As I work on reading more diverse books, I’ve had to really think about what diverse books are and how I want to define them for myself. When I think of diverse books, the first thing that comes to mind are books with person of color or LGBT characters or authors. I feel like that’s a pretty standard definition. I tend to extend that to cover any book that exposes me to an experience that is not my own. Recently, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into where I draw that arbitrary line. Why do I consider certain books diverse and not others? Should diversity mean the same to everyone? Or is it dependent on each person’s individual experiences?

My personal definition of diverse literature is rather broad. I include authors or characters of color and LGBT authors or characters (including own voices). And I count religious, political, and neuro- diversity as well as mental illness. I’ve realized my instincts towards categorizing diverse books are somewhat arbitrary. And the more I try to figure them out, the more confused I get.

Recently, I started reading a translated work of fiction from Spain. I realized a few pages in that I was mentally counting it toward my diverse books goal. But are international works of fiction inherently diverse? Is is enough that they are opening my eyes to the culture of another country? Or must they also feature characters/authors/elements that are traditionally considered diverse? Why did I automatically think of this book as diverse, and not, say, War and Peace? Do translated books with exclusively white characters count? Is a book from Japan diverse because it contains Japanese characters, or does it also need to feature characters of other ethnicities and/or sexual orientations?

What Does “Diverse” Mean?

Because I was curious, I looked up the dictionary definition of diverse:

Diversity: the condition of having or being composed of differing elements :  variety; especially  :  the inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization” (Merriam-Webster).

what kind of diversity counts?

Which poses yet another question: does diversity in literature refer to the inclusion of minorities, or does it require variety? If all the characters in a book are gay, for example, is it diverse? It’s easy to see how books of only straight, white cisgender characters (of which there are plenty) are not diverse. And I have a hard time viewing books as diverse because of a single “token” black character, or a gay best friend. (Is a book diverse if most or all of the main characters are not diverse, but there are side characters that are?) But is a cast of homogenous characters – regardless of their ethnicity, orientation, religion, etc. – diverse? There are so many books out there that feature an actual diverse cast of characters, and I’ve realized that’s what I like to see. That’s what reflects the world – particularly America – as I see it. And that’s what I want to see in my literature.

how I view it

Another element of diversity (at least in my mind) is how characters of color are portrayed. Personally, I don’t count books as diverse (at least for the purposes of my own reading goals) when they come off as discriminatory. (I am planning another discussion post on that topic, so I won’t get into it here.) But what if the most prominent character of color is the villain? Or just terrible friend? Or – worse yet – completely lacking in personality? Does it matter what roles diverse characters play in books? Personally, I don’t think it should, because I think there should be a variety of representation in a variety of roles (and making antagonists exclusively one ethnicity is also problematic). But I feel like it’s different when there is only one (even if the book contains more diversity in other ways), and they are set apart from the others. Do the antagonist and protagonist have to be the same? Can we just have heroes and villains without necessarily bringing their personal experiences into the conflict itself? Do you feel like diverse characters tend to be more or less dimensional than those of color, or LGBT characters?

what does this mean to you?

How do you define diverse books? Should authors make a point about including diversity in their writing? How do you feel about white authors writing diverse characters? (As a white aspiring author, I think it’s wonderful, but – as evidenced by far too many books – sensitivity readers are necessary. However, I also see the need for own voices books, and make an effort to read those as well.) Do you make your own determination about why a book is diverse, or do you listen to others? Do you think own voices books are inherently more valuable than diverse books written by an author of a different race or orientation? And, finally, are there any diverse books you would recommend to others?

I look forward to reading your input, because this is a topic I want to become more educated about. I may not spot problems in books when it comes to diversity as easily as others, but it’s definitely something I am trying hard to work on, rather than ignore. If you’re trying to do the same, I hope this post encourages some good discussion that we can both learn from. I would also encourage you to follow the many diverse book bloggers out there, because I learn from them every day.

I hope you enjoyed this post! As always, let me know if there are any topics you’d like to see in a discussion (or other) post.

25 thoughts

  1. I like to entertain the idea of diversity in a broad sense when it comes to works of literature. Diversity has many subsets and, honestly, if it challenges your worldview and/or expands upon it than I absolutely think it qualifies. On a much lighter note- I could not help but think of Anchorman with Will Ferrell when you defined diversity ( I sincerely hope you get that reference as it is in no way academic!)

    1. Hahaha I got it! (I watched Anchorman WAY too many times in high school.)

      Thanks for your feedback! I tend to agree with you in that diversity can be anything that challenges your worldview. Going a bit further, if you personally identify with a minority or “diverse” character, is that still included, even if it doesn’t personally challenge your worldview?

      1. I think diversity must be looked at from the point of view of the person rather than the standard “non-white” “non-straight” etc. point of view in society. However, a book character that shares similar characteristics of the reader but who involves themselves in ‘diverse’ situations unknown or unfamiliar to the reader may qualify. Also, identifying with a diverse character seems to me to be a great way to drive home the point that we are all one humanity with varying degrees of the same struggles and needs in a gigantic spectrum.

  2. Really interesting post. I do the same as you and tend to immediately think of books that represent any of the typically marginalised groups such as LGBT people, people of colour, those with disabilities or mental health issues, etc, as being ‘diverse reads’.

    As you pointed out though, it’s important that the portrayal is a sensitive, realistic or informative one; not simply a tick in a box to make an author feel good about themselves or to cash in on a ‘trend’.

    I suppose it’s a pretty broad label overall but perhaps that’s a good thing. If someone deems a book ‘diverse’ simply because it has characters who are different from them in some way or because it was originally written in another language, then it serves to only broaden their worldview, even if just a little at a time.

    1. Thanks! I agree! Do you then think everyone has a slightly different view of diversity, because it relates to their own experience? And should you determine what that is for yourself, or should you pay attention to those who are marginalized when determining if something is a ‘good’ diverse book?

      1. I suppose ultimately, if someone reads something that they deem as diverse, even if ‘officially’ it wouldn’t be classed that way, that means they’re reading out of their own personal comfort zone and taking in characters, places or experiences that differ to their own. If that’s coming from a place of good intentions then it should only be encouraged, I think.

        So, personally I try to opt for reads with characters/authors who are both different to myself and from marginalised groups when hunting out diverse reads, but if someone else’s parameters are different to my own, so long as they’re increasing their own understanding, empathy or outlook on the world in a way that works for them, that’s fine by me 🙂

  3. I think you’re caught on the difference between diversity and inclusion. A book with a all-black cast (see: anything by Toni Morrison) is not necessarily diverse, but it is waaaay more inclusive than a book with an all white cast.

    For me, diversity has always been a know-it-when-I-see-it kind of thing. I’ve never really challenged myself to define it so harshly. I know generally what I don’t consider to be diverse, but I’d have a really hard time defining what is diverse. I do go by the general rule of non-white, non-cis, non-straight, non-able bodied, non-neurotypical etc. Which means I’m putting diversity on the same plane as representation. I certainly don’t think we should completely exclude white cishet etc. characters, because those people DO exists, I’m just saying they’ve had their due.

    I feel like I’m talking circles around myself. xD Great post!

    1. That question was actually inspired by a post I saw a few days ago in which the author discussed why they thought books with all black casts of characters were NOT diverse. I was curious to see what my readers thought on the subject. (And I do completely agree with you, and do include those books in my definition of diverse, even though they may not entirely fit the dictionary definition.)

      I think, for me, I feel the need to categorize diverse books more as a reviewer than a reader. Because I share and discuss books, I like being as inclusive as possible, and wanted to see what others think on the subject. As a white, cishet person, I am careful in what I describe as diverse books simply because I’m sharing them so publicly. If I were to just read them for my own enjoyment, I think it might be different.

      Thanks for your feedback! You made some really great points!

      1. You’re welcome! And thank you. Let me just say: as a disabled queer POC, it’s really refreshing to see white cishet people discussing inclusion and diversity so actively. It’s not something I am used to seeing, and I really appreciate it. So thanks!

        1. Thank you! I love reading diverse books because I feel that it makes me a better and more understanding person, and I want to encourage my readers to do the same. I really appreciate the feedback from your point of view! I’m doing my best to learn, and I want to encourage my readers to do the same.

  4. As a white ethnic minority, I question and struggle with figuring out diversity and how it applies to white groups. Would non-western whites be considered diverse? Like Italians or Greeks? They have had different experiences than say French or others. I dont feel it’s fair that if a colored person writes about wHite people it’s called diverse, but if a white person writes about colored people, respectfully, it’s not diverse. Also, do mine experiences as an ethnic minority count as diverse? Despite mine white skin, I don’t feel white at all. It’s difficult to figure out answers.

    1. I’m in the same boat! I’m half Italian and half Middle-Eastern (which is legally considered caucasian in the US). I have encountered discrimination based on my last name, but I’m very pale with green eyes, so I haven’t really been discriminated against due to my appearance. My instinct is to not really consider myself ‘diverse’, but that’s not 100% true.

      I think white authors can write diverse books (and I think books with white authors and marginalized characters is diverse). All authors need to be careful when writing characters with different experiences than their own, because everyone is different.

  5. This is such an interesting topic and I think diversity is a very difficult thing to define (even if there is a dictionary definition it is still not clear)… I think it is just as bad to try and hit a checklist in order to make a diverse book, but I do think books should reflect how life really is. I think they should show a variety of people and personalities because that is what life is. I think books should be colorblind and just be books.

    1. I agree that its difficult to define. And, personally, I like diverse books more when the diversity is incorporated organically, rather than when authors make a point about it. I also think that books should be colorblind, but is that achievable in today’s society?

  6. I think there are many ways to look at diversity, for a long time I have thought similarly, a person of colour or LGBTQ. But now that I have been putting in more effort to read translated books, I think it counts too. No matter what colour they are if they are from another country odds are that their culture will be different from yours. I know I can tell when I am reading a book written by someone from the UK, the writing is just different. One reason to read more diversely is to jump into another culture. That’s my take on it anyways.

    1. Great points! I agree that one of the reasons to read diversely is to expose yourself to different experiences, and reading translated books is one of the ways to do that.

  7. I love how you tried to grapple with your thoughts on what constitutes as diversity in literature. Personally, I feel like there’s dissonance between what I perceive as diverse books and what I would publicly label as such. Take religion, for example. In the discourse surrounding #WeNeedDiverseBooks, books with a Christian protagonist wouldn’t be considered diverse if they’re also white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, and so on. But if they’re a practicing Christian and that’s central to the plot, I might still consider that a diverse book because the norm is to leave religion out of the picture, at least in YA fiction. Whereas with a Jewish main character, classifying a book as diverse would be considerable straight-forward since Jewish people are a minority group.

    As for books opening myself up to cultures foreign to me, like you, I do consider them to be diverse. Again, though, if we’re speaking of a book translated from Spanish, I’d consider it diverse personally but wouldn’t label it as such because the focus is on a Western narrative.

    Somehow I doubt I added clarity to your thoughts. Haha. But your thoughts did make me a little more conscious about how I approach the topic of diverse books.

      1. I think this stems a lot from what others consider diverse? Like, bloggers who position themselves as gatekeepers. Rather than fight them on what is and what isn’t diverse, I just let it go. It’s more important to me that marginalised voices are heard too. Being pedantic about parameters seems counterproductive to me.

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