Literature has always been a powerful tool for exploring the human experience, and it plays a significant role in shaping societal attitudes and beliefs. But for a long time, literature has been dominated by a narrow set of voices, often ignoring the experiences of marginalised groups.

This lack of diversity in literature can perpetuate harmful stereotypes, reinforce prejudice, and promote social inequality. We need to include diverse voices in literature to promote understanding, empathy, and equality in society.

Without diversity, we become tunnel-visioned.

One of the most significant benefits of diversity in literature is that it promotes understanding. When we’re exposed to a wide range of experiences and perspectives, we’re better able to understand and empathise with others, especially those whose experience of life is vastly different than our own.

For instance, reading stories that feature people and characters from different cultural backgrounds than our own exposes us to the challenges and joys of their lives in an intimate way, leading to a better understanding of their lived experiences.

This understanding multiplies and leads to a society that is more compassionate as a whole, where people are more likely to treat each other with kindness and respect. Doesn’t that sound nice?

Diversity in literature promotes empathy, because when we can experience something vicariously we feel what those people and characters feel. And if we’ve been there, even if only through the written word, we can better relate.

If you don’t have a disability, how can you understand what life is like with that disability? But when you read a book about someone living with a disability, and that experience is true to life, you begin to see the world with a new perspective. Literature, the stories that we gather around the fire to tell each other, are an incredible tool for change, for connection.

When diverse voices are given space and heard, it helps to break down barriers and promote social equality. Reading diversely and being surrounded by diversity helps to address issues such as racism, sexism, and discrimination.

Inaccurate representations in fiction can cause real harm.

Because inaccurate representations perpetuate stereotypes, and reinforce negative attitudes. Something that mainstream media does perfectly well on its own.

Now, I will say that I think our idea of what representation is and looks like has become incredibly narrow. Is that down to fragmented media and the simplification of everything into bite-sized short form content, I can’t say, but I’m sure it has an effect.

BookTok especially is quick to call out what it deems poor representation in fiction, and this has its pros and cons. On one hand, I appreciate it when someone provides a thoughtful review of how someone or something was written in a book, and whether they think the author was successful at it or not. But when the definition for what “accurate” representation looks like in a a work of fiction has been narrowed down to some kind of simplified average, it stops being purposeful.

No group of people is a monolith, and no culture or society is ever stagnant. One person, or one character, can never accurately represent everyone in that group because everyone in that group has a different experience.

Maybe this comes back to how we use pointless terms like ‘boomers’ and ‘millennials’. Though my mother was born just after the war in 1948, she’s not a Boomer because Europe didn’t have an economic boom after the war. We were rebuilding societies with decimated family structures and bombed infrastructure. My grandmother put off having children until later in life because of instability and war. My mother followed suit and had me when she was 38. Then I continued this legacy by waiting until I was 34 to have kids. There was no boom, only a slow rebuilding.

And as an elder Millennial, I’m miles away from the youngest in my cohort. My cousin barely makes the cut into being a Millennial and we share very few things in terms of what we remember from growing up. Because being a teenager when the internet was becoming a thing and social media was taking shape, is a very different experience from being born during those years. Not to mention that media fragmentation further pushes us apart, because unlike others who were young when I was and we only had a few channels, the younger Millennials grew up with all kinds of channels that didn’t exist back then.

So, how can we expect one character to stand in for thousands of people?

It’s unrealistic, and our understanding of representation in literature should be much more nuanced than it currently is. So many things go into shaping someone’s experience, socio-economic background, gender identity, sexuality, upbringing, family relationships etc. Expecting thousands to have the same exact experience and feeling like one story can represent them as a whole is insanity. Rather, we should be looking at how well the story was told, how well the character was researched and developed (because doing your due diligence here solves most problems), and whether or not people resonated with the experiences in the story (not even all of them, just some).

If you read genre books you can quickly notice that how characters are written when their backgrounds are unfamiliar to an author can often be very lacking. In terms of genre lit I’m most familiar with is fantasy, sci-fi, romance and romance fantasy.

I’m not saying that fantasy or sci-fi have nailed representation, but in larger books with sweeping storylines, the representation of a group of people can often get buried beneath a lot of world-building and complex plots, and you have to really separate out the elements to see the forest for the trees.

Plus, I also think that a lot of conventional fantasy and sci-fi is still written by men and consumed in large parts by men, so maybe the lack of representation doesn’t hit them the same way? Or it’s that the patriarchy doesn’t discriminate and even women have become so used to reading book after book without any female characters of substance that it just feels normal.

With anything romance there’s that added attitude of “you should only read for fun” based in the notion that the genre is trashy and not as valid or valuable as more classic genres (read: male-dominated genres). If women are struggling to break through and get a foothold in the world in general, why would literature be any different?

And if women are writing, we shouldn’t take it seriously. It’s just for fun. Don’t look into it too much. Especially, if it’s women reading those stories written by other women, none of it really means anything in the larger context of the world, right? We wouldn’t want to hurt our pretty little brains by thinking too much, now would we?

Time and again, when we start pointing out representation that is poorly researched (such as Fallon, FMC of November 9, who has fourth degree burns to 30% of her body yet lives a normal life only two years after receiving burns where the fire burned, not only through her skin, but into the fat and muscle underneath) or highly stereotypical, leaving characters as nothing more than paper cutouts (e.g. “angry black woman”), there’s pushback from the reader community.

(White) authors writing outside of their ethnic experience are the biggest perpetrators of this poor representation in media. Then again, white authors are likely the majority, even among women.

“It’s not that deep.”

As someone who likes to critically think about the media I consume (and talk about it), I often get asked, “Don’t you ever just read for fun?”. This question is ironic, because I only read for fun. I don’t read things that I hate. But I also like to I like to analyse why I did or didn’t enjoy something. I like to think about what that piece of media is telling me and whether or not I feel like it’s successfully achieving what I think it’s trying to achieve.

If I didn’t think at all about what I’m reading, I’d never notice that a spicy book ends up being sex-shaming despite being smutty. I wouldn’t realise that vibrant depictions of older women in fantasy are few and far between. I wouldn’t understand the underlying parallels being drawn between female characters in a book and religious iconography. And because the media that we consume changes and shapes us, I would never see the thoughts and ideas that shape my own thinking.

How does poor representation cause harm?

Here are a few examples:

  1. Racial stereotyping can lead to harmful attitudes and actions towards marginalised groups. For instance, in the past, African American characters were often portrayed as being lazy, uneducated, and criminal in literature, which perpetuated negative stereotypes about African Americans by contributing to confirmation bias (which all humans are very susceptible to).
  2. Misrepresenting mental illness can perpetuate harmful attitudes and stigma towards people with mental health conditions. For example, in some novels and movies, characters with mental illness are portrayed as being violent or dangerous, which reinforces negative stereotypes and contributes to the stigma surrounding mental illness.
  3. Gender stereotyping can lead to gender inequality and a lack of opportunities for certain genders. For instance, in some novels and movies, female characters are portrayed as being weak, submissive, or overly emotional, which reinforces gender stereotypes and contributes to sexism and discrimination against women.
  4. LGBTQ+ misrepresentation can lead to negative attitudes and discrimination towards the LGBTQ+ community. For example, in some novels and movies, LGBTQ+ characters are portrayed as being deviant or abnormal, which perpetuates harmful attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community and reinforces heteronormativity.
  5. Disability misrepresentation can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and reinforce ableism. For instance, in some novels and movies, characters with disabilities are portrayed as being helpless or pitiful, which reinforces negative attitudes towards people with disabilities and contributes to their marginalization in society.

I don’t really have an answer for why we don’t have more diversity in literature. Well, other than that the patriarchy is a self-fulfilling cycle, and that we haven’t made enough of an effort to diversify the landscape. Systemic racism and pretty privilege don’t leave a lot of space for those who aren’t white and male to be plucked out of obscurity and become a success story.

Obviously, you can’t pull more diverse authors if there aren’t any around. But the economic stability to be able to do something like dedicate time to writing and reading, is a privilege we don’t’ all have. “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” has never been more true. Everyone needs that one watershed moment where you realise, “Oh, shit! I could do that too!” and the only way we can offer those moments to everyone is to increase diverse representation wherever we can.

Literature has the power to shape societal attitudes and beliefs. If you don’t believe me, take it from Neil Gaiman. By including diverse voices, we can help to break down barriers and promote a more compassionate and equitable society.

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