Monday, October 20, 2014

Considerate Craft: Either/Or

You might note my post is a little late today. It's because I landed in NYC at 6 AM this morning after attending the annual Sirens Conference. Sirens is a conference on women and fantasy literature (so basically, my jam) and if any of you are interested in talking in-depth about fantasy media and gender and awesome authors with a bunch of clever people of a variety of genders, I highly recommend it. (Next year is in Denver and the theme is Rebels and Revolutionaries; what's not to love?)

At the conference I was on a panel called "The Importance - and Business - of Diversity in Women's Literature" with Faye Bi, a publicist at Simon & Schuster Children's, and Joy Kim, librarian and book reviewer. We talked about a range of issues of diversity (and the lack thereof) in publishing, from characters to authors to publishers. One thing we touched on briefly was Issue Books vs. Just-Happens-to-Be Books, and I want to talk more about that here.

Issue Books are where an aspect of a character's identity is the focus of the plot. For example, if the book is about a character coming out as a lesbian to her friends and family and how that plays out. In the same way you can tell a book is a romance if you remove the romance arc and the plot completely falls apart, if you remove the "issue" from an issue book, there is no forwarding action.

Just-Happens-to-Be Books are those where a character isn't white and/or cis and/or straight and/or typically-abled (etc.; anything outside the typical mainstream main character mold) but it's "just" who they are and doesn't come into the plot.

I want to point out that this is not a new topic and today I found that author Corinne Duyvis has an article in The Guardian that came out Friday talking about Issue vs. Incidental Diversity books, which you can read here. Read it. Go on. There'll be a quiz. I'll wait.

As Corinne points out, there is a problem with pitting Issue and Incidental as an either/or. It becomes the new Edward vs. Jacob and everyone has to pick one side and malign the other. Instead, it might better suit to not see Issue and Incidental as two categories but two ends of a spectrum.

Cover for Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves
On the Issue end we have almost only realistic books, because Issue Books aren't about metaphors, they're about issues that affect people in our world directly.

On the Incidental end we have almost only other-world fantasy and science fiction, because to remove the issues that affect people in our world directly means to remove all the history and experiences of our world and have something completely different.

And there are a metric ton of books in between. One I talked about on the panel was Bleeding Violet. There are aspects of the book that lean more incidental, like the diversity of the town and even the main character's biracial identity, although it does tie into character development and theme. But the main character is also bipolar, and while it is not an issue book because that is not the focus of the plot, the book would be completely different if the main character was neurotypical.

I'd call this type of book Informed (I swear I wasn't going for alliteration) because the character's identity informs the story, but it isn't the focus. For books that are set in our world but aren't Issue Books, I think Informed is the way to go to avoid erasing character identity. (With the caveat that not all Informed books are *well*-informed. Gentle reminder that deep and thorough research is a friend when writing outside your own experience.)

This also isn't something that just applies to diverse books. Look at Gone Girl. If both or either of the main characters were POC or Indigenous, it would be a completely different book, because typically law and media react differently to a missing/murdered white woman than they do to Indigenous women and/or WOC. There is also a history of how the narrative of MOC in a relationship with white women is treated. The whiteness of Nick and Amy informs the book, even if it isn't the focus of it (and even if the majority of reviews don't comment on it because white is seen as the default narrative).

It's important to be aware of this spectrum, of not taking sides just to take sides but to think about the choices made and the impact they have. As Corinne said, there shouldn't be only one kind of diversity that is the "good" kind.

So what do you think? Are these handy categories? Would you prefer others? What books have you read in or out of the categories?


  1. I like having the Informed category in the middle. It's true not all books fall to one side or the other.

    I would argue that you CAN have speculative fic Issue books - maybe the character is autistic and has magic powers and the book is about their coming to terms with autism in their magical community. In that case, the Informed category is really just the flip side: Incidental books that are set in the real world.

    I'm curious if you see a need for one (Incidental or Issue) over the other? I can only speak as one person, but I often want more Incidental LGBTQ books that show me the rest of LGBTQ life, outside of our romantic attachments. Perhaps that's just me. Ultimately both types of books help further diversity in lit.

    1. Oh, certainly there *can* be spec fic Issue books, but we don't see many. And I'm pretty sure most if not all of them would be categorized as magical realism (which isn't a bad thing; love me some MR). I'd love for folks to share any they know of, though!

      I wouldn't say Informed is just Incidental in the real world, because as Corinne noted in her article, there are books that are set in the real world that present a character's identity as "just who they are" without actually having who they are inform the book at all, which can be a problem if it goes to the extent of essentially erasing their identity, and absolutely is a problem if reviewers laud it as the one-and-only way.

      I myself lean more towards the Incidental side in my tastes, since I'm a sf/f geek. But realistic stories that don't fall strictly into the Issue category are important too. Like the (so far) only contemporary YA book I signed (The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley) is primarily about dealing with grief, and also has love and death and comic books, and the main character is gay but that's just one aspect of his character and not the point of the plot. That's why I like having an Informed category. :)

  2. Awesome post. Lots to think about here. Thank you!