talking about it, or raising awareness among authors, publishers, and readers, has no effect. The idea that any kind of change or evolution simply comes about without driving forces doesn't make sense to me. Change and evolution require an impetus, and raising the social consciousness around an issue can certainly have an effect. Getting a little more diversity in fiction can encourage more diverse writers, or writers who just want to include more diversity. It ultimately shifts the norm, and there's no guarantee at all that this would happen without help.

    Lastly, writers, artists, and the like who take calls for or discussions about diversity as attacks on their art are completely misunderstanding the issue, in my view. It's an emotional response to the topic rather than a reasoned one.
     
    Last edited: Oct 23, 2014
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  11. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    This might be a stupid question, but would you say that this approach is more likely to reduce positive results and less likely to result in arguments? Because I've seen it taken on Mythic Scribes before, and it seems to produce the same number of arguments while still not going anywhere.

    *Does a bit of searching*

    Actually, you personally have argued with attempts to use this approach, massively misreading what other people said and trying to find an easy way out of complicated problems. To put it bluntly, I'm not sure there's a point in trying to make the argument again.
     
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2014
  12. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    I'm not arguing that it wouldn't sell. I'm arguing that publishers believe it wouldn't sell or at least that they couldn't sell it. This is a real thing. Authors' books are rejected all the time because they publisher doesn't know how to market it or doesn't believe it will sell. This generally takes place when the book in question doesn't fit the prescribed labels of the publisher, aka books that are different. I am arguing that there are almost certainly tons of diverse books that are rejected on these grounds every day.

    What I am trying to say is that these conversations are almost always directed at the wrong people. People look around and think "There should be more diverse books" then they point to authors and say "why aren't you writing more diverse books!" However, I do not believe that writers are the problem. Writers have not had any control over what books are available to read. Publishers have controlled what is published and bookstores control what is places on shelves to buy. So why aren't these conversations ever directed at publishers? Why does no one consider that there might be plenty of author willing and longing to write diverse fiction but who are stopped at every turn by publishers who want more of the same old bestseller fodder? That agents and editors and publishers' sales forces have been telling authors what to write for decades? This is an unfortunate reality.

    I believe there are many, many writers out there who would LOVE to write diverse fiction. That have written diverse fiction that got them nowhere. I've heard countless stories from indie authors about how they pulled out an old manuscript, that all the agents and editors rejected on the grounds that they loved it, but couldn't sell it, to self publish it now that things are changing. This is why I think things are naturally going to change over time now that authors are not all under the thumbs of their publishers. Publishers have been an obstruction to diverse fiction. They want the easy sell. Now that so many authors are finding the freedom of indie publishing and are writing and publishing the books they've always wanted to write things are going to change. It will continue to take time, but it will happen. Many indie authors are already doing it.

    I think these conversations are usually pointless because they are almost always directed at writers, as if writers are the problem. But I strongly believe that writers are not the problem, that gatekeepers are. With the demise of the gatekeepers, in a world where it is easy for any author to write what they want and develop an audience for it over time, there WILL be more diversity. Because people are diverse and writers are too.

    If you feel the need to actively change the way things are now, then stop talking to writers. Start shaming publishers. Direct this conversation toward the people who have actually been stopping more diverse fiction from hitting the market. Show them there is a market for it and that they are missing out. It probably wouldn't do anything, because publishers generally only care about the bottom line. But at least it would be directed to the actual problem, instead of the least powerful group of people in the world of publishing.
     
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  13. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I'm gonna have a go at it, from my angle.

    Let's assume something first: let's assume everyone is different.
    Then by including different people in your story, you already have some kind of diversity. Your characters will have different personalities and backgrounds. They will have different wants and needs - they're different to each other. Already, we have a certain amount of diversity here, and then we haven't even gotten to things such as gender or skin color.

    Now, let's add gender and skin color and all that jazz. Does that change your characters in any way? Put in a vacuum, it shouldn't.
    But, your characters aren't in a vacuum, they're affected by the world around them and the world around your characters do not (at first) know anything about the character's inner characteristic. The world only knows what it sees and it's what it sees that defines how it reacts.
    In other words: people are treated differently based on their visual appearance.

    I think this is a really central point that might actually be easy to miss when dealing with diversity questions. If I want to include a dark skinned woman in my stories I shouldn't primarily ask myself what the personality of such a person would be. I should ask myself how the world they live in treats that person and how they would react to it.

    That's my advice - for now.
     
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  14. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    The question is, where's the evidence for this statement? I'm sure there are cases of this happening, but the idea that every single day books are rejected for being too diverse is an extremely broad, all-encompassing statement. I've never seen any evidence to support it, and I don't believe that it exists, frankly. Not on the kind of scale you're talking about. Not only would you have to look at all of the rejected books, but you'd have to somehow distinguish which ones were rejected solely for the inclusion of diverse elements as opposed to for some other reason. Has any kind of analysis like that ever been done? And if not, how can we make general statements about it with any degree of accuracy? Are there tons of authors out there somewhere with rejection slips that say "Hey, we'd love to publish this, but you've got too many black people in it?"

    I'm suspicious of the extent to which that sort of thing goes on, even unacknowledged. I don't doubt it has happened, but I doubt it is a daily basis for attrition in the slush pile.

    I also don't agree with the "wrong audience" argument. Both publishers and writers are the right audience for this discussion, not just one or the other. And, as far as conversation on the topic goes, readers are another appropriate audience.
     
  15. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    You really think my posts in that thread are in opposition to the one above? I don't even - I don't even understand.

    In that thread I was talking about people who raise the issue without addressing the challenges associated with it. I then went on to suggest that we develop new diversity tropes to lessen those challenges.

    In my post above, I suggested that people offer tips for using diversity within a story. Note again: Tips. As in, specific ways to overcome the challenges that I also named within the post: Over-extending the story to include diversity; failing to identify adequately with diverse characters.

    I have been pretty consistent, from the start, in asking for a discussion of specific techniques for incorporating diversity, instead of simply demanding that people do it.
     
  16. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    This is an interesting perspective when contrasted with one of the most common arguments given in favor of more diverse fiction, namely that minority readers want to see more characters who resemble themselves in some way. That too is a respectable sentiment, but it seems ironic how calls for diversity appeal both to readers seeking the exotic and those who want subject matter they can relate to.

    To be sure, those two categories of readers need not be mutually exclusive. A lot of older adventure fiction, by placing white male heroes in exotic locales, did the same thing for their (predominantly, I presume) white male readership. It's a real shame that these stories' portrayal of the non-white characters was seldom respectful, because they had the potential to be much more racially and culturally diverse than modern fantasy.
     
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2014
  17. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    You'll have to forgive me for responding to the same post twice, but I feel the need to respond to this beyond my hurried post above.

    First, I have to point out the oddity here, of arguing with an approach on the grounds that it only leads to more arguing. But that aside, arguments aren't a thing to avoid, only a bad attitude within those arguments.

    I'm more concerned about the section of my post you chose to highlight. It seems deliberately misleading. My quote is clearly a build up to a concluding statement:

    So I have story X, what are some tips I can use to make it more diverse, and do so without over-extending the boundaries of my story or my own ability to identify with these characters?

    By leaving out the main point, I can only conclude that on some level you're choosing to misunderstand or misrepresent my post in an effort to equate it wrongly with one that others have made. I wasn't simply taking a "pro-diversity" side in an argument, but making a call for actionable suggestions, which presumably anyone could choose to accept or not on their own accord.

    Similarly, you accuse me of previously seeking "an easy way out" of complicated problems. I have in the past called for tips, for tropes, for archetypes, for people to herald not just examples but concrete explanations of how those examples work: That is, I have called, repeatedly, for people to help develop the missing literary framework that normally underpins everything we do in our writing but is currently - I said missing, but missing isn't the right word - let's say underaccepted, when it comes to diversity. That is far from an easy way out; that is a call for people to work on it.

    Finally, you accuse me of massively misreading what other people have said. I didn't really see any in a brief perusal of that particular thread, but
    I'm sure that there are examples of it. However, I would suggest that as I see a clear throughline in my posts on this issue, which you have chosen to ignore on a number of occasions, that you may be projecting your own unwillingness to accurately address my position, in an effort to avoid responding to it.
     
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2014
  18. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    Okay, here's the thing: diversity in representation isn't only about including POC characters in our fiction (though this is one of the most contentious and visible aspects). It also includes, but is not limited to, gender/gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability.

    Basically it includes everything that is not the straight, white, able-bodied/mind, male default. In other words, the entire rest of the world. And when the rest of the world is left out of most fiction, when we continue to support and recreate this narrative of the Chosen One/Farm Boy Prince, we essentially say, "Only these people get stories."

    And the response to this challenge tends to be, "But there needs to be a plot reason for a character to be brown/female/gay/trans/disabled! You can't just shoehorn these people into stories." It's an interesting, and telling, question. Everyone else needs to have a justification to exist.

    The question I would ask in return is, "What plot reason do we have for characters to be straight, white, and male?"

    Alternate Visions: Some Musings on Diversity in SF | Antariksh Yatra

    This question itself is very telling of what comes of having a single, monolithic narrative. Thinking about what has been written by Vadana Singh, above, and said by Chimamanda Adichie about writing their first stories, they say the same things - they wrote their earliest stories about white men, even when they had never laid eyes on one, because that was who the books they read were about.

    Little brown girls, one in Delhi, one in Nigeria, writing their stories about white men in the snow, because they couldn’t imagine stories about little brown girls.

    It’s time for new stories.
     
  19. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I get the feeling there's a few different discussions going on in this thread (and other threads we've had on the topic).
    1. Who's responsibility is it to provide diverse stories?
    2. How do you include diversity in your stories.
    3. What is diversity anyway?
    4. Why should we bother with it?

    I think all four are interesting topics of discussion, and I tend to quite enjoy them. However, these threads can get a little heated, which in turn leads to confusion.
    Basically, we're all rather different here, with different views on what's important. That's also something to consider.

    5. Meta-discussion about the discussion.
     
  20. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    A friend of mine brought up an interesting point about the new Alien game (I forgot the exact title). It's some kind of survival horror with a strong female main character.
    What my friend pointed out is that in just survival horror female leads are more common than male ones (I accepted this without double-checking). He then asked what this says about how we associate powerlessness with player controlled characters?
     
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