The mainstream is diverse; the literature industry isn’t.

There is so much to think about and talk over, following the recent A Place at The Table conference on diversity in children’s literature.Author  Catherine Johnson’s article about the conference is here, with a mention for Megaphone:

She certainly speaks for me when she writes:

I think a lot of people – me included – are fed up to the back teeth talking about diversity. (…) Books at present are exclusive; children need to see the world they live in reflected in their reading matter. So why isn’t it happening?

And here’s another great article, this time by Misan Sagay from the world of screenwriting: .

Misan Sagay writes:

 “What am I diverse from? I think the word can be a way of establishing a norm, and me outside that norm, and that worries me.”

I applaud Christopher, from Pickled Pepper Books, who told us at A Place at the Table how he tried as  a bookseller to ‘make diversity mainstream’. Booksellers like him are much needed. I remember when our Birmingham Waterstones used to have a small dump-bin marked ‘Other cultures’ – in this section would be everything from Handa’s Surprise to Noughts and Crosses. No longer, and that is a good thing. However, most bookshops still do not come even close to reflecting the world outside their doors. And that’s exactly the issue.

The world outside the doors of the bookshop and the doors of the publishing houses IS diverse. Diversity IS mainstream. Diverse is what the world IS, naturally: differently abled people, people with all shades of skin and all kinds of backgrounds, all genders, religions and mixed, and none. The problem is that the literature industry is NOT diverse and is therefore not mainstream. It is structured and curated to reflect the interests and needs of only a very small sliver of the population: white, heterosexual, able bodied (or more accurately, the not-yet-disabled, a brilliantly accurate term though I can’t remember where I read it!), middle- to upper-middle class, London-focused.

We – by which I mean the whole literature industry – need to stop curating our lists and bookshops and manuscripts to reflect only the small sliver of the population described above. Truthfully, I think it is just easier for people to continue selling books to people like them, rather than to connect with the many potential book buyers who don’t fit the description above. But what is easy is not what is right – and I mean that not merely from an ethical standpoint but from a hard business standpoint. Every industry worth its salt develops its markets in an effort to be resilient and responsive in a tough economic climate. Why not the literature industry? The growth of, for example, Islamic children’s publishing companies such as Shade 7 Publishing, demonstrates the demand for books that reflect the mainstream.

Valuable as events such as A Place at the Table are, we have to talk to each other less and instead talk more to the parents, the children, the world outside the literature bubble, those people who have no interest in publishing and just want to buy books that acknowledge their existence and value.

We have taken down the signs saying ‘no dogs, no Irish’ but we’ve got other signs, invisible ones, and we need to take those down too, and not get defensive when those whose eyesight has been honed by lifetimes of being invisible themselves, point out that the signs exist.

Misan Sagay writes in the same article I linked to above, about efforts to bring diversity to screenwriting: “It feels like a dance people are doing somewhere over there, when the solution is over here and very simple,” she says, “hire more black people, hire more black women.”

The literature industry needs to heed her words. The solutions are simple, though that doesn’t mean they’re easy to implement. As always in literature, point of view is key. We need to turn our point of view around; we do not need to bring diversity mainstream. Diversity IS mainstream – it is the literature industry that isn’t. What is it going to do about it?


Published by Leila from Megaphone

Writer and runs Megaphone: a writer development scheme for people of colour who want to write for children. Tweets @MegaphoneWrite and @LeilaR

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