Stop hiding behind ‘quality’ to avoid conversations about diversity

My friends, it is time to have a conversation about the interconnected ‘quality’ arguments swirling around diverse books, namely statements like this one: ‘Well, I totally support diverse books, it’s just that I don’t want overall quality to suffer just because we have some kind of diversity quota.’ This argument, often put less bluntly, suggests that the push for diverse books is overriding the need to have some kind of quality control in publishing, because if we don’t keep this on hand, people can just publish anything and the book world will be filled with garbage titles.

First, a word: When I say ‘diverse books,’ I mean something very specific. I mean a book written by someone from one or more underrpresented groups, featuring several characters from one or more underrepresented groups, in a story where those characters are allowed to do a wide range of cool things. Preferably, that book is written by someone who shares, or closely relates to, the experiences of the diverse characters.

For example: A wheelchair user writes a book about an amputee astronaut who goes to space and saves us all from Martian werewolves. A Latina immigrant writes a magical realism title set in a moving vineyard inhabited by giant moths, with a Latino hero who entrances them with wine. A trans, disabled, Jewish woman writes a book about a survivor of Aktion T4. Is your back up thinking of how these are filling a diversity quota?

Why? Because they’re not written by dominant people telling dominant stories? Why shouldn’t a book about a little trans girl who likes ponies be a regular book for regular people? Why shouldn’t a picture book about a poly triad parenting an adoptee be a regular book? ‘Regular’ books defined by the dominant class are terrible for everyone, because it means that people from underrepresented groups don’t see themselves in works of fiction, and that people from dominant groups aren’t exposed to the fact that other people exist.

So, when people push for diverse books, they are often told that this is well and good, and should definitely be a priority, but publishing companies can’t sacrifice quality just in service of diversity. I’d like to pick this apart a bit, because I encounter it a lot. Let’s start with the fact that writers from underrepresented backgrounds face a tremendous number of barriers when they try to enter publishing, and those roadblocks at every turn mean that fewer authors manage to get agented, get novels out on submission, meet with editors. Those writers face what people from underrepresented backgrounds in a variety fields always face, which is the fact that they have to work four times as hard for half the recognition.

This isn’t about ‘quality.’

I read a lot of books. Last year, I read 432, to be exact. I did a lot of rereading in 2016, but I also read a fair number of titles sent for review by publishers, and some books I picked up on my own. And here is something I noticed: Despite my clearly advertised preference for books written by people from marginalised backgrounds writing about their own experiences, I get a lot of books written by dominant people in my mailbox.

A lot of those books are bad. Like, really bad. Historically, I actually photographed every book I read and slapped it up on my Instagram, but I had to stop doing that, because people took the photos as endorsements, bought the books, and then got super grumpy that they had ended up with terrible piles of garbage. Now, I have to wait until I finish to decide whether I want to feature a book, and last year, I got a lot of books that were unfinishable.

I am talking about leading titles from major publishers that came with an aggressive promotional push. And while ‘quality’ is a really highly subjective thing, it’s safe to say that there are some things that pretty broadly make a book objectively bad for a variety of readers. Clunky writing, extremely poor plotting, and bad mechanical craft come to mind. A lot of these books were bad not in a ‘eh, this isn’t my jam’ way or even a ‘this book has some serious problems’ way, but in a very basic and fundamental ‘this book has major functional issues that make it effectively unreadable’ way.

And while I read these books — or the first thirty or so pages, anyway — I started thinking about how many marginalised authors had submitted to those publishing houses in 2014ish, which is when the books I was reading were starting to come under contract. Certainly fewer than dominant authors, to be sure, and some of their books were probably equally technically flawed because their agents weren’t editorially involved enough. Some of their books were probably bad. Some of their books may have conflicted with other things on the list, so even if they were good, an editor didn’t feel like they were a good fit. And guess what: All of those statements could also be made about authors from dominant groups, who write terrible books and have them out on submission too.

But some of those books by marginalised people? Were probably pretty fucking great. And were certainly better than the trash I was reading. So why weren’t they picked up? Why did the publisher decide that a trash book was better than a great one?

The machinations of publishing are weird and complicated, but undeniably, some amazing books that went out on submission in 2014 did not get published, and garbage was published in their place, and that garbage was likely by dominant authors. So don’t tell me that this is a ‘quality’ issue, as though marginalised writers aren’t as capable as dominant ones. As though publishers are super-discerning and thoughtful about every title they acquire, making sure it’s the absolute best book it can possibly be. As though publicists and agents and the myriad other people who make books come to life are gods with flawless taste and perfect perceptions, shepherding almost the most perfect books through the rocky waters of the publishing world.

This is not about quality. It isn’t. It is discriminatory and absurd to say that ‘quality’ is the issue holding underrepresented writers back, to suggest that publishers are going to be pressured into a ‘quota’ system where they have to take anything, no matter what, even if it’s bad. Because, newsflash: The publishing ecosystem is already contaminated with some truly terrible books, and they aren’t being written by marginalised writers.

Image: Museum of Book, Tjflex2, Flickr