Privilege In Ya

Across the publishing sphere, there is a lack of representation of people of color, LGBT, and even women. As straight, white males predominantly run most industries, this is not shocking but it is distressing. Frequently these days, authors, bloggers, and readers have put out the call for more inclusive stories, ones which reflect their own real lives and experiences more accurately.

In young adult literature specifically, there is practically a formula for how characters develop, what they look like, what romantic attachments they seek. While writers of color, women, and LGBT authors have created amazing works of art using the same tried and true method, the bestsellers lists remains dominated by mostly straight, white men. What is it about such authors that the reading audience connects with, which allows for these male authors to articulate the same characters and walk the same paths of rising and falling actions in ways which shoot them up the charts? In fact, the answer lies not in a magical combination of words, but rather in the unrealized privilege of the authors.

White males dominate the bestsellers list while under-represented authors seem practically barred from it and recycled, formulaic plots with rehashed character tropes are merely the surface of the problem. There is a lack of minority representation evident on and off the page.

The issue starts with recognizing what is being labeled as ‘best-seller’ to begin with. The lack of multicultural and LGBT authors represented echoes into the characters themselves, reflecting this same issue. Often times, characters in bestselling YA novels include the straight Caucasian teen male and female who fall in love–otherwise known as the “fantasy” story of YA literature. Where are the other races that, according to Lee & Low books, made up 37% of the population in America in 2012 alone? [1]

Lee & Low book’s 2012 graphic shows how the minority population in America is predicted to grow to 57% in the next 40 years—and less than 10% of YA books have contained multicultural content in the past 18 years. [2] The idea of “white culture” has become so ingrained in the minds of all YA readers that minorities do not know to demand to have their voices heard. Caucasian make up 73% of the population in the United State and yet are represented in more than 90% of the publishing industry. [3]

Even with the issue of diversity in YA fiction, it still does not erase the people who write these books. In Roxanne Gray’s “Race/Ethnicity Breakdown of Books reviewed by the New York Times, 2011,” she reported that 90% of the books reviewed were written by Caucasian males. [4] This striking number clearly reflects the huge gap of diversity in the publishing industry. The majority of these books are written about white straight characters going through the everyday struggles of American society. Whether it’s in the big six publishing houses or independent presses, one ethnic group has become the representation of American society—and it’s unfortunate that it has come to this.

Successful white male authors are certainly a dime a dozen. Even the first YA novel to be widely recognized among the mainstream, making it TIME Magazine novel of the year, was written by a straight white male (John Green’s THE FAULT IN OUR STARS). FAULT does a service to YA culture by focusing on teens who are battling terminal illnesses, but the two young lovers are white, straight, and upper middle class hipsters. The unintentional racism, sexism, and classism of YA literature persist on all levels.

Women authors continue to have a harder time making a name for themselves among the industry elite. [5] And yet, female authors like Rainbow Rowell and Ellen Hopkins continue to see rave reviews online and legions of fans. Novels from Stephanie Meyer, Kami Garci and Margaret Stohl, Cassandra Clare, Meg Rosoff, and Veronica Roth to name a few have enjoyed big screen film adaptations—a feat for any book. But too often these authors are dismissed (“girl books” perpetually put down as something less-than), ignored, or snubbed in favor of their male counterparts’ work.

While women have a difficult time breaking into publishing, they also make up the majority of American readers. According to the Pew Research Internet project, readers in America are reported to be predominately female at 82%. [6] It stands to reason that these readers are a buying books from and giving power to straight white male writers in YA today.

Though books with minority characters are considered “hard to market” because of the falsely presumed small target audience they are projected to have, it is hard to think of many YA books that have made it to the shelves that reflect a cultural setting beyond upper middle class white America. What’s surprising and controversial are the books which contain characters of color and are written by white males.

YA Asian-American author Ellen Oh mentions in one of her blog posts, “Why being a POC author sucks sometimes”, a comment from author Claire Rights, stating that white authors who write about people of color are “Damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.” [7] If white authors represent a different ethnicity poorly, then the author is has been disrespectful. But if the author accurately portrays a different culture and is lauded for it, then the white author will be lambasted for doing so while not being from that culture themselves.

There is more than enough “white culture” represented in YA fiction—perhaps too much even, as the percentage of white protagonists vastly outweighs the actual percentage just in America of white teens to teens of color. The underrepresented LGBT population has made small breaks in the recent years with successful YA novels from gay authors David Levithan (“Two Boys Kissing”) and Bill Konigsberg (“Openly Straight”).

Every step in the book world has a responsibility to continue writing and reading books that feature positive depictions of minorities, and to not take ‘no’ for a final answer when seeking representation and publication. Authors, agents, editors, readers, librarians, booksellers, and bloggers of color and other underrepresented groups must keep up the good fight for their stories to be read and respected as the equals they are.

All cultures have the responsibility to stand up against marginalization of women, the LGBT community, and people of color.

Readers especially cannot sit idly by. To temper this privilege, we must all demand more from the books we read and spend our money on, from the reviewers we follow, and from the publishers we support. Only then will the YA world truly and respectfully reflect our amazingly diverse lives.

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