Amy Boggs on diversity in books and why she wants to see more

"Reading Glasses" by Robert Pinero.

Amy Boggs is an agent with the Donald Maass Literary Agency.   She is one of a small portion of literary agents whose listing notes an interest in fiction with characters who are diverse, and, as explained in the interview below, she’s also managed to go beyond such broad terminology.

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On top of your passion for fantasy/science fiction and work that straddles different genres, your agent’s profile specifies a particular interest in “projects with characters who are diverse in any and all respects, such as (but not limited to) gender, race, ethnicity, disability, and sexuality.”  Where does that interest come from?

I want to say first that my agency bio didn’t have that phrase until about 6 months ago. This isn’t to say I wasn’t interested in diversity before; I had just assumed, fairly naively, that this was a given. Then “#yesGayYA” (http://cleolinda.livejournal.com/993710.html) happened in September 2011 and there was a call for agents to explicitly state their interest rather than using code words like “multi-cultural” or “I’m looking for diverse works” (http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/genreville/?p=1519). So I did just that.

As to where my interest comes from, simply from reading all my life. Reading encourages us to step into someone else’s perspective, and it’s not too hard to apply that kind of thinking to reality. I also have the Internet to thank, because while my own town was very white-straight-Mormon, the Internet was infinite. I fell in with a group of Harry Potter fans from all over the world, and became more and more aware of how limited media was in its focus on white, heterosexual, typically-abled, -gendered, and -bodied people. That struck me as ridiculous, and every answer to the question “why?” simply boiled down to “because our society is bigoted.” Well fuck that. Bigotry is never a valid excuse.

On a more personal level, I grew up in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, Utah. I also grew up in a non-LDS (Latter Day Saints) household, which for Utah was weird. Most people, however, assumed I was LDS (because I am white, didn’t swear, and followed the school dress code). So I got the shocked looks and altered treatment whenever someone found out I wasn’t, and had a “friend” who was dead set on converting me, and while I never had a boy’s parents take me aside and say, “Convert or stop dating our son,” other family members weren’t so lucky. And this was over religion, a choice. It gave me the mildest taste of what so many people have thrown at them all the time. Supporting media that actually reflects the wide diversity of our world, that says “you’re not alone” rather than “you’re just as strange as your neighbors say,” seems only logical.

As an agent, what works are you proudest of having gotten to publish (or just in trying to get out there) that entail diversity in the way you’re looking for it?  Have there been practicalities of your profession that have forced compromises you’ve been surprised by?

I’m a relatively new agent, so not a wide variety of published works to draw on, but in all honesty, every work I represent entails that diversity. A good story reflects reality. Granted, with spec fic, the mirror can be something of a fun house mirror, but the reflection still has to be true. I have rejected works based on lack of diversity or having only stereotypes the author was hesitant to change, and that has never been a hard decision.

I have a particularly soft spot, though, for Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne trilogy. The first book, The City’s Son, comes out this September, and the character Pen is both someone I adore and a face that doesn’t normally get a voice in YA books, especially urban fantasy ones. She’s a secondary character in book 1, but the protagonist in book 2, The Glass Republic, and I can’t wait to see her take the lead as her amazing self.

As for compromises, I haven’t personally experienced much pushback, though I know others do. The biggest I’ve come against is in romance, although it wasn’t a surprise to me. Adult romance imprints at major houses don’t publish romances that fall under LGBT. It’s frustrating, and the argument is that “straight women read romance, and straight women aren’t interested in gay romances.” Aside from being a very limited view of their target audience, I came of age with online fandom, and I know perfectly well that straight women happily read, and write, gay romances. On the plus side, romance e-publishers do know this. Ellora’s Cave, Samhain, Carina, etc.; they all publish LGBT romance to great success. Maybe with further pressure and support from readers, the big publishers will follow suit.

With the advent of speculative fiction, there’s a good consensus out there that would say that, between the genres it encompasses (usually fantasy and sci-fi), it’s tried to put diversity at its forefront.  Speculative fiction’s lifeblood, after all, is what’s different from reality, and in reality, diversity is a pass through intersections for most people. 

But there’s an element to that diversity that may not be too different from the one that exists in literature.  In fantasy and sci-fi, you can have fantastical creatures that allude to race or being different, on top of what’s a staple of both “genre” and “non-genre” work—the half-breed.  Sometimes literal and sometimes not, the half-breed frequently has outsider status while being insider enough.  That insider element seems integral to the way that diversity in all fiction is packaged—at the expense, I sometimes think, of positively reflecting on the reality of the actual people who are considered so outside from it.  What are your thoughts on this?

Well, I have to question your first point a little. While the very nature of spec fic means it should be diverse, the reality is that the genre’s canon is very white and male, and the perception is that the crux of the genre is white, male authors writing for white, male readers. (Arturo at Racialicious has an article about how this perception is passed along without thinking) So unfortunately the reality of spec fic is still affected by these things. I think, as a book genre, there is more dialogue about diversity and a bigger push by writers and fans towards inclusivity, but still a long way to go.

To answer your question, I want to separate the creatures from the humans. Firstly because no one would say, “Sure all the humans are white, but we got vampires/werewolves/blue-skinned aliens, so there you go, diversity!” Or at least no one worth listening to. Secondly, vampires/werewolves/blue-skinned aliens are not people. So having a character who is half-human, half-supernatural creature makes sense, because that makes them privy to creatures that literally none of the readers are privy to (since creature mythologies vary with each work). It can be a lazy approach, to be sure, but the exploration of what it is to be literally both human and not-human is something unique to spec fic, and I think it is valuable. Also unique to spec fic are other crosses; half-vampire, half-werewolf, for example. There you have a character who is an insider to two creatures the audience is completely outside of; the exploration is not saying, “Hey, look, the main character is part human so you’ll relate to them.” And there are plenty of works where major characters are not human beings at all, although beings that are humanoid are certainly favored.

As far as real human characters are concerned, the “you used a bisexual/biracial character just to appear diverse” critique does come up, and with good reason. However, I think it can sometimes be unfair. Bisexual and biracial (and multi-racial) people do exist and have stories, too. The difference comes in the writer’s intention, or rather, how that intention comes across. You can generally tell when a writer fully creates a character versus when they decide to make their protagonist half-Latina, half-white for diversity, throw in a sassy gay friend, and call it a day. That’s on par with inserting a white protagonist into a story to make it more “saleable.” I tend to see this more in Hollywood, and I’m sure anyone reading this can easily come up with a list of movies that do so. That is where the true problem lies, in treating whiteness as everyman-ness, as a shortcut for having an audience. Unfortunately, that idea is widespread in our media.

… debating whether multiracial characters are more prevalent is a moot point, because one or two characters alone can sway those statistics. We need more positive and realistic portrayals that reflect our world in its entirety, period. Something so simple shouldn’t be that hard.

In addressing the issue of representation, I think it’s best to not focus on individual works but genres as a whole. This analysis by unusualmusic of a store’s YA section gives us some numbers: http://theangryblackwoman.com/2009/08/08/in-which-the-latest-instance-of-whitewashing-book-covers-produces-pondering/  She doesn’t distinguish multiracial characters, though, although one character was noted as African/Indian American, so someone else might want to do a study on the prevalence of multiracial characters vs. other POC characters. (If you have places where people have crunched numbers on it, I would love to know.) The fact is, though, from the article I just linked, white, straight, typically-abled, -gendered, and -bodied main characters made up almost 90% of YA, and YA is a genre that is especially vocal about diversity. That is such a tremendous problem that debating whether multiracial characters are more prevalent is a moot point, because one or two characters alone can sway those statistics. We need more positive and realistic portrayals that reflect our world in its entirety, period. Something so simple shouldn’t be that hard.

Perhaps a recession means more people across the board appeal to the lowest common denominator—or that they tend to go with relatively safe bets.  Do you think the limited diversity we’re seeing in published fiction (genre or not) is giving readers what they want, or is it giving them what they’ve been comfortable with in a market that—maybe due to the recession, maybe not—no longer encourages risk and innovation beyond what’s familiar?  

It’s hard to point to definite causation. Surveys have shown that the #1 thing that will make a reader pick up a book is if they’ve read another book by that author, so yes, publishers are likely to put more into their established names, who are likely to put out work like their previous books. So in that sense, yes, recession does affect diversity.

But how is diversity in books now compared to diversity in the 90s, when the economy was riding high? I ask this question honestly, because I was a child in the 90s, and I wasn’t really thinking about these kinds of things. In my vague experience, it’s better now than it was then. Gay characters don’t have to only be the best friend or die in a tragic way at the end of the book; black protagonists are making it onto covers rather than always being whitewashed or left off. It’s not perfect; it’s not even close to kind of okay. But it seems to be that diversity has increased. What we’ll be saying in five years time may be more telling, but I’d love to hear other thoughts on this.

(I’m not wholly pulling this out of thin air; the brilliant Malinda Lo has a great post looking at the publishing history of YA LGBT books, and the trend is pretty clear: http://www.malindalo.com/2011/09/i-have-numbers-stats-on-lgbt-young-adult-books-published-in-the-u-s/)

I also want to point out that even in this economy, there are those taking diversity-specific risks and innovations. Stacy Whitman and her children’s imprint Tu Books immediately come to mind (http://www.stacylwhitman.com/, http://www.leeandlow.com/p/tu.mhtml).

In most forms of media, it’s fairly common for minorities to not have a hand in how they’re portrayed.  I imagine that genres like “urban fiction” and some self-published novels are (to some extent) emblematic of that.  Thoughts?

This is actually one of the reasons I love sci-fi/fantasy and YA. In contemporary fiction, if a black author writes about a black protagonist, it will be put in the “African-American Fiction” section, but if they write a non-black protagonist, it will be put in the Fiction section. If an LGBT author writes about an LGBT protagonist, it will be put in the “LGBT Fiction” section, but if they write a straight protagonist, it will be put in the Fiction section. Of course a straight, white author can write any kind of protagonist they please and it will be put in the Fiction section. The Fiction section makes more money, thus giving publishers more money for books where minorities don’t have a hand in how they’re portrayed, thus publishers put more money behind those books and less behind books by and about minorities, thus the cycle is self-fulfilling. And that’s not even touching the “women’s fiction” label.

But sci-fi/fantasy, as long as there are aliens or monsters, it belongs there. The sci-fi isn’t even separated from the fantasy. And as long as the book is for teens, it belongs in YA. Of course, some bookstores get it wrong if the cover isn’t obviously sf/f or YA, and maybe it’s more an issue than I’ve seen. But I feel in those sections, authors have more flexibility in what they do, including portraying themselves. Are sf/f and YA idyllic oases of equality? Not even close. (A quick look at covers will tell you as much (http://www.katehart.net/2011/07/uncovering-ya-covers-how-dark-are-they.html)). And they still feel the labeling from readers and YA gatekeepers; I’ve heard of school librarians saying, “I love this book but it’s not right for our library because we only have white students.” As though white kids will only read books with white characters. So even when we work away at segregationist structures in place, there are still personal mentalities that get in the way.

I do think you’re on point about urban fiction and some self-published books. That’s actually the great thing about the accessibility of self-publishing ebooks; books that have a market but that publishers didn’t think was big enough to publish now can be out there and available without the author having to shell out the thousands needed for printing.

And lastly, because I’m just a little fictioned out at the moment, what’s the last good non-fiction book that you’ve read when that happened to you?

Anything by Mary Roach. I stumbled across “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex” on a free-to-take table, and ever since I’ve loved her humorous explorations on how humans explore.

I finally want to add a link which rounds up some excellent links on POC authors and protagonists in science fiction and fantasy, for anyone who wants a quick way to get their diversity-supporting geek on: http://onapalestar.wordpress.com/2010/08/16/poc-authors-protagonists-in-science-fiction-fantasy/

And another to a blog called Diversify Your Reading: http://diversereading.wordpress.com/

Because that’s what we need to do as readers. If we support diversity by buying diverse books, that sends the clearest message to publishers.

Because that’s what we need to do as readers. If we support diversity by buying diverse books, that sends the clearest message to publishers.

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Thanks to Amy for her time.  Feel free to sound off here or @notjustanyboggs.

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2 responses to “Amy Boggs on diversity in books and why she wants to see more

  1. Pingback: » Many Links for a Friday Team Valkyrie FTW - Critically Thinking about Geek Culture

  2. A good interview and encouraging words.

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