On retconning diversity

The movement for more diversity in pop culture is picking up steam, and it’s fantastic to see. The change in the pop culture landscape from five years ago alone is incredible, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the coming years as more diverse creators are given more chances, as more diverse texts enter the marketplace, as more consumers come to understand, demand, and expect diversity. There’s a huge family of new media hitting the market with diverse characters along a range of axes and intersections of diversity — they are disabled, they are working class, they are queer, they are people of colour, they are trans, they are Muslim, they are so much more than what has come to be the norm in film, television, and books.

This change is particularly noticeable in the young adult landscape — in part, I confess, because it’s the landscape I know best, so naturally it’s the one I keep the closest eye on. New releases from diverse creators are coming out monthly, and they’re signing more and more deals, slowly but steadily pushing the publishing landscape in a new direction. Their books are making for amazing reads, and it’s exciting to see how they’re challenging barriers and norms in the industry.

I’m also observing another phenomenon, though: Authors who are starting to realise that there’s a ‘niche market’ for diversity who are attempting to retcon their work to pretend it’s more diverse than it actually is. These approaches to diversity — taking a text that pretty clearly wasn’t diverse and trying to make it look that way now — are pretty transparent efforts at trying to draw readers who have come to demand more from their fiction. They are also pretty painfully obvious and offensive, because YA readers of all ages are very sharp people, and they can see what these authors are doing.

Some take the ‘after the fact’ or ‘expanded storyline’ approach, in which they reveal things about characters that weren’t strictly in the canon of the books. They reference ‘subtle clues’ and sometimes suggest that readers should have picked these things up, but didn’t. The thing is that canon is a complex issue, and it can expand beyond books themselves to accompanying short stories and other documents produced by authors, but I have a harder time when it comes to things like interviews. If you’d wanted something to be in your book, you should have put it there in the first place, not added a ‘by the way’ later when it was clear that your readers felt your work was lacking.

Publishing diverse fiction is hard, which is the whole point of the movement. I’d respect authors who do this a lot more if they talked about wanting to include diverse characters and being shot down by publishers, as has definitely happened. Some have talked openly about turning down offers because they were contingent on removing or altering diverse characters, or compromising in order to get a book out in some form, toning things down to avoid scaring the horses, turning more explicit representation into something more subtle, but still readable.

Readers, however, can tell the difference between a hasty attempt to label a character as diverse later and a genuine discussion about how a diverse character was suppressed. These conversations are especially loaded in the case of, oh, bestselling authors who have much more freedom with their publishers, including the freedom to push for what they want and advocate for their characters. Someone with a strong contract who knows that a book is going to sell in huge numbers no matter what is in a strong bargaining position to put a foot down and demand that a character be left intact, and to write characters that are more explicitly coded as diverse.

Casually dropping the news that a character belongs to a marginalised group is not the same thing as writing the character that way. Belonging to marginalised groups isn’t as simple as a label — a queer character, for example, can’t just be labeled queer. Queerness has to interact with the character’s identity, with the way the character talks to other people within the framework of the text. It’s a little bit suspicious when a pretty heteronormative character is suddenly magically ‘queer’ according to an author, or when a character who is never described as participating in any sort of religious practices is suddenly Muslim. It’s sketchy when a character is suddenly biracial, but this hasn’t been described, brought up, or coded into any of the books. Being from a marginalised group shouldn’t be the sum total of someone’s identity, but it likely will change the way someone acts within a story — would a devout Jewish character need to take the Sabbath off? Wouldn’t we see a trans character taking hormones at some point? Isn’t it probable that a queer character would express interest in someone, or, conversely, be uncomfortable in a conversation where other characters presumed heterosexuality?

Diversity doesn’t mean blaring ‘THIS CHARACTER IS DIVERSE!!!!!’ on every single page, or making everything a character does revolve around that character’s identity. But it should play a textual role, and massaging it in after the fact just doesn’t work. Authors who are trying to do this need to admit that they didn’t write diverse texts in the first place, and they need to talk about why that was — their own background, their own cultural beliefs, the assumptions they made, the external pressures of the market. We’d have a much more interesting conversation about these issues if people actually opened up about their role in them.

Image: Hogwarts, Alan Antiporda, Flickr