When is the last time you read a Young Adult book that didn’t feature a feisty white female? (Harry Potter doesn’t count!) Feisty white female fights vampires; feisty white female fights magical crooks; feisty white female fights Nazis; dead feisty white female fights the human race.
The setting of my childhood was so bizarre that I can count exactly four books that have dealt with the area (see below for the titles). I grew up in the desert in the far North West of Western Australia, 200km from the nearest town. Every book I read was fantasy; to picture climbing a tree was the same leap of the imagination as Impressing a dragon, frost was as mysterious as melange. I was in my late twenties before I experienced the particular pleasure of finding home in a novel.
Yet while I didn’t find my setting, as a child I did see myself in the novels I read. I could picture myself in Alanna or Caddie Woodlawn’s boots because they were white girls like me. Now, as a lesbian in a mixed relationship, I rarely see myself represented in books or film, so I understand the reluctance of non-white readers. It’s a bit like having a friend who only ever talks about themselves. You can put up with it to a point, but eventually the friendship dies. No wonder my students feel like fiction has nothing to offer them.
This is why Malorie Blackman’s campaign “We need diverse books” is so important, but unless there is a lot happening with agents and publishers behind the scenes, it is not going far enough.
When asked for help or advice about publishing, Blackman’s standard response is to refer the enquirer to the Writers and Artists Yearbook, which is great but the last piece of advice I got from a workshop leader at a Writers and Artists event was that if I wanted to get my Young Adult novel published, I should change my protagonist to a white female. I said that my book was about football. The speaker looked at me and said “Bend It Like Beckham”.
My Young Adult Science Fiction novel about a black male protagonist with super football powers has been rejected consistently for over a year by twelve different agents and four competitions. I wondered if it was because it was just no good, so I had it edited by Alan Durant of the Writers’ Workshop. He said it was “commercial and riveting”.
After the Writers and Artists event, I started looking for agents and publishers who might support diverse books. Apparently, ‘diverse’ in British publishing means that both cookery books and murder mystery will be considered. So I thought I would look at the agents who represented the diverse books that I love. I looked at Malorie Blackman’s agency – The Agency. They do not accept submissions.
I wholeheartedly support the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign. We do need diverse books, but diverse books are useless without diverse agents and diverse publishers and better yet, diverse publishing contracts. It seems that there are plenty of writers and plenty of readers agreeing that we do indeed need diverse books, but the middle part of the process is missing. Agents and publishers remain convinced that only feisty white female novels will sell.
Books about the Pilbara: Walkabout, James Vance Marshall (hated it); Dirt Music, Tim Winton (everybody hates him); Red Dog, Louis de Bernieres and bits of Rabbit Proof Fence, Doris Pilkington Garimara.
I know that self publishing is an option, but it takes a lot of time and a large social media presence to promote your book effectively, and I have neither. I have a strong suspicion I will end up grounded on the shoals of Amazon.