Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Promoting Minorities in Fiction

Over the past year or two, I've pondered minorities in fiction. Gender, race, sexuality... We still seem to be stuck with 16-30yr old straight white male protagonists, and it's getting a little boring. In fact, it's already boring. I wondered who to blame for the lack of minorities, and I think I've finally figured out who is at fault here.

I'll explain...

Publishers, Agents & Editors come together under one heading, because they're all so tightly linked. All three groups are responsible for the promotion, representation and sale of fiction involving minorities. Editors should not be suggesting minorities are represented (as has been known to happen), but when an author uses minorities, they should be using their editorial prowess to make sure that the representation is fair, contextual and so on. A number of editors also have an online presence, and they can use this to promote books they're working on.

Publishers are arguably the marketing powerhouse behind each book, and as such I feel they have a responsibility to highlight minority books. Some do, but a lot don't.

Authors, being the ones who write the stories in the first place, also arguably have a responsibility in this area. Whether it's mentioning a skin colour, alluding to a sexuality or otherwise, an author has ultimate control over their story. Sometimes the best representations of minorities are the simplest and quietest. To use an example, Sandy Mitchell wrote a lesbian couple into the Ciaphas Cain novels - Grifen and Magot - yet he (Mitchell nor Cain) never made a deal of it. It was alluded to numerous times, but they were shown to be two very strong women who were close, and that was it. Together, they're one of the best lesbian couples I've ever seen in a book.

But also, you can have the traditional inequality, and it can work brilliantly. Trudi Canavan and Mark Charan Newton have done this with their gay characters, both to great success. In both series, the gay characters face death if they're outed (or even suspected), so both work to keep it under wraps. To contrast this, the author Catherine M. Wilson's When Women Were Warriors historical fiction series has a good number of lesbian relationships, none of which are even commented on as being anything other than normal.

There are traps and pitfalls, however, and authors need to be careful. There's the mistake of representing every gay male as camp, catty and promiscuous, or gay women as being - well - butch. There's also the good ol' Kill The Minority aspect, which can feel worn out. Oh, you have a black transwoman in your book? Kill her off, then! Victimisation of minorities happens, it's real, but it doesn't mean you have to do it in a book. Why not do what Mark Newton did with Lan, and put her through the grinder, but give a somewhat happy ending? Or, better still, make what happens to the character separate from the feature that classes them as a minority - for example, L.E. Modesitt, Jr.'s third Imager book (Imager's Intrigue) had a gay male who was killed... but, if my memory is correct, it had nothing to do with his sexuality.

After a brief discussion on Twitter with an editor - I think I should address her points. She said to me that perhaps there's an element of authors not wanting to do things wrong, and wanting to make sure they do it right. That's fine. Doing things right is what we want, but to not do it in fear? I don't think that is right. I will leave it for others to discuss and explain the differences of sexuality, gender and so forth, but I will say this - we live in an internet age. There are so many minority-themed websites out there. Use Twitter, use Google, use discussion forums, bring the minorities closer to your writing in order to get things right. With the availability of the internet, there's little excuse for not trying to find out how to do something right.

Finally, there's one group left. Bloggers, Reviewers & Readers, in other words - those of us who read and buy the books. We have one of the most powerful tools available - word of mouth. So many best sellers happen not because of the author's name, but because word of mouth has had such a powerful effect.

Bloggers and reviewers are, in particular, the first place to look for book reviews. They are the ones who read the books critically, but also who work in spreading the word about these books. They, directly or indirectly, have the power to make or break sales. Because of their position, I feel they have a responsibility to point out minorities in books and, more importantly, discuss whether such representations were right or wrong. If a book has gay males, all of whom are what we'd term "camp", that could be a point of criticism, but if a book has a male lead role and his sexuality is mentioned but not defining (or at least positively portrayed), that could be a point of praise. Bloggers and reviewers are in a great position. They're not tied to a small commentary like publishers, and they have the benefit of having experienced the book. They can sell it in ways publishers and authors cannot, and as such I feel there is some degree of responsibility there with regards to highlighting books with minority characters.

Finally, the readers. Whether you're a blogger, a reviewer, a publisher, an editor or even an author, we're all readers, and it falls down to us to really make this happen. We can buy these books, read them, spread the word, but also do so much more. Ask publishers if they have any minority titles coming up, if an author is doing a question session (or are available and open to chatting on Twitter/Facebook/etc), ask if they'll include - or are open to including - minorities in their upcoming books. If nothing else, you're making the author aware that there's a desire to see better representation, and you may be making them consider diversifying their cast a little more.

In closing, what I'll ask is this. If you see a book with a minority character (or even a female protagonist!), and it's not something you'd generally go for, go for it. Buy it. Read it. Discuss it. Push your boundaries, step out of your comfort zone - you might be surprised. If you come across a book and it has a positive (or negative) portrayal of a minority, make it known if you review/blog about it. Make it clear that this book has that aspect to it, because you'll help make sales. Minority aspects of so many books are overlooked because no-one points them out or because they're barely discussed (for example, the aforementioned lesbian couple in the Ciaphas Cain books), and that needs to stop.

You don't even have to stop at novels, either. If you read comics or graphic novels, consider changing your next purchase a little. Why not go for a comic with a protagonist of colour? Why not buy a graphic novel with a gay supporting character? Or at an even greater extreme, why not buy a mainstream comic with more natural looking women?

We, as consumers, have the ability to at least make our preferences known. We have the ability to tell publishers, authors and so on - through sales or otherwise - that we want minority books. We are all responsible for promoting the use of minority characters, whether we're a reader who borrowed a book from a library or whether we're sat in one of the major publishing houses. It's not the fault of any one person, perhaps it's the fault of no-one, but we are all responsible for diversifying fiction and for making representations positive.

Monday, April 9, 2012

REVIEW - Morning Glories: All Will Be Free

Morning Glories: All Will Be Free TPB
(Collects Morning Glories 7-12)
Story: Nick Spencer
Art: Joe Eisma
Colours: Alex Sollazzo
Covers: Rodin Esquejo

Morning Glory Academy is one of the most prestigious prep schools in the country... But behind it's hallowed doors something sinister and deadly lurks. When six brilliant but troubled new students arrive, they find themselves trapped and desperately seeking answers in a place where nothing is what it seems to be!
(From Volume 1)

Collecting the second story arc of the smash series in one volume. Learn (some) of the secrets in the Glories' lives as we delve into their pasts and see how it affects their present. Each chapter focuses on a different Glory while maintaining the narrative and moving the mystery forward. 
(Volume 2)

Once I'd re-read the first volume, I was really quite excited to get my hands on the second, as I felt something had finally clicked for me with this series. This volume hasn't "unclicked" the story, if anything it's hooked me even more.

Each issue focuses on a different character (in order: Zoe, Hunter, Jun, Jade, Ike and Casey), and whilst the plot doesn't advance too much, we instead learn a lot more about the lives of each character and their problems, but it also seeks to clarify some points from the first arc... as well as to complicate matters. It'll bring you closer to some characters, and push you further from others.We begin to see just how severe Jade's problems can be, why Jun seems to constantly change and how sinister Zoe's past was, and that's just to start.

The dialogue in this issue was particularly strong, with characters feeling diverse and natural. For example, Jun speaks differently to Hunter, and Hunter is different again to Ike, and it works really well. The stories themselves seem a little strange at times, and there were moments where I was unsure how certain things happened (or could happen), but it adds to the suspense and the tension more than it takes away from it.
Hey, we've all been there, right?
Eisma's art is pretty consistent with the first volume, and I have to admit it's growing on me. He manages to make characters look attractive, yet normal. Even Zoe, the (supposedly) prettiest  character looks normal enough to be 'real'. I still feel it's a little shaky at times and can move into the slightly odd (Jade's hair in particular seems prone to this), but generally it works well with Spencer's writing. He gets expressions and poses right, and you can tell how a character feels without needing the dialogue to tell you.

Overall, I was impressed with All Will Be Free. Whilst some things are a little clearer, the plot itself seems to be deepening and widening, but that itself is a double-edged sword. I've found it easy to become lost with this series in the past, and I hope Spencer can keep control of the different threads. Once certain things are clarified, I think it'll make much more sense and become a stronger series for it.

Rating: A Slightly Strange Smile