White Writers: Don’t Write Diverse Books. Instead, Read Them.

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White Writers: Don’t Write Diverse Books. Instead, Read Them.

There have been some great posts this week about the diverse books movement. Jacqueline Woodson’s 1998 article in the Horn Book, titled Who Can Tell My Story has been revived. Ellen Oh’s salient post Dear White Writer takes on diverse books and white privilege. There are numerous other articles and posts I could point you to; the discussion about diverse books is wide, intense, difficult, eye-opening, enraging, encouraging, and exciting.

In the last year, as the conversation about diverse books has picked up steam, a noticeable shift has taken place in my query box. It’s a shift that happens each time the trends change in publishing. Paranormal gave way to dystopian, which gave way to horror, which gave way to contemporary, which has recently given way to…diverse books?

The We Need Diverse Books campaign started in 2014, igniting a much-needed conversation about the kid lit titles we are putting into the world. And we do need diverse books. But even more importantly, we need diverse authors writing diverse books. And yet the queries are pouring in to my submissions box, written by mostly white writers, citing the popularity of the We Need Diverse Books campaign as justification for them having written their book about a person of color.

What Ellen Oh asserted in her blog post bears repeating: diversity in books isn’t a trend. It’s not the latest “in” or magic bullet that’s going to get you published. And if you’re a white writer who is trying to capitalize on that, take a keep breath and back slowly away from your keyboard.

Because the diverse books movement is not about you. And it’s certainly not about your writing.

“But this is an important conversation!” you say. “I want to be a part of it!” you say. Here’s how you can do your part in bringing diversity to kid lit: read diverse books and authors, and encourage others in your local and online communities to read them, too. Ask for books by diverse authors at your library and your local independent bookstore. Talk about diverse books and authors on social media. Read books by diverse authors to your children. Organize a drive to donate books by diverse authors to your local schools. Give books by diverse authors as gifts to your friends and family.

Your part in this conversation is to support diverse writers, not further your own career. Kwame Alexander. Ellen Oh. Thanna Lai. Rita Williams-Garcia. And on the non-kid lit side, Ruth Ozeki and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to name a few. Seek them out. Read their works. Spread the word about a writer whose work has touched you.

And as for your own writing? The best story you can tell is your own story, one that speaks the truth about your experiences. One that translates your triumphs and failures into an unforgettable character. That’s the story that will stand out from the pack in the query box. Every single time.

  1. I’m concerned by the implication white writers can’t be diverse. I have no issue with the basic thrust of this, there undoubtedly are people leaping on the Diverse Books bandwagon, but too many people seem to read the quest for diverse books as relating to ethnicity only, and articles that seem to confirm that belief, even inadvertently, risk further marginalizing the non-ethnicity based diversities.

    I’m white, I’m a writer, I’m also diverse – multiply disabled – and I’ve just written a diverse book. But I’m writing that book from the first hand experience of being part of a discriminated against, openly reviled minority. And we desperately need these books. When was the last time you saw a prominent novel with a disabled protagonist who was handled realistically?

    And it’s not just disability that allows you to be white, diverse and marginalized. LGBT is the most prominent example, but a whole range of social issues can lead to marginalization, it’s even possible to be white and ethnically disadvantaged. Ask any Roma.

    None of this is meant to erase the experience of PoC, but, please, don’t erase our experience either

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  2. David, sorry that this post struck you as limiting your options as a writer. To my eye, nothing in this post about submission trends narrowcasts the topic to People of Color. Would you have been happier if she’d qualified this sentence—”f you’re a white writer who is trying to capitalize on that, take a keep breath and back slowly away from your keyboard”—as “if you’re a white, straight, fully-abled writer who is trying to capitalize on that….”?

    I think you will agree that this becomes a game of adding qualification after qualification after qualification and still leaving unlisted many (too many) issues that create diverse literature. If I’ve learned nothing else from Andrew Solomon’s profound Far From the Tree, it’s that the family of “disabled” people is much larger and far more diverse than can be addressed easily. (His book is 1,000 pages—though granted, 300 pages of that book are notes.)

    As for your question, “When was the last time you saw a prominent novel with a disabled protagonist who was handled realistically?” I’d point you to Wonder (written by someone who does not share Auggie’s particular issues), or Wolf in White Van (ditto), of Five Flavors of Dumb (deafness by a full-hearing person), Blind Spot (self-evident subject), or if you want to be limit this to actual physical disability, I can reach back to Triangle. Those are off the top of my head, but I’m sure there are others that I’m overlooking. I read widely, but it’s tough to stay on top of everything.

    My point is this: being disabled of course fits in under the umbrella of “diversity,” as does (of course) LGBT experience, as do experiences of deafness, dwarfism, autism, the blind, prodigies, rape victims, and on and on. Danielle’s post was not about limiting anyone from writing about these things. But to say, Write about them because they’re important to you, not because—as too many submissions have done lately—you think “diverse books” are a trend.

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  3. So, does that mean you don’t agree with this?

    http://sarahockler.com/tag/race-in-ya/

    Because she seemed to think (at least at the time) that white authors absolutely should write other races.

    Isn’t Sarah one of your authors? Or at least one of UC’s?

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  4. Nope, completely agree with Sarah, who understands the same thing that Danielle says above: writing diverse characters isn’t a trend.

    Or, to repeat the last few lines of my comment above: “Danielle’s post was not about limiting anyone from writing about these things. But to say, Write about them because they’re important to you, not because—as too many submissions have done lately—you think “diverse books” are a trend.”

    This subject isn’t so (wait for it) black and white.

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  5. I think it’s more important to write a good story than to satisfy some kind of agenda that the industry has decided must be portrayed. If an author (agent or editor) has white guilt issues, I’m sorry for that. It didn’t seem to bother Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Tolkien, from crafting great work. It had to do with what they were passionate about.

    I really wish I could recall the agent or publisher who recently Tweeted: ‘I’ve stopped reading manuscripts from White Male authors’ and got retweeted by everyone. Why are the people who make the decisions on what goes into print forcing this? Do they actually believe that this is what the majority of readership wants? As far as I know what they really want IS A GOOD STORY. I’m not saying that story can’t be diverse, but when a story is written just to be diverse it lacks truth and verve. It’s a cheat code and the audience pays the price when they are screaming across Goodreads and elsewhere: Give us good writing! Who cares what color or gender or whatever you are or have written about, as long as it is good.

    If you read this with the belief it was written by a white male, and were inclined to have some sort of reaction, would you feel any differently or respond differently knowing this was written by a Native American? If so, then the element of diversity is not aiding the cause, but hindering what writing is all about. Because writing is about truth.

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  6. Numerous POC will tell you that they are sick to death of having to be the representative in their work places, etc. for all POC but that they often feel that pressure. Of course this is one of many fabulous reasons that we need a to increase titles by and about POC, so that no one book/character becomes the default representation for a certain ethnicity or culture. In this vein, the argument that whites cannot “get a (insert culture) character right” is perplexing to me. All of my characters are researched carefully and are developed to have specific goals that are unique to them—even the ones who are able-bodied, white, sort of reform Jews like me. If a book is going to be rejected let it be because the plot was predictable, or the dialogue unbelievable, or the conflict trite, not because I’m white, and a main character is black. Good writing is not a trend it’s a craft.

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