Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about the importance of diversity in literature, especially in YA fiction. It’s a topic that I’ve been struggling with for a while because of the way I often see it handled. One of my favourite things to do is go on GoodReads and look at what other people have to say about the books I’ve read or plan on reading, but lately I’ve noticed a trend that started to really irritate me. It seems that many reviewers expect that all books will be diverse, and lower the rating strictly because a book lacks diverse characters. It got me thinking about what it really means to have diversity in fiction, and whether every story needs to be “diverse.”
I will start by saying that I very strongly support the need for diverse representation in fiction, especially YA books which for a long time, seemed very lacking. However, I took issue with some of the complaints I saw in reviews I was reading. Reviewers might complain, for example, that a story focusing on male protagonists lacked female representation, or that the female characters in that story were stereotypical representations. Reviewers might complain about a lack of racial diversity among the characters. I’ve also seen the opposite — where books are labelled as diverse just because they happen to include a character who is LGBT, a person of colour, etc.
My main issue with these kinds of comments are they seem to take things too far in the other direction. Diversity is included for the sake of diversity, not to serve any real purpose to the story. After thinking about it for several weeks, and reading many others’ blog posts on these kinds of topics, I found I had only one strong example of diversity done well:
For those who are not familiar, the above images are about 13 years worth of the cast of Degrassi: The Next Generation, a Canadian teen series about students at a fictional high school. Not only is the cast itself quite diverse, but the show also does an excellent job of representing the diversity of experiences individuals of the same age may go through. For example, the show has featured several LGBT characters, each of which has their own unique story. The characters range from a self-hating gay young man who is so far in denial that it comes out as anger and aggression, to a very flamboyant boy who is already “out and proud” at only 14. You have characters who take a while to realize what their sexuality is. You have a brilliantly handled transgender character. You have strong female characters, and stereotypically girly female characters. And most importantly for me, the characters’ race, sexuality, etc. is not the sole defining feature of the person, at least not for anyone in the main cast. The “gay kid” is a fully developed character who has more to him/her than their sexuality.
What stood out to me about Degrassi as a great example of diversity is that not only were the characters diverse, but so were their stories. Even characters who went through similar experiences went through them in unique ways. For example, the show had several teen pregnancy storylines, each with different results — some characters had the baby and put it up for adoption immediately, some attempted to keep the baby, some had abortions, and one even miscarried. Just about every character went through some kind of relationship drama at some point, but again, those stories represented a wide range of different experiences.
This is what we need from diverse literature. We need books from the genre as a whole to be diverse, not necessarily diversity thrown haphazardly into each and every book. Not every female character has to be a strong female character, just like not every girl or woman in real life would necessarily fit that mold. I would even argue that not every story even needs to have a racially diverse cast of characters. A few years ago when I was in college, our professor for a diversity class opened up a discussion to the room, which had students from many different areas of the city. Several of the white students commented that it was their first time being in a class with a black person, and several of the black students said the same about white classmates. So for me to go from hearing about that to seeing complaints that a book isn’t diverse or realistic enough because there were no characters of colour in the individual story seems a bit silly. People of colour are certainly underrepresented, especially in YA books, but adding them in does not necessarily make the book more realistic or more diverse.
We need diverse books so everyone can see themselves reflected on the page sometimes. People naturally tend to identify with characters who are more like themselves. We also need diverse books so we can have exposure to the multitude of experiences that are unlike our own — to learn about time periods, cultures, places, and lives that are different from ours. We need diverse books, but don’t necessarily need each individual book to be diverse. As long as the genre as a whole offers a variety of representations and stories, I would consider it diverse.