Literature doesn’t only exist to entertain. In its core, it is a form of art that preserves knowledge, but also affirms societal values. In the multifaceted world we live in, literature must strive to do justice to this cultural diversity - more than ever before.
From Shakespeare or Homer to Charles Dickens and George Orwell: Most of the books we know as literary classics today were written by (predominantly) heterosexual white men. Whether we look at fiction, poetry, prose or journalism - the publishing industry has been dominated by this narrative since it's beginning and continues to exclude marginalized voices.
Unequal opportunities for authors from minority backgrounds
Until today, authors from diverse backgrounds are underrepresented and sometimes even silenced in the literary world. They not only have more difficulties establishing themselves in publishing due to discriminatory structures; in many cases, invisible barriers in other aspects of life such as access to education and social exclusion prevent writers from being part of the literary discourse of their time. And even if they manage to break through all these layers of unequal opportunities, their works are often met with biased criticism or censorship - just think of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, now considered an American classic, which was challenged for its focus on racial injustice, or The Color Purple by Alice Walker.
All these forms of discrimination, whether obvious or less apparent, lead to an ongoing exclusion of various social groups from literary professions. It is therefore absolutely crucial that we work against the structural and institutional mechanisms that favor only privileged social groups and grant them access to an elitist literary world while at the same time marginalizing writers from minority backgrounds.
This, however, is not the only aspect in which equal representation is not yet achieved on the topic of literature. Just as imperative as ensuring diversity in literary professions is addressing how the contents of literary works interact with and shape our society and our view of the world.
When I go through my own bookcase, I’m immediately struck by the multifaceted picture that presents itself: Indeed, it’s not the romantic novels printed in mass circulations, but the disputed feminist novels (think of Virginia Woolf), the homoerotic poems banned for their “obscene content” (Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, anyone?), the manifestos against racism and discrimination that really captivate me as I turn the pages.
Finding a reason for this apparent contradiction is easier than it might seem. Readers want to see themselves represented in the books they adore. They want to be able to picture the characters as just as complex and unique as themselves, or their Black mum, or their transgender best friend. And even if they themselves fit the narrow canon of what a protagonist consists of as it is represented in the majority of book releases today, they want to see the world around them as they experience it depicted in the literature of their time.
Books, like many other forms of art, shape the way we think about ourselves and the world. It is crucial for people from diverse cultural backgrounds to see themselves and their experiences reflected in literature. But also those who may already have an abundance of works dealing with their personal narratives as part of a dominant majority at their disposal can only benefit from being exposed to other people’s realities through literature.
The importance of diversity in literature
Art forms and reaffirms the norms and values of our coexistence. As long as protagonists in books are predominantly white, middle class, able-bodied and heterosexual, this construct will remain to be seen as the norm. Exposure to the diversity that really makes up our world today through characters who embody a variety of races, gender identities, sexual orientations and social classes can help us recognize these categories as the social constructs they are and re-evaluate our collective norms and values.
Written by: Anna Lasinger