The most popular post I have written on this blog is caring is not trying, trying is not succeeding. I’m so pleased and honored that people think it is a good and important essay and keep sharing it with others, but I also wrote it a year and a half ago, and I have more to say. So I hope you are willing to listen some more and not just always read that one. Both/and, not either/or. Consider it a state of the industry from a non-industry person, and you need a new one every once in awhile. Thanks.
So I’m at the YALSA YA Literature Symposium in Austin this weekend, and I’m really glad I’m here. There are a lot of people I like who are attending, and as far as conferences go, this is also one where the size doesn’t overwhelm me and the sessions are ones I actually care to go to.
I’m already writing about two of the sessions I attended today for the Hub (I will come back here and link to those later when I’ve actually written the posts), so I didn’t expect to have much more to say here. But then I attended a panel on people of color in SFF.
This panel was better than most on this topic. For one thing, it included a publisher (and former agent), not just authors and librarians (but it also had librarians authors, so that was great) who is leading a new imprint that is dedicated to diversity without using the word “diversity” in its tagline. Go Joe Monti! Love it. So excited. Anyway. For another thing, they began by saying their title, “Where are the heroes of color in science fiction and fantasy,” was a fallacy, because they’re already there, right? We just don’t read and promote them. The panel actually got away from the platitudes that people usually love to bust out when the conversation turns to diversity and there was some real talk, like pointing out that publishers want people of color to “write about their background,” but sometimes you just want to write about some fucking magic and unicorns. Monti pointed out that publishers are full of shit when they think that people of color are niche, because public schools are majority minority now. Guadalupe García McCall got angry and talked about her ragey student who helped inspire Summer of the Mariposas when she got frustrated that girls didn’t have their own Odyssey, that the girl in the book spent 20 fucking years weaving for a guy who was philandering around and forgetting her name. (Fucking weaving. Twenty fucking years. I mean, I thought about that when reading the Odyssey, but I never really thought about it. I know how to weave and it’s fun, but shit. No thanks.) Cynthia Leitich Smith is a woman after my own heart, by which I mean a character and someone who doesn’t seem to care for mincing words and thinks people who claim not to have diverse populations are full of shit (you know, because they are). So hooray! A group of people actually talking about shit, not just spitballing!
Then again, it still had me sad. And angry. And what really had me gnashing my teeth is that now that diversity is something people are talking about a lot and are gaining traction with, everyone is acting like we’re all good, the work is done, and there’s no place for criticism. Making headway with something is exactly when you need to take the time to make criticism and think about what’s still not working. I know this is a hard concept for people to understand, but criticism is an act of patriotism. It means you care about your country (or issue, as it were), not that you hate it. It means you are so passionately engaged in this amazing thing that you love that you are willing to break it down and really look at it. It means you want to make sure there are no tiny tears that someone can yank into holes and sink your ship (I’m really great at metaphors, right?) with. Criticism is essential to any movement for change, and it has to come from within and outside, not just outside.
There was a lot of talk about We Need Diverse Books movement, which is good and important. I’m very happy for them that they’ve incorporated and that people are talking about them and recognizing them. But you know who doesn’t give a shit about We Need Diverse Books?
I can’t possibly be the only person who sees this, but as far as I see, I’m the only person saying it. And that’s not fair. I shouldn’t be the only person who is unafraid to keep it real in public, and this is what’s real: so long as we keep buying status quo shit, publishers won’t publish more diverse books. Sure, they’ll up their quota from one diverse book every season to three. If they haven’t already, they’ll jump on the transgender train, which is the latest Cool Minority (don’t get me wrong; it’s about time, but really, do you think publishers care that it’s about time or do they care that everyone’s buying?) And they’ll spend a lot of time patting themselves on the back and getting press for it.
In some ways, that’s great, because at least it’s something. And it’s at least something when someone like John Green, who doesn’t actually do shit for diversity aside from maybe a gay kid (okay, and one book that includes a major disease that caused a disability, but it’s never really about the disability, is it) in his own books, uses his platform to make people care about WNDB. But it doesn’t actually give me faith that things are going to change. And it’s not answer. It’s not publishers listening and responding. It’s publishers placating us and patting us on the head like we’re dumb puppies who won’t notice that they’re not actually dismantling anything.
Individual people give me reason to hope that good books will come out of WNDB calling for them. That new authors will emerge, or that authors who were forced to self-publish will get picked up. Major players in Big 5+ (I say “plus” because Scholastic is pretty fucking important, even if it’s not quite a conglomerate, and so are HMH and Disney-Hyperion) publishing, like Barry Goldblatt (agent with big names on his list), Donna Bray (has her own imprint) and Cheryl Klein, tweeted and interacted extensively on the major tweeting day that launched WNDB (that is also how I “met” Joe Monti, and he is powerful, too). Those people are well aware of their privilege and power and can point to specific actions they’ve taken, books they’ve sold/edited. They are people we need.
But you know what didn’t happen that day, and what I haven’t seen happen at all? (Please do tell me if I’ve missed something, because I really would like to be lying right now, but I’m pretty sure my pants are not in flames.) Official publisher outlets tweeting in support or acknowledging the movement in any way. No @HarperCollins or @ThisIsTeen doing a damn thing (there was a Canadian branch of a major company that Instagram’d a picture of some of their diverse titles, I think, and that’s all). And what we need is an official stamp from the gatekeepers that says they’re listening. They haven’t put one out because they don’t want to. And because they don’t need to. Because we’re telling them they don’t. And nothing that Barry or Cheryl or Joe do will change that, because they are not CEOs. They are doing amazing work as individuals, but individuals don’t change culture, they just do good and important work while culture changes around them. I am not trying to diminish it, but it is very important to know the difference if we actually want to effect lasting change. Individuals can give us hope, and they can even give us what we want, but we can’t have faith in them. Does that make sense?
It doesn’t matter what we say to publishers. I mean, it matters what we say to editors and to authors, in the sense that professional reviews matter, publicity matters, backlash matters, fangirling matters, award stickers matter, maybe even volume of requests for ARCs matters. But what matters more is money, and publishers have no reason to listen to WNDB so long as we continue to buy the shit they’re churning out in the meantime. Until we stop buying the status quo, the status quo has no reason to change.
I know it’s hard to do, because if you’re a librarian you have to buy new things to keep people coming back in, and if you’re an individual you need things to read. But also, really? Are you fucking serious? If you are a librarian, buy the stuff that doesn’t do the status quo, and then buy from small publishers who have been in the diversity game since way before it was trendy. And then do your job as a trained professional in Knowing Lots of Shit About Books and get books you already own circulating. And if you’re just a friendly bibliophile, let’s be honest – you have a long ass list of books you want to read already, so you can focus on what’s there (and what’s diverse, from race/ethnicity to ability to class to gender to sexual orientation to religion) and not buy new stuff for awhile. Your TBR list is long, and there is plenty on it already out there. It’s probably in your house, actually. You got it six conferences ago and still haven’t gotten to it. Now’s your chance. Your wallet will thank you, and so will future generations of readers when your refusal to put your money where your mouth isn’t gets the people losing the money to reassess, not just give lip service.
Act. WNDB started us on a great path, but we’re not doing ourselves any favors if we think the job is done by adding some scholarships and awards to the mix and cheering small victories as if we’ve won the war. Put your wallet away. And then don’t shut up.
*I’m pretty much referring to the Big 5, plus Scholastic/HMH/Disney-Hyperion. Possibly some others to lesser extents, but since conglomerates control culture and make hegemony happen, that is who I’m addressing when I use the term.