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.
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.)
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?