Literature has a diversity problem. So does Hollywood, the Fortune 500, Congress, and most of America. This shows that the literary industry isn’t going to solve its diversity problem on its own, because another name for the problem is pervasive structural inequality in American society.
Centuries of exploitation, discrimination, marginalization, and ghettoization have left their residue throughout American culture and on the American psyche. The literary world has dealt at least somewhat with that history, publishing a significant, if still inadequate, number of books that address things like slavery, genocide, conquest, and patriarchy. But those books are written by people like me, authors, who, among being other things, are employees of the literary industry. We don’t control the industry itself, even if the industry couldn’t exist without us.
To have true diversity in the literary industry—and any industry—the powerbrokers, gatekeepers, and owners need to be diverse. (See “Where Is the Diversity in Publishing?”.) To achieve genuine diversity, the powerful need to share power (and profits) with people who are not like them. If this kind of equality sounds like science fiction, then you understand the scope and scale of the diversity problem. To solve it, we need more than a few different faces in visible places. We need the redistribution of resources, which would create conditions of greater access for everyone to everything, including the literary industry.
Before that happens, the best the literary world can do is actively invest resources in promoting access. Those who run the industry can pay interns who otherwise cannot afford to work for nothing, recruit and promote people of color, and look outside the Ivy League and their social networks. The variety of editors and publishers that emerge from these efforts will generally—hopefully—be more sensitive in finding authors and books that reflect, express, envision, and demand a United States that is more open to its own diversity and that of the world.
The literary industry has been most effective in promoting diversification in the ranks of authors, but even here there are problems. This is partly because the literary industry also includes burgeoning university writing programs and shrinking book reviews. Creative writing professors and students, as well as book critics and reviewers, are not immune to the diversity problem, either in their demographic composition or in their worldviews.
Many writers of color say that writing programs and book reviews often see them as “different” from the “norm.” A parallel problem has existed for women at least since Nathaniel Hawthorne complained about that “damn’d mob of scribbling women.” While writers who are “different” are marked by their race, gender, class, or sexuality, white and male writers can just be seen as writers and their stories as just literature, even if they happen to be really about white people or men. To some readers, for example, a story about a divorced couple in the Connecticut suburbs dealing with adultery, cancer, and troubled children is universal, while a story about an undocumented immigrant suffering from heartbreak in Los Angeles is an ethnic story.
These attitudes are perpetuated by some writing professors, writing students, and literary tastemakers. Instead of re-creating the norm in their literary value system, they need to listen to what “different” writers and students are saying, think twice when they compose their top ten lists of any category, and assess whether what they say and teach in their classrooms affirms an invisible universality biased toward white people, men, the middle class, and the wealthy.
Lastly, the diversity problem exists partly because writers themselves sometimes write literature that treats their difference as something exotic or inferior, or as something in need of translation to the nondifferent. Some agents, editors, and publishers encourage this by telling writers that certain kinds of diverse stories sell. By that, they mean selling either to the majority or to niche audiences. Writing for niche audiences, writers limit themselves. Writing for a majority when one is not a part of that majority often means making the story more acceptable and easier to understand for an audience looking for a comfortable read.
Some writers agree to write these kinds of stories because they are easier to get published. Don’t agree. Believe in your own universality. Write like the majority even if you happen to be in the minority, while never forgetting what it feels like to be a minority. In the end, getting published on someone else’s terms is not the most important thing. Telling the truth, even if it hurts you or your readers, is what matters.
Viet Thanh Nguyen is the Pulitzer Prize– and Carnegie Medal–winning author of
The Sympathizer and an associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity
at the University of Southern California