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.


  1. Absolutely fantastic article Kathryn. I strongly agree and can relate to your feelings.

    The lack of non-white heterosexual characters in both fantasy and comics is a big disappointment of mine with both mediums.

    Characters that represent an intersectionality of gender, race, class, sexuality, etc. are something I not only appreciate, but find myself seeking out more and more often these days. Though I enjoy comics and fantasy novels in part for the escapism they provide, I'm pretty tired of reading about things happening to white dudes. I want these mediums to represent the world I see every day, and that means meaningfully including a greater diversity of characters.

  2. Thanks Ryan.

    That's why I think series like Ultimate Spider-man, Batwoman, the last Spider-girl miniseries (it never went on-going, did it?) and even the now-cancelled X-23 are so important, and it's equally vital that we make sure they stick around or support them whilst they do.

    With comics, it's important - to me - that we celebrate contributors like The Luna Brothers, Terry Moore and the Archie guys. Even artists like Guy Davis, who draw natural, human women - I love his depictions of Liz Sherman, for example, because she looks... human. She doesn't look like a model, she looks like a woman you'd see walking down the street, and that - to me - is really important.

  3. Yeah, for sure, particularly with comics because is the individual issues don't sell, publishers will just cancel the title.

    I think its pretty sad that there are so few examples to choose from in comics, but the few titles and creators that do represent diverse populations stand out as being quite exceptional.

    Though I do think there is more of an effort to see that these diverse populations get represented in the world of fantasy fiction, I do still feel that there is a lot of room for improvement.