Lack of diversity in book world continues to stir debate

When Book Expo America Bookcon announced its panel lineup, critics cried foul that all 30 authors were white.

Dmitry Kiper
Author Junot Diaz is one of the writers who has been speaking about the need for more diversity in literature, specifically attacking MFA programs, calling the one in which he participated 'too white.'

Does the book world have a diversity problem?

First there was the news that male writers enjoy disproportionate representation in the literary world, both as reviewers and as reviewed.

Then we learned men appear to out-represent women even in children’s literature, traditionally the domain of women.

Finally, there was this jarring news: that less than 3 percent of children’s books surveyed in 2013 were about black people – and even fewer by black authors. 

The consequence of that homogeneity was on display at a Book Expo America Bookcon readers’ convention this month in New York, when the announcement of an all-star lineup of children’s writers provoked an uproar. The problem? Every one of the 30 writers – and one cat – lauded were white. 

“There are more cats than people of color” on the list, Jeff O’Neal, founder of BookRiot, a book news and commentary site, wrote of the announcement, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Considering the recent outburst of one of the book world’s reigning stars, perhaps the apparent diversity problems in literature are no surprise.

Award-winning Dominican-American author Junot Diaz recently launched a broadside against the institutions that groom many of the literary community’s best writers: MFA programs.

“I didn’t have a great workshop experience. Not at all. In fact, by the start of my second year, I was like: get me the [expletive] out of here,” Díaz writes in an introductory essay about his time at Cornell’s MFA program in the 1990s. “So what was the problem?” Diaz continued in “a ferocious critique of the racial disparity and “whiteness” of American creative writing programs,” as the Los Angeles Times calls it. “Oh, just the standard problem of MFA programs. That [expletive] was too white.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, Diaz explained that most MFA programs “have few faculty members of color, and the aesthetic of those programs is informed by a narrow vision of what contemporary literature can and should be.”

And it’s a flaw that, by some accounts, is playing out across the literary community, as evident in diversity problems in book recognition, review, and representation.

It is a troubling trend, as we explained in an earlier post on the lack of diversity in children’s books:

“Books shape our understanding of the world and our understanding of ourselves, an occurrence even more pronounced in children. When parts of our society are scarcely represented in the books we read, we’re less inclined to know, relate to, and value those groups. Even more troubling, when minority readers, especially children, don’t see themselves represented in the books they read, they don’t receive the validation and affirmation of self that reading provides.”

Cognizant of the danger such a lack of diversity represents, a group of 22 authors, publishers, and bloggers have launched a We Need Diverse Books campaign.

“Now is the time to raise our voices into a roar that can’t be ignored,” the group’s manifesto declares. “We need to spread the word far and wide… So that the organizers of BEA and every big conference and festival out there gets the message that diversity is important to everyone.” 

The campaign has urged participants to use the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks, participate in a Twitter chat, and buy and borrow diverse books in a “Diversify Your Shelves” initiative.

It’s a move in the right direction, but if the diversity problems in the book world are real, it’s just the start of a long road ahead.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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