You know how you get less diversity in art? Book Banning and Mob Outrage, that’s how. If you haven’t been keeping up with the news in literary circles recently you may not even know that here in the U.S. we have schools still censoring books. We also have mobs carrying digital pitchforks and demanding book reviews be edited to fit their own perception of books they haven’t read. Yah, you read that right. How are these connected to diversity in art, in this case literature? I’ll get there, just relax a bit and let me tell you a tale like something right out of 1950’s America. Why not a Germany reference? Well everyone expects that but the image above is actually from the 1950s comic hysteria where books were collected from children for the purpose of ‘protecting’ them from the evil they contained. They actually burned books here in the United States of America…
Recently the Biloxi school district banned To Kill a Mockingbird from their 8th grade reading list because it “makes people uncomfortable.” Really…a book about one of the darkest parts of American history makes people uncomfortable? Isn’t that the point? I’ve long said one of the worst sayings, most dangerous phrases in the human language is ‘for the children’. Right next to ‘for their own good’, it’s a phrase used to justify just about anything. Unfortunately Biloxi isn’t the first. As recently as last year the same book was banned in Virginia, and other schools in years past. It’s not the only book that’s been banned either. So for the sake of our children we want to make sure they’re never exposed to an inkling of the adversity people faced in our past? For their sake we want to make sure they aren’t reminded of the terrible things done in this country?
Our job as writers is often to explore the human condition. We look at all our faults, problems, and triumphs. We explore the good and bad that is the human animal and try to make sense of it. Above all we try to shine a light in the dark corners of humanity so that we never forget where we’ve strayed. This act, by a place of learning, tells us that some things are off limits because it’s uncomfortable. Do these kids learning history then? I don’t know anything more uncomfortable than learning about the Spanish Inquisition, the conquest and enslavement of Europe by Rome, or the brutal reign of Genghis Khan. Are the scars of the civil rights movement too fresh? I say good. It’s easy to disassociate ourselves from the awful things done hundreds or thousands of years ago. There is a blight in our history that shouldn’t just be shoved off in the corner and forgotten. People all over the world, and from every culture participated in that darkness and it should still make us uncomfortable. That would hasn’t healed, and it won’t heal any faster by ignoring it.
So how does this contribute to less diversity? We’ll get there, but for now imagine you want desperately to tell a story to try and change the world. Imagine that story is uncomfortable, dark, and sensitive. Now imagine expecting that story to be banned, review-bullied, or worse. Would you bother? Would you take the time, sometimes years of your time, to write it? Wouldn’t it be easier to take the safe road and write something that will sell and not offend anyone? For those of you who aren’t writers imagine spending two or more years on a project for it to never even see the light of day. That’s the decision each one of us makes before we sit down and type a single word.
Our second disturbing bit of news is the retraction of a Kirkus review for a book called American Heart. It’s a young adult book set in a dystopian future where Muslims are rounded up and persecuted, and a young girl tries to help. Initially the reaction was much like we’ve seen with other review bullies. People who admit they never read the book trolling reviews on sites like Goodreads. It expanded to other authors and activists who pressured Kirkus to do what they did. All this despite the fact that the positive Kirkus review was done by a Muslim woman according to the company’s statement.
The irony (is it irony?) isn’t lost on me. Mostly white westerners, many of whom didn’t read the book, step out to be the savior of the poor Muslims who might read it and become offended by the white savior trope. Yah, wrap your brain around that. The author denies the white savior trope, instead claiming she turned it on its ear by having her protagonist realize at the end that she couldn’t be a savior.
Now, I haven’t read the book so I can’t comment on whether that is right or not. It shouldn’t matter though. The idea that other authors would pressure a company to suppress a review…that they would actively work to suppress another author’s work; it’s beyond the pale. If we open ourselves up to censorship of our colleagues then what protection do we have ourselves? Isn’t it ultimately self-defeating? And Kirkus. I can’t help but imagine they took that woman’s review back to her and said something like, “Is this really how you felt? Are you sure?” with some winks and nods that maybe she didn’t really feel the way she did when she reviewed it. That’s not disturbing at all.
So again we hear, and yes people said this about American Heart, that an author shouldn’t write certain things. I’ve been hearing it for years, because I fit the most evil of evil demographic. The dreaded straight…white…MALE! (Gasps, screams and creepy organ music) “Men shouldn’t write female characters, it’s creepy,” “Straight people shouldn’t write gay characters,” “White people shouldn’t write minority characters.” Because Laura Moriarty is white she isn’t fit to tell this story. So why bother?
I’m currently in the first draft of a book with a female main character. She’s not human and not straight (nor really gay but I’ll leave the details for when I finish it). This character couldn’t be further from me. Of course I could take the easy route and just make the protagonist a straight white dude, but there’s no challenge in that. Besides, when I envisioned this character I didn’t see me I saw her. But should I be able to write that story? I’m sure to mess some things up. I bet I offend some people, it’s impossible not to anymore. Wouldn’t it be easier to just not bother?
We have to face the fact that whether we like it or not writing is still dominated by people that look like me. Good or bad it’s just a fact. If we want more diverse stories and characters we’re going to have to accept that some of us evil white dudes are going to have to write outside our comfort zone. If most of us start to say “Why bother” we wind up with less diversity, not more.
We authors do our best. By all reports Moriarty not only researched Islam, Iran, and Muslim literature, but also had Muslim sensitivity readers look over the work. It was reviewed by a Muslim woman for Kirkus, and it still got hit as a problem. To be a good author we often have to write about things we never experienced. We do our research. We talk to experts, and people who have had experiences like the characters we want to write. It’s not easy and it’s very time consuming. We won’t get it right every time, but we do our best. That goes for white authors writing minority characters, men writing women, and vice versa. No one questions a female author writing a male protagonist, but isn’t it the same principle?
At the end of the day this should disturb anyone who values art and free expression. The more this happens, the more you’re going to see authors say why bother. Why deal with the stress? Why deal with the offendatrons of the world looking for the next thing to set their sights on? Just stick to the things we know, the stories we’re familiar with, and the characters that look like us. Why bother with anything else? Then again the thought police could just start pressuring reviewers and publishers to only accept work from their chosen few and it won’t matter if we bother or not.