I’ve always been in love with the concept of a blind date with a book. The book is almost always wrapped up in plain brown paper with a description written in sharpie on the cover. You read these little hints, and you never know what book you are choosing until you’ve selected your perfect little match and finally get to unwrap it. You almost always discover a little gem you would have browsed right past on your own.
This is a beautiful concept that I would love to see more of in the world, but recently it got me thinking. What if we did ‘blind date with a character?’ What would it look like if we chose our favorite characters from our favorite books and wrote a little blurb about them on the brown paper cover?
My fear is that everything would look the same. Our men would probably be white, straight, young, able-bodied, good looking, physically strong. Our women would probably be white, straight, able-bodied, good looking, preoccupied with love. I read voraciously, and while I notice slight differences in the personalities, the stereotypes are still present. There are variations and outliers. But the main plots center around characters like this.
Truthfully, it breaks my heart. We all deserve to see ourselves in the books we read, the movies we watch, the songs we listen to. These imaginary worlds we escape to have infinite power to make us better people, to show us sides of life that we might not see, to show us that we are capable of far more than we thought we could be. They remind us that the world is much larger than the little piece of it we claim, and that we belong to something much bigger than we could imagine. They remind us of our shared humanity and grant us the gift of compassion. So what happens when we are only told one story? When we only see the humanity found in people who look or live like we do?
Name one book who’s main character is overweight where the sole focus isn’t her dropping pounds to look like ‘those other girls.’ Name one book about a person with MS. Name one book about an Asian girl who wants to go to broadway, or a black girl who wants to be a NASA scientist. Name one book with a boy who is desperate to teach a younger generation about the art of meditation and humble living. Name one book with an old man who is raising his granddaughter on his own. Name one book about a Muslim man or woman advocating for equal rights, or a gender fluid individual trying to make their place in the world. Name one book that focuses on mental health, or chronic pain. Name one book where the nerdy boy or girl with glasses that fog up in the rain saves the day. Name one book that is different.
The only books that I can point to as examples of these are all nonfiction. The irony is not lost on me that every single example I can give comes from real life, but not from our fictional literature. And I find this troubling. The world is so much more than the stereotypes and story tropes we have created. So why don’t our books reflect this rich culture?
Most studies have centered on diversity within children’s literature, so I’m going to focus my statistics in this area, though I think there is a strong correlation that can be found in young adult and adult books as well. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, diversity in children’s literature was pretty stark. Based off of ethnicity alone, representation was as follows in 2015:
- American Indian/First Nations: 0.9%
- Latinx: 2.4%
- Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans: 3.3%
- African/African American: 7.6%
- Animals/trucks/etc: 12.5%
- White: 73.3%
To be clear, these are specific to children’s literature and do not discuss other subsections of minority literature, such as sexual orientation or ableism. But it’s a good starting point when analyzing our own work. We spend far too much time telling a single story when the world is full of so much more.
As a writer, I am also guilty of this crime. I don’t show enough representation in my character groups. While I try to have some diversity, I am painfully aware that most of the diversity is found in my supporting cast. My main character is all too often a girl who looks a lot like me. This isn’t inherently wrong, because everyone deserves representation, but women like me oversaturate the market. I can see my physical likeness in a book whenever I want. I’ll probably have to follow along with a love story in the process, but I am present in the pages. How lonely it must feel when you never get to see yourself? Why can’t I ever find a girl who struggles with debilitating anxiety and panic attacks when she enters a room? Why can’t I find a book about someone who has been physically injured and doesn’t know if they will ever feel normal again? Why can’t I find a representation of my less common traits? It isn’t fair to us as writers or readers when we don’t get to fitness the full picture of the world we inhabit.
When you don’t see yourself in the pages of a story you can’t help but wonder why. What is wrong with you that made your traits undesirable to a writer? What flaws do you possess that make you less important than the people who get to see themselves. I struggled with anxiety and depression- these aren’t struggles that the heroines in my stories face. The absence of them adds to the sense that there is something wrong, something ‘other’ about me. When we continually write about single characters, we are doing ourselves a disservice. We represent so much more than one story.
Now, the contributing factors to this issue are complex and interconnected. Perhaps it is the fact that there is not enough ‘minority’ representation in the literary world (though I see issues with this mindset). Perhaps it is the makeup of the publishing industry itself choosing books that look like them. After all, studies have been done in this area too.
And then we come to the issue of recognition in terms of prizes and awards given within the industry itself, as well as time and money spent on advertising the books that we create. Large literary awards lean heavily towards male authors and male characters. When you review the gender-split of winners for the major literary prizes over the past 50 years, you will see that female representation makes up only about 10-35% of the winners in each contest group. In fact, the ‘most equal’ award presented was the Man Booker Prize, which sat at 35% representation of female winners, the Pulitzer cane in a close second with 34%.
This correlation is also present in the gender of the characters written about in the winning books. In the instances where women do win, they are usually writing from a male perspective. When looking at the Man Booker Prize (our most ‘equal’) you will see that out of the past 15 years, 80% of the winning books were about male characters, 13% were about women, and the remainder was split with two main characters of opposite genders. If you review the results from the Pulitzer, out of the last 15 years, not a single book written by a woman about a woman made the list. Not one.
It appears that the issues regarding representation go much deeper than simply reflecting on what people are writing about; the publishing and publicizing industries still hold a lot of biases that we see in our culture on a daily basis. These don’t disappear overnight. And while self-publishing can help with the availability of more diverse books in the market, it is difficult when your readers cannot easily access or find your special work. The problem needs to be solved from the ground up; more readers demanding representation and more writers willing it provide it, in spite of the challenges that may be faced during the publishing process.
We are writers. It is our responsibility to tell the stories that the world needs to hear. We’ve always told stories, we’ve always had the ability to bring people together or tear them apart. There is great power with this concept, with this ability, with this passion. We must be self-critical and aware of our place and our role.
Representation matters. It mattered when Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Shuri, and Daredevil showed the disproportionately represented that they could be heroes. It mattered. It mattered to me when I saw a woman who looked like me play a role that traditionally went to men. It mattered to my friends when they saw someone who looked or thought or acted like they did in a role that was usually meant for someone very different. Representation matters. It always has, it always will. And as writers, we are in the perfect position to bring these stories to life, to inspire the love and passion that burns in the hearts of those who see our creations within themselves.