If you were in a bookstore seeking out a copy of an epic fantasy novel written by a well-known Black writer, one who had perhaps won awards for her work, where would you look? How about a mystery written by an up and coming Chinese author? Or some literary fiction written by a bisexual woman?
One would hope, and expect, that these books would be filed in fantasy, mystery, and fiction, respectively. Yet, in many bookstores, that’s not necessarily the case. I’ve talked to high-profile Black fantasy writers who routinely see their work misshelved in ‘African-American fiction[1. In a double twist of the knife, some of those authors are not in fact African-American, but African, making it all the more bizarre to see their work in that section.],’ to young Chinese mystery writers who end up in the ‘Asian’ or ‘Chinese’ writers section, to LGBQT people who see their books sandwiched into LGBQT studies regardless as to their content.
There’s a stubborn belief in some bookstores that an author’s identity perforce determines the category of their books, and that it’s possible to make genre shelving decisions on the basis of what someone looks like, or who they are. Oh, it’s a gay author, she writes gay books: even if there aren’t actually any gay characters in a book, it’s got to be gay somehow because of who the author is. She’s a Black author, so her book belongs in the section with the other Black People Books, to make it easy for people to find them—these are ‘special interest’ books by dint of who wrote them, and thus it’s important to isolate them away from the regular people books, those written by straight white authors.
One of the conversations I’ve been having a lot recently, and of course over the entirety of my career as a cultural critic and examiner of the representation of diversity and marginalised people in pop culture, is about diversity. There’s a lot of discussion about the obvious need for more diverse representations in publishing: for both more authors and characters of marginalised backgrounds, for the nonfiction section to be more representative of the world rather than just the West, for more diversity on conference panels and at events aimed at the literary world.
But bookstore shelves are another important place for diversity, as are libraries. Isolating books by diverse people does a disservice to those people and those books, because a book isn’t about who wrote it, but about much more than that. Fantasy readers make a beeline for the fantasy shelf, and if it’s only stocked with books by straight white men, that is what they will read, and that is what will shape their view of what fantasy is like and what is acceptable in the genre. If a bookstore is hiding some great fantasy in LGBQT or the African-American section or Disability Studies or who knows where else, people are not going to read it.
Diversity in reading material isn’t just about allowing people to see themselves in the texts they read, whether we’re talking about a Latino boy who wants to read coming of age novels about other Latino boys or a Native girl who wishes the myths and folklore section in her library wasn’t 99% European. It’s also about the exchange of cultural information and the ability to communicate across cultures, something that isn’t possible unless it’s enabled both by the publishing industry (publishing, marketing, and supporting diverse books) and the people who work with the industry (booksellers, librarians, teachers).
As a white child growing up in an area that was not very racially diverse, I could have ended up reading books entirely about white children and I would have absorbed that as a natural way of the world. I was fortunate in that I had booksellers and librarians who didn’t let that happen, who put diverse books in my hands and encouraged me to talk about them. I grew up in a house where the walls were lined with books on Southeast Asian folklore, on Chinese traditions, on the culture of Mesoamerica, and thus learned that the world was much larger than Europe and we Westerners didn’t have a monopoly on the whole ‘civilisation’ thing.
Notably, children tend to be very open to things, because they haven’t learned about what’s supposed to be acceptable and what is not. Thus, girls read ‘boy’ books and boys read ‘girl’ books and white children read about Black children and straight children read about gay children, and none of these things are bad. In fact, they’re all fabulous, because children have an opportunity to get a glimpse into a life that is not their own, to find common ground with other people, to imagine a world that is bigger than the one they live it. It is only later, under the influence of adults, that they learn they’re not ‘supposed’ to do that.
This is not a productive way to treat children, or adults, for that matter. Literary diversity isn’t just for the ‘diverse people’ but for everyone—because a white person can read a science fiction novel about a Black woman going to space and enjoy it. Because a Chinese high school student can read a book about a queer teen and love it—regardless of her sexuality. Because a white kid can read a picture book about a traditional Japanese festival and get something out of it. Diversity is about cultural exchange, not lining up people in rows and checking off boxes, and the power of diversity in fiction lies in making sure it reaches everyone.
Not in shelving authors by identity like this is Author Taxonomy 101.