Thursday, May 1, 2014

Unicorns in the Forest: Books and Diversity

The WeNeedDiverseBooks social media campaign kicks off this afternoon, aimed at encouraging more diversity in literature and among the writers who get into print.

And while I laud the intent, I hope this effort goes deeper than feel-good window-dressing.

Pardon my cynicism, it is a bit like saying you're hunting for unicorns in the forest---but they have actually been in plain view the whole time.

Let me explain.

The trigger behind this movement was a call for more children's books that feature a broader array of protagonists, as well as a wish for more writers from diverse backgrounds. The campaign that started today is apparently spreading to more genres beyond the youth market.

We should not kid ourselves though that right now, the youth market is HUGE for publishing. It is the low-hanging fruit. (One of the frustrating things I hear from people in the industry is the perception that "men don't read," which has shaped some publishing decisions. THAT I find to be insulting.)

So the youth audience is a gold mine that the industry is anxious to tap more thoroughly---more readers from all walks. Part of it comes from the vast success seen with the Harry Potter and Hunger Games books. That pipeline needs to be refilled constantly.

The industry craves titles with wildfire popularity because, from a business perspective, books are products that need to be sold and not sit idly on store shelves. When I talk shop with other writers, we say, "you've got a good product" when discussing our work. It's an unromantic way of looking at books, but it is honest.

And the publishing world shifts like the wind based on how well products move. As soon as something becomes hot, the market gets flooded with copycat material. There's no altruism about good literature driving such choices; publishers need to hit revenue targets and agents need clients who can fill the pipelines with desirable products.

Some genres seem to be built on repetitive, cookie cutter books. I dare say, the going belief is that the bread-and-butter audience of certain genres would revolt if something too different landed in front of them.

How tough is it to bring real, sustainable diversity to publishing, and NOT just when it is a popular thing to do? Here's an excerpt from a rejection I got a couple years ago. This agent was enthusiastic about my work but still said:

"I think the writing is good and I enjoyed reading the material. However, I’m a bit at a loss at what direction I would take in presenting this material for sale." 

That could be taken as a mere, "not the right fit" response. However, I know that the book in question breaks numerous expectations of the genre, especially pushing hard in terms of diversity. I knew it would be a hard sell, but I believe in the strength of the material.

So I see today as a chance for the publishing world to open up more, but I challenge the industry to not treat this moment as a way to take a pat on the back, and then return to business as usual.

Be willing to support diversity across all age, ethnic, social, and gender categories, for people of all backgrounds, because those youths you claim to want to feed new material to will grow up. And then they will be unicorns searching the forest for more to read . . .

Flame and Bone

When I was made from fire
Poured into the tender vessel of caution
That keeps my smoke from rising
Quickly did I discover that apart from crisp drizzles or falling snow
The world chilled my touched
Walking the narrow cornered gap between girders and cut stone
One learns to tuck his shoulders in or risk
Jostling a neighbor passing by rapt with want
For a clear path without the distraction
Of another man's boiling eyes
The tip of a finger
That oldest of all weapons
Grown deadlier and pristine in its invention
Gathers a mote of a cinder on its bare flesh
And turns pondering how best to scratch the impious itch
Prying open the tender seam
Where the oil of thought dews
Offering a new wick to ignite
Squirming alive as a salamander of mischief
That yearns for a taste of air it is so ready to devour
The steam of breath betrays me
Before the glint of orange spreads
In popping bright waves
Eroding the fibers feeding it
Leaving naught but ash
As my shell of quietude falls away