You may have noticed that I like books. I like reading them, I like writing about them, I like thinking about them, I even like writing them (maybe someday you’ll read a book I wrote!). While I read primarily young adult and middle grade literature at the moment, because that’s where my life is, I actually read quite broadly and across all sorts of categories. And I have, perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of thoughts about how books are categorised — by bookstores, by their publishers, by reviewers.
The way we conceptualise categories for books has huge implications — humans like to label things and shunt them into organised rows, and thus when we declare that a book belongs here, or there, it has huge ramifications. Especially when it comes to representations about diversity, because the publishing industry as a whole tends to exceptionalise diversity, and I am firmly opposed to this approach. The best way to improve diverse representations is to do just the opposite — expand the norm to admit that humans are complex, interesting, myriad, amazing creatures.
Arguments for ignoring differences are patently absurd: Diversity is about radical inclusion, not ignoring things. The point of broadening the norm isn’t for everyone to pretend that Sally’s not in a wheelchair. The point is for everyone to go ‘yup, Sally’s in a wheelchair, so what?’ The point of broadening the norm is to see the racial characteristics of all characters described in books, disrupting the default. The point of broadening the norm is to be able to say that yes, people are different, and it matters, but not for the reasons people think it does. Sally and I both have feelings, we both bleed when you prick us, but also, we move differently, and experience the world differently, and have our own things to bring to discussions and the culture around us.
Back to books. Let’s take Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, one of my all-time favourite books. It’s a book that I think a whole generation of queers read at a formative age, and it certainly had an effect on me. Molly is foul-mouthed, creative, funny as shit, and a character I identify with — coming from a poor family, dealing with the complexities of navigating small-town America. Our experiences start to diverge when it comes to tolerance, as I had the privilege to grow up in a time, and a place, where being queer wasn’t a sentence to constant bullying and abuse from every quarter, though it was by no means easy.
If you’re holding a copy of Rubyfruit Jungle, where do you shelve it? I’d put it in general fiction, which is in fact exactly where my copy lives — if you asked me where to look, I’d point you in the general direction of the bookshelves in my hall and tell you to look in the ‘Bs.’ But lots of bookstores actually shelve it under ‘Gay and Lesbian Literature,’ or, worse yet, ‘Gay and Lesbian Books,’ which include everything ever about queers, fiction and nonfiction alike, all mashed up into one. If I’m looking for fiction about hot lesbians having hot lesbian sex and being hilarious, I don’t want to wade my way through queer theory and other books on LGBQAness (I keep the T out because gender does not equal sexual orientation). All of those books are supercool and I like reading them, and I would definitely want to find them on the shelves about human sexuality, but I wouldn’t think to look there for fiction.
It’s also not erotica, though there’s graphic sex in it. It’s just a book about a girl who grows up and falls in love and deals with a strange, wild world. It belongs in general fiction.
What about Ellison’s Invisible Man? It’s a book about being Black in the 1950s, about racial justice movements, about growing up in the South and moving North and into a wildly different world. Or Native Son, exploring the realities of being Black in Chicago in the 1930s, and the fallout of a terrible mistake? Both are works of fiction and rightly belong in the fiction section, but I often find them wedged into a special interest corner, right alongside other texts about experiences of communities of colour.
Exceptionalising some communities and not others has a frustratingly multifaceted oppressive effect. One issue is that by pulling and isolating such books, bookstores and publishers set up a situation where people in positions of dominance never actually find them. They have to actively seek these books out, and not everyone does. Having them isolated also makes it clear that they are about the Other, so dangerous that they need to be pushed off into a corner rather than being allowed to mingle with the regular fiction — you know, the stuff about actual people.
I sometimes encounter the argument that such isolation makes it easier for people to find such fiction, ensuring that people who want to find, say, books about being Latina during the Depression can do so via these special shelves. I’m dubious about that, though. Yes, singling books out for attention makes them easier to find, but what if dual copies were shelved in different places? What if books by and about marginalised groups were faced out more, so that people browsing general fiction would actually see them, find them, read them, understand that we are part of the world, not special unique strange unicorns that hide in the woods, waiting for a virgin to pass by?
Stop keeping us in the back corner like something to be ashamed of.
Image: Bookstore Cat, Mark Faviell, Flickr