There’s been quite a bit of talk in the YA community recently about representation and diversity. More specifically posing the question of “is there enough diversity in YA or do we need more?” This sparked multiple debates, where twitter became an angry void for opinions but from the arguments some interesting discussion points were posed.
On twitter Meg Rosoff claimed that “good literature expands your mind, it doesn’t have the job of being a mirror.” This is true in the sense that fiction is just that, fictional. I often say that readers don’t owe the author anything, once a book has been released into the world it’s out of the author’s control and is now up to a reader’s interpretation (I believe this partly because my English Literature teacher at A Level was so convincing when he expressed this same opinion.) But do authors owe their readers diverse characters or marginalised points of view?
If authors start to become too conscious of the characters that they’re writing perhaps the characterisation would feel too forced or inauthentic. This is probably how the sidekick is normally typecast as a POC/ non-heterosexual character to inject a bit of diversity into a novel, but surely that isn’t enough. If anything these veiled attempts at trying to be inclusive are transparent enough to make readers cringe and complain, even though didn’t they get what they were asking for? Perhaps it’s even worse to continually see POCs and cis-normative characters as secondary / the best friend rather than the actual protagonist.
Diversity shouldn’t be written for the sake of making a novel seem edgy or to sell more copies and this is where I disagree with Meg Rosoff’s comment about literature “not having to be a mirror”, because our current society is one of diversity and, across the UK, schools and colleges celebrate the representation of minor students, proclaiming safe environments for everyone.
We should write diverse characters into our novels not because it’s trendy to do so but because to do so would be a more accurate representation of today’s youth. That’s not to say books that don’t include a spectrum of gender and sexualities are not worth reading, because it all depends on context. I’m going to focus on YA contemporary novels as historical fiction, fantasy and sic-fi aren’t necessarily written in the same 2015 we’re living in today. Contemporaries set in inner cities (eg. London, New York or California) or areas with large populations should have characters of all ethnic backgrounds, with different races, genders and sexualities, but contemporaries set in small villages in the south west of England aren’t likely to have diverse characters because the majority of the population is likely to be heteronormative, cis-gendered and white. Therefore to criticise of book like the latter example for not having diverse characters would be unjust.
It’s also important to note that there are actually incredibly well written and crafted novels that also include diverse characters and maybe instead of complaining that there isn’t more literature like this we should make an effort to find and appreciate the diversity that is already out there. There’s even a Goodreads page for it!
Representation is incredibly important and I believe that any author, no matter what race or sexual orientation should be able to write about whatever characters they choose. Write what you know is valuable advice, but it’s also ridiculous and I’m sure many authors and creative writing professors will tell you how ludicrous the concept is, because what kind of a world do we live in if heterosexual white people can’t empathise with (and therefore write about) POCs and all types of sexual orientation?
At the end of the day it’s the author’s creative right to decide who they write about, although they should now be aware that diversity and representation is what readers want to see. There’s a reason why books like Everything, Everything, Simon vs, the Homosapien’s Agenda and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before are favourites among teens.