August 10, 2020, 09:38:40 AM

Author Topic: "Level" of Diversity in books  (Read 2230 times)

Online ScarletBea

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"Level" of Diversity in books
« on: October 25, 2019, 11:29:41 AM »
This week I read a tweet from Aliette de Bodard (or maybe it was from someone else and she just agreed) about diversity in books, and how some people ask for more diversity but then complain that the book "is too diverse", or "too strange", or "can't understand anything". It was also mentioned that diversity came from the cultural assumptions.

I'm reading her latest book now, and that really hit a chord, as I feel I'm missing out on some events - not key to the main plot, just those little things that are part of the environment - because I'm not familiar with Eastern culture (I think it's mostly Vietnamese, but it could also be Chinese).
And that is making me question my attitude to book diversity, and how hypocrite I am if I want the books I read to be "diverse but not too much".

It also makes me wonder why I'm ok with dragons and magic and other stuff, yet things that are obviously real make me stumble. I wonder if it's because those "extraordinary things" are usually explained in more or less detail in the story, while these references are just there, she's not writing specifically for people who don't know those cultures.

I'd like to know what you think, give me some more food for thought...
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Offline Matthew

Re: "Level" of Diversity in books
« Reply #1 on: October 25, 2019, 01:09:52 PM »
I'd have to agree, some authors will add 'real world' cultures in to their work without any sort of additional information leaving those readers without that knowledge to stumble.

When they add a 'fictional' culture, they often go to great lengths to explain all about them and what makes them special, why they matter to the plot, etc.

This makes sense in a way, as a writer is pouring themselves into their work and their own creations will always take a leading role in how they portray things.

I don't much need any sort of diversity in what I read and oftentimes find it more distracting than anything useful to the plot.

My favourite example of this is when an author builds a world, populates it with several races, but shows absolutely zero reason WHY those races exist in that world (a desert climate isolated from the temperate zone for hundreds of years has no reason to include white people - or vice versa - and the apparent fact that nobody has crossbred? over that time is somehow not an indicator of deep racism).

I remember when the game Kingdom Come Deliverance was released a couple of years ago where people actually complained that medieval Poland wasn't diverse enough despite every historical record agreeing with the lack thereof.

Include diversity where it makes sense, and doesn't detract from the world building.

Edit: This is most often found in movies and television. I heard great things about how the studio is making the cast of the Guards Guards series more diverse, and yet stand flabbergasted by their choices, while understanding EXACTLY why they made them.

Take Sybil, a huge fat fairly ugly woman in the books, last living member of an ancient dynasty. Her character makes sense, she's a bit of a spinster but has a heart of gold, the type of noble woman who could fall in love with a drunken wreck of a man like Vimes. They've replaced her with a size 0 runway model and dressed it up as 'diversity' because the actress is black. Not only does this completely negate the romance and stereotyped personality of Sybil, but when did Victorian England have black nobility? (and the city is meant to have only just opened it's doors to immigration and stuff, a big subplot of several books is racism).

Now take Cherry, a dwarf woman who looks like a man because in the books dwarfs all look the same and dress the same and this leads to all sorts of humour and enlightening plots. SHE, and the books stress that she is in fact a SHE, just wants to dress more feminine much to the consternation of the more conservative dwarfs (which I'd consider much more relevant today than what they went with). So instead of casting a dwarf to play, you know, a dwarf... they hired a non-binary actor (who seems attractive in a very asexual way) and again dressed it up as diversity, because they say Cherry is a non-binary character... which she most clearly isn't.

In this last instance, Terry Pratchett was once again ahead of the curve and issues like cultural assimilation are hot button topics that affect millions of people around the world.

In both cases, they've replaced the default 'ugly' characters with 'attractive' actors because they are afraid that ugly people ruin television.
« Last Edit: October 25, 2019, 01:26:56 PM by Matthew »

Online ScarletBea

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Re: "Level" of Diversity in books
« Reply #2 on: October 25, 2019, 01:34:56 PM »
I hear what you're saying Matthew, but I think you're saying the opposite of my intentions and meaning hehe

Many things, but for example when you say
Quote
some authors will add 'real world' cultures in to their work without any sort of additional information leaving those readers without that knowledge to stumble
Maybe I'm misreading what you say, but I don't think it's up to the author to 'pander' to the reader. I don't think it's the author's fault if I don't understand the cultural references, and I don't think they need to explain those just because some readers won't get them.

I'm also quite doubtful that medieval Europe didn't have people of colour. I know for a fact that Iberia (Portugal and Spain) did have them, as that's when links between Europe and Africa started, and I bet that many people had been adventurous enough to move around countries. Usually the problem is that records were very limited and/or written by people who didn't find the point in mentioning others...
« Last Edit: October 25, 2019, 01:42:22 PM by ScarletBea »
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Offline S. K. Inkslinger

Re: "Level" of Diversity in books
« Reply #3 on: October 25, 2019, 02:30:16 PM »
I'm writing stories mostly set in Eastern/ Southeastern Asian culture too, so I guess this is also something of a concern for me (if my work even got past the literary agent, that is). I do hope that my readers would just picked things up as they went along the book, while I'll do my best to explain without exposition, haha.

Offline Bender

Re: "Level" of Diversity in books
« Reply #4 on: October 25, 2019, 03:38:14 PM »
I wonder if this may be because our expectations of relatability. If we come across an Asian culture, we may feel familiar with some aspects but not others and feel the need to relate to it better as "it is real". But in a fantasy culture or alien civilization, we take things as accepted at a more superficial level.

Capturing all Cultural nuances is an impossibility and in a known culture the gaps are more obvious and visible than a new culture. Starting from a blank vs filling up gaps kinds situation.

Also as mentioned before authors tend to give more context for a alien or fantasy civilization and probably take more for granted in a real one.

Confluence of variety of factors, I suppose.
« Last Edit: October 25, 2019, 03:55:34 PM by Bender »
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Offline Yora

Re: "Level" of Diversity in books
« Reply #5 on: October 25, 2019, 06:53:39 PM »
I'm also quite doubtful that medieval Europe didn't have people of colour. I know for a fact that Iberia (Portugal and Spain) did have them, as that's when links between Europe and Africa started, and I bet that many people had been adventurous enough to move around countries.

Turns out Europe is really big, and the Middle Ages really long.

Poland was actually very diverse in the late Middle Ages, it just happened that all the minorities were also central and eastern Europeans.

If you have a story set in 15th century Spain and there are no Arabs, then you have full reason to complain. If it is set in Finland and there are no blacks, then not so much.
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Offline Matthew

Re: "Level" of Diversity in books
« Reply #6 on: October 25, 2019, 08:54:22 PM »
I'm also quite doubtful that medieval Europe didn't have people of colour. I know for a fact that Iberia (Portugal and Spain) did have them, as that's when links between Europe and Africa started, and I bet that many people had been adventurous enough to move around countries.

Turns out Europe is really big, and the Middle Ages really long.

Poland was actually very diverse in the late Middle Ages, it just happened that all the minorities were also central and eastern Europeans.

If you have a story set in 15th century Spain and there are no Arabs, then you have full reason to complain. If it is set in Finland and there are no blacks, then not so much.

Yea, that's what I was getting at there, and the example I used was https://www.quora.com/Kingdom-Come-Deliverance-was-accused-of-racism-for-not-having-people-of-color-in-game-Historically-how-many-people-of-color-were-in-Medieval-Europe-1300-1400-in-what-regions-were-they-concentrated-and-how-did-they

"To my knowledge, there is no evidence of presence of eighter Asian, Arabic or even African people around that time, in this place. The only minorities with recorded presence at the time were Jews and Romani people.""

But yea, my point was mostly - diversity where it makes sense, otherwise it pulls me out of the story (unless it's the POINT of the story, like that Martin Lawrence film 'Black Knight', which was tacky and horrible but strangely enjoyable)


And at @ScarletBea I don't think the author should have to pander to their readers at all, merely pointing out that real world cultures are often not described precisely because the author has knowledge of them and may feel the reader will as well, and that can lead to the situation you were talking about in  the original post. That and they obviously want to spend more time writing about their own fictional ones (after all they write novels not textbooks).

Offline cupiscent

Re: "Level" of Diversity in books
« Reply #7 on: October 26, 2019, 12:25:53 AM »
The thing that hits me is the question of "who is the intended audience?" I think this is something that I, at least, as a cishet white Western woman, don't think about a lot because I'm so used to just being the "default" audience. But we're getting more media--or getting access to media, through translation and other channels--that is not produced for a white Western audience. So yes, we need to do more work, think outside our box, go in search of additional knowledge (or admit that there are things in here we just can't get).

Some books are going to be like that. Some books are going to be working to explain another culture--whether directly or through a fantasy/sci-fi analogy--to a white Western audience. Obviously the level of explanation is going to differ.

A couple of examples or anecdotes spring to mind here. The level of knowledge about Chinese history required for Liu Cixin's Three Body Problem, for instance; I know a bit, but I wonder how much deeper that book would have been if I knew more. And I remember hearing a story from an Asian-American author--I think it was Joan He, author of Descendant of the Crane--where her publisher asked her to make the book "feel more Chinese" because she hadn't explicitly included a lot of the "set dressing" stuff (chopsticks, the right sort of fancy clothes and swords and whatnot) which she was surprised about because she felt that in its themes and historical references and societal norms, it was so very Chinese (but that stuff is not visibly "Asian" to an outsider audience).

I love consuming media that is "not for me", but it's much harder, and often requires that I read people of the audience talking about the media alongside the media itself. (e.g. Listening to Aboriginal Australian views on Cleverman, or Asian and Asian-diaspora views on Crazy Rich Asians.) Sometimes I just want the "comfort food" of something that is "for me" and that I understand deeply through my own experience, or something that is offering me insight on another experience but filtered through my own experience for easier understanding. (And that stuff helps me learn more so that I can get more out of the not-for-me stuff too!)

Offline Lanko

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Re: "Level" of Diversity in books
« Reply #8 on: October 26, 2019, 02:50:11 AM »
The most important thing is that in the end I'm writing Fantasy, not a carbon copy of real History.

Unless it's Historical Fantasy, I can actually write a story inspired loosely on Iberian culture and have no Arabs, just as I can write a Finland based story with plenty of Asian/African influence around.

I can make those Iberians being neighbours with a civilization of spartans, or aztecs, or necromantic samurais.
A  "southern african" nation can be really good with ships, stumble on the "South Pole" and meet magical eskimos that ride on giant penguins.

And that's just mixing a lot of real stuff inspiration around, not inventing from zero.

The "realism" card sometimes baffles me on this. First when it's used based on wrong assumptions, like justify some form of super isolationism, and secondly when it's actually on the other end of the scale, and also wrong, like Yora's example. Like, if my story is Iberian inspired, then I must have Arabs (and vice-versa), otherwise it's "wrong". Why can't it be something else, from africans/asians/aliens or even other europeans?

It's Fantasy, I can shatter the whole world, turn it upside down, put it in a blender and hit frappé. Neither the "lack" or "addition" of diversity should be based/judged on real historical accuracy. Isn't that why it's called Fantasy, after all? Unless that's what the author claims or wrongly believes that's what they're doing.

Granted, using more familiar/real inspiration can help the readers, probably avoid some polemics here and there... but still... it feels like a shallow copy of the real world. Even when sometimes it has magic in it.   
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Offline Yora

Re: "Level" of Diversity in books
« Reply #9 on: October 26, 2019, 08:41:01 AM »
I think the whole discussion (in general, not here) is missing the point. What the world needs is not diversity in books, but a diversity of books. I can kind of understand how Americans might have the impression that a highly mixed society is normal, but it's really a very special exception.
When you have a work set in today's US and there seem to be exclusively white people, there is of course something a bit fishy, and there are valid grounds to talk about erasure of other groups of the population. But when we talk about works set in the old world or in fantasy worlds, that complaint has no grounds. What we can find unsatisfactory is that the market is dominated by white Europeans writing based on their own cultural heritage and that it's difficult for writers of other background to get published and get exposure. Asian writers writing fantasy based on Asian cuture and black writers writing fantasy based on African culture is great. (And of course Southn American writers writing based on South American culture.) And it is commendable to make efforts to get those works to the attention of customers. That's the kind of diversity we need. Not black vikings. (Though I absolutely have no complaint about a story of black man who ends up living with a Viking community. That sounds like a great adventure.)
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Offline S. K. Inkslinger

Re: "Level" of Diversity in books
« Reply #10 on: October 26, 2019, 09:59:51 AM »
I think the whole discussion (in general, not here) is missing the point. What the world needs is not diversity in books, but a diversity of books. I can kind of understand how Americans might have the impression that a highly mixed society is normal, but it's really a very special exception.
When you have a work set in today's US and there seem to be exclusively white people, there is of course something a bit fishy, and there are valid grounds to talk about erasure of other groups of the population. But when we talk about works set in the old world or in fantasy worlds, that complaint has no grounds. What we can find unsatisfactory is that the market is dominated by white Europeans writing based on their own cultural heritage and that it's difficult for writers of other background to get published and get exposure. Asian writers writing fantasy based on Asian cuture and black writers writing fantasy based on African culture is great. (And of course Southn American writers writing based on South American culture.) And it is commendable to make efforts to get those works to the attention of customers. That's the kind of diversity we need. Not black vikings. (Though I absolutely have no complaint about a story of black man who ends up living with a Viking community. That sounds like a great adventure.)

Hear, hear. This is extremely accurate, really. The later attempts to force diversity into various films/ medias nowadays are just ridiculous, to be honest.

Offline Skip

Re: "Level" of Diversity in books
« Reply #11 on: October 26, 2019, 03:57:05 PM »
> I feel I'm missing out on some events

The thread has gone spinning, as threads do. I just want to tell @ScarletBea that I've encountered the same. That there are cultural nuances--or more, that I *suspect* there are nuances--that I'm missing. There was a series set in a fantasy Japan where it seemed to me many of the character interactions were stilted and even formulaic, and I did not enjoy the storytelling as much as I might have. Should the author have done a better job of "cultural translation" or should I just stay away from such stories or do I need to take a class on Japanese culture just to read in that or ... every option seems somewhere between silly and tone-deaf.

I'm aware of this issue in a different context. I'm a medieval historian. Medieval literature is drenched in Christian themes and Christian symbolism that left most of my students cold or frustrated or even angry. Was that a failure on the part of the author or the student? Or was it the inevitable consequence of cultural distance?

And yet, authors *do* cross cultural gaps, sometimes huge cultural gaps. Western literature is avidly read in Africa, Asia, all over the world. And authors from those cultures do manage to succeed (sometimes) in the West.

I don't think a reader should expect they should be able to read anything from any time and place with equal facility and appreciation. I mean, even the act of translation is a piece of cultural ... oh, fill in your own noun there. I know just enough of other languages to know that it really does make a difference whether you read the story in translation or in the original tongue.
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Offline Peat

Re: "Level" of Diversity in books
« Reply #12 on: October 26, 2019, 03:58:37 PM »
To go back to the OP - I don't think there's anything hypocritical in terms of wanting X, but not liking something that is too X. If I order a dish with chilli peppers in it but the chillis overpower all the other flavours, I won't like it. I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting an array of fiction that challenges our assumptions and gives everyone a chance to read about people like them but admitting some of it is simply too far beyond our assumptions and knowledge to work for us.

And I don't think there's anything wrong with not seeking to rectify that either. There are too many wonders and interesting things in life to get them all.

Gotta admit, I have begun to run into books where afterwards I was thinking "Did I not enjoy this as much because it's based on cultures I don't know that well". Weirdly enough, insofar as I was aware, they weren't even cultures inspired by the author's own cultures - just they invented a culture based off a different one, didn't really explain it, and I'm there going "Is there something they know but didn't put in that would have made it come together?" In both cases, I don't think that's the case, I think I had too many other problems with the books... but I wonder. I question.
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Offline Yora

Re: "Level" of Diversity in books
« Reply #13 on: October 27, 2019, 08:27:13 AM »
I guess the question for writers is what they want to accomplish with setting their stories in a specific historical or fictional culture? Setting needs to be introduced and described differently whether you want to introduce the audience into this environment, make elegant subtle references for audiences familiar with it, or have the story play out in an exotic environment.

I am a big fan of settings that are strange and alien looking, but are actually constructed of easily recognizable archetypes and mostly rely on internal dynamics and logic familiar to western audiences. You only create two or three original concepts and then gives the whole thing an exotic coating. This creates worlds that feel very strange and alien but are pretty easy to understand and follow.
Though I assume with historical settings or when using historical cultural elements as the exotic coating, the result would pretty quickly get quite offensive.
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Offline S. K. Inkslinger

Re: "Level" of Diversity in books
« Reply #14 on: October 27, 2019, 08:40:58 AM »
I guess the question for writers is what they want to accomplish with setting their stories in a specific historical or fictional culture? Setting needs to be introduced and described differently whether you want to introduce the audience into this environment, make elegant subtle references for audiences familiar with it, or have the story play out in an exotic environment.

I am a big fan of settings that are strange and alien looking, but are actually constructed of easily recognizable archetypes and mostly rely on internal dynamics and logic familiar to western audiences. You only create two or three original concepts and then gives the whole thing an exotic coating. This creates worlds that feel very strange and alien but are pretty easy to understand and follow.
Though I assume with historical settings or when using historical cultural elements as the exotic coating, the result would pretty quickly get quite offensive.

I am hugely in support of this as well, and did tried myself to alter the probably offensive elements in my story to the least as possible.