Considering the books included in the New York Times “Best Books of 2017” that I went over on last week’s podcast, this seems like an appropriate topic to follow up with…
The obsession with diversity and identity hasn’t just shown up in politics, in fact, it started in culture a long time ago. Anyone who pays any attention to shifts in culture knows that politics is downstream of culture and whoever writes and creates the culture can basically take the political system captive.
Diversity quotas haven’t just taken hold of movies, award shows, and the workforce, but they’ve taken control of our characters, movies, storytelling, and in some cases, publishing ability. My friend in comic school hears criticism when comics contain mostly if not an all-white cast because it’s not ‘diverse’ enough. The same is said if the cast comprised mostly of men. The criticism is rarely about the story, but rather the identities of the characters making up the story.
When I started attending UT, I did it with some level of hesitation and observation as I watched the books we were given. There was never a book just given to us for the good story. I would say 2/3rds of the books given to us were identity-based somehow whether it was a focus on feminism or being a female, black, gay, etc, being white and guilty by association…
Now that I’ve graduated, I still live close enough to my alma mater to participate in their lectores series which is a period of about 8 days when authors, both visiting and picked from our mentorship, go up and read from their works, then sell and sign books and can talk to people for some time. In June I had been planning to go to some of the reading series, however, all of the headliners they brought in were working with identity-based writing. What really got me is their unique stories aren’t as unique as they like to think anymore because being some kind of non-white and/or non-male and/or non-heterosexual is pretty much an accolade now.
Here is the description for one of the visiting artists at the time:
Tomy Pico description: Tommy was born and raised on the Viejas Reservation, near San Diego, but currently lives in Brooklyn, where “he uses poetry to square two identities that don’t fit together well: being a poor, queer kid from the rez, and being a pleasure-seeking, technology-addicted New Yorker who would rather chase the boys he meets on apps than think about centuries of pain passed from one generation to another.”
Another one of the visiting authors was also a gay Indian, just the other kind of Indian. All I could think at the time was, “Wow! Gay Indians talking about being gay and Indian! How totally diverse and original!” And so I didn’t both going…
You know, some level identity discovery in books is great, interesting even, but the majority of the questioning and discovering identity stuff used to be reserved for YA novels/works where people were ‘coming of age’ and figuring out who they were. Adult books used to deal with different sorts of topics, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore–at least not in the stuff being pushed as ‘popular literature’ according to the New York Times and other literary sources…
I don’t think identity is what people want though. They don’t want a focus or a pedestal. Recently, I participated in the December #Pitmad on Twitter. One of the listed tags was #Diversity to let people know you had a diverse cast–meaning, there was maybe a black or gay or just nonwhite, hetero male MC and there was actually some drama going on in the tags saying that #diversity shouldn’t be a sales pitch. Someone being black or being gay or being whatever shouldn’t be what qualifies a book to be published. Identities aren’t novelties and treating them in the same way you’d treat different genres for sale is beyond disrespectful and I actually agree with this.
Last year as I was reading the “Writer’s Marketplace” listing there were tons of publishers and agents looking specifically for #diversity, but what they should really be looking for is #goodstory. Look, I’m not trying to tell anyone how to do their job, but this has me wondering, is the reason book sales (and movie sales for that matter) going down because the stories aren’t about adventure and conquering evil and discovery? But rather, sales of entertainment is going down because so much of it is based on identity which people don’t care about?
Diversity is being treated like a niche market rather than reading or creating a story with interesting, deep characters and maybe one of their attributes is their identity, but unless the story is about coming of age, I think we need far fewer books in the marketplace about freaking identity and identity politics need to stop trending in every corner of life.
It’s boring. It’s overused and no one wants it. I don’t understand how it keeps topping the market when the choice of monopolizing the market with the same boring ‘diversity’ niche is proving to LOSE money.
Seriously. If you can’t look at a story for a good story because you feel bad about diversity quotas, then at least admit that treating ‘diverse’ characters and ‘identity’ plots is a niche market and insanely disrespectful to whoever you think you’re helping. These are all just people. These are just their stories. The fact they aren’t white, hetero men doesn’t mean they need to be separated and quarantined with a new #diversity tag and sales pitch.
And can we please get back to GOOD storytelling? Identity politics material is one of the most superficial things you can write about.