The Paradox of Publishing’s Diversity Push

A lot of people in the book sphere have likely heard the story of Kosoko Jackson by now. A pioneer for the #OwnVoices movement – a campaign that promotes the writing of marginalised groups by authors of the same identity – Jackson tweeted in May 2018 his support for this idea.

It was an ironic twist when his own novel, A Place for Wolves, was targeted by this movement less than a year later, for including a war-torn Kosovo as the backdrop for his story. Jackson was a Black, gay man writing a Black, gay character, but the #OwnVoices movement deemed his backdrop too much of a reach outside of his own identity and understanding.

To his credit, Jackson did not lag in his response, deciding to pull the novel just prior to its publication, and vowing to learn from this experience. 

I apologise to those I hurt with my novel. I vow, moving forward, to do better and use this opportunity to grow.

– Kosoko Jackson

His is not the only story like this, of a novel being pulled due to concerns about the connection between content and author. But this trend calls into question the nature of storytelling in the modern world, and more specifically, who is allowed to tell what stories. 

#OwnVoices has achieved some positive ends, most notably the promotion of diverse authors and stories, and how they have been brought to the forefront for many readers.

But in its earnestness, it may have created some real issues in the modern book world too.

More than just the stories like Kosoko Jackson’s, the movement has also given rise to another associated issue: not only for authors to only write about their own identity, but also to only write about the conflicts and issues experienced by people within that identity group.

To put it bluntly, this is needlessly reductive. And it seems to come down to the fact that publishers and other staff are still struggling to understand how to approach diversity, and that perhaps the only stories from marginalised groups they understand are the stories of injustice and pain and heartache.

It’s pessimistic, I know. But it is also very real, and a real shame for authors from marginalised backgrounds who want to write about something other than pain they may have experienced.

I decided it was okay for me to be Black and write what it’s like being a Black girl in a world where all the other books just want me to be Black struggle and strife.

– Francina Simone

Francina Simone, a Black author of YA fiction, just wants to entertain her audience, but has found that the industry wants her books to be about ‘Black struggle and strife’. No one is saying those stories aren’t important.

But isn’t forcing authors to only write about specific parts of their identity also, kind of … not very diverse?

These pushes for diversity are an exercise in twisted irony, where characters are defined by what makes them different, where their differences are the cause for pain and injustice, and books that flout these rules aren’t wanted.

Movements like #OwnVoices also allow publishers a quick way to discuss the issues around diversity without actually doing anything about it. Promoting the hashtag on social media or creating lists of their texts which can be deemed #OwnVoices helps them show that they care.

But when looked at more deeply, it can’t be thought of as much more than a marketing ploy. Not when 76% of publishing staff are white. Not when 85% of editorial staff are white.

Not when 89% of books published in 2018 in the US were by white authors. It is impossible not to notice the correlation.

This is why self-publishing is only growing over time, because the gatekeepers are stripped away, and all that remains is the author and their story. This helps feed traditional publishing’s competition, like Amazon, and keeps publishers on the back foot.

The answer isn’t to try and appeal to readers by focusing on minority struggles. It is to actually embrace diversity, which only takes one step:

Let the diverse voices take the lead.

Diversity takes time, especially when it needs to be done correctly, and not just on face value. But the conflicts and call-outs occurring within the #OwnVoices movement itself highlight how strongly we need greater diversity at the executive, staff, and writer levels. 

Jackson may have been right that marginalised stories need to be handled by those that understand the content, but not just by authors. Editorial staff, marketing, agents, and so many more positions need to be able to reach the story on a similar level. Only this way do we get fully realised, respectfully written, important stories.

As readers, we can help. Promote diverse authors. Read widely. Tweet at your favourite publishers! 

The time for change is now – make sure we embrace it too.

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