An intriguing article at The Digital Reader recently pointed out that many of the older classic SF/F books are falling out of favor with younger readers. The question many are asking is, Why? Nate makes a strong argument that readers are finding a disconnect with some of the older classics because they just aren’t relatable for younger readers. In many cases there are cultural gaps, but one of the big issues is plain, simple DIVERSITY. Some of the older classics treat minority characters in this unrealistic one-dimensional negative light or as simplistic caricatures – neither of which encourages younger readers to engage. I get that and I see that as a major issue. Readers are legitimately responding to a weakness in the classic canon, and that’s almost certainly a good thing.
BUT (I know – isn’t there always a but?), what concerns me is that the ‘books should be diverse’ movement sometimes conflates two different things – books which legitimately have issues portraying minority groups in a pejorative, unrealistic way and books which, for a variety of reasons (usually completely unintentionally) do not portray certain minority groups.
We shouldn’t be too quick to judge older classics which might not have the diversity we’ve grown accustomed to, because that doesn’t mean that these narratives are any weaker. In fact, some of the least diverse classics still enjoy a diverse fan base of readers, and why is that? As an example let’s look at The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I suppose you could call it ‘diverse’ from a quasi-racial standpoint – it has hobbits, dwarves, humans, elves, orcs, to name a few – but from a gender standpoint The Hobbit is anything but diverse. That doesn’t fatally undermine the book though or take away from the overall compelling story the book tells. To dismiss a story like the Hobbit based on a diversity argument would be narrow-minded and silly.
There’s another interesting fact that too many advocates of ‘books need to be diverse’ simply ignore. Books can be diverse in very different ways. I can write a book which depicts income inequality and therefore economic diversity on a grand level. Now, what if that book lacks racial diversity or gender diversity? As soon as diversity becomes a value which must be proclaimed and put on a pedestal as an end in and of itself, I think we start to tread into dangerous territory.
Why? Because that gets into the arena of which kind of diversity is better. Racial diversity, gender diversity, sexual orientation diversity, economic diversity? Which ‘deserve’ to be emphasized more? The list could go on, and the point I’m (hopefully) doing a good job at making is this – If the passion for diversity becomes a need to check every box among a litany of things or stridently call authors out whenever we feel ‘our tribe’ isn’t properly represented or glorified, then I think we encourage a world of judgmental ‘diversity police’ which, ironically enough, DISCOURAGES the very diversity that diversity advocates would like to foster.
Here’s the bottom line: the goal of having minority perspectives represented more often in novels and stories is a worthy one. But never fall down the rabbit hole where that line of thinking can sometimes lead; just because you might be of a particular minority group or sub-group, remember, you still can and SHOULD be able to learn from stories outside of your particular tribe. Doing so will make you a better person, a more open-minded person. More than that, it helps ensure a literary universe with less judgment and more understanding.
That is diversity in the best sense of the word.