A good book comes down to two things: characters and plot. Whilst you rarely find two books with the same story, many seem to reuse a certain type of character, focusing on straight, white, able-bodied protagonists. When written well, these characters can be related to, but they will never be truly representative of the wider world. The lack of diversity in modern literature is not just a problem for the minority groups who struggle to find stories about people like them – we’re all missing out because of it.
This issue has gained a lot of attention in recent years, thanks to movements like the ‘We Need Diverse Books’ campaign, but a quick look around any bookshop will tell you there’s still a huge shortage of diversity on our shelves. The books that do make it to publication are often ‘issue books’, where the whole story focuses on a character’s marginalisation, implying their race, sexuality or disability defines their entire life. These books are incredibly important to those who want to see themselves and their struggles represented accurately, but they can also be frustrating. In an ideal world, ‘diverse books’ would simply be ‘books’, written for everyone and enjoyable for all, where the characters are different just because they can be. Take a look at Harry Potter – there was no reason why Harry couldn’t be black, Hermione an immigrant, or Ron bisexual. The books would’ve been no less enjoyable for anyone, but so much more magical for the children who finally got to see someone like them saving the day.
But why is this actually important for the world outside of the bookshop? And not just for minority groups, but for everyone, even those of us who are already represented in the books we read? The answer is empathy. The connection between reading regularly and being able to empathise with those around us has been well documented, and, intuitively, we can see why. A good book asks us to consider a character’s point of view, to want what they want and to experience the hardships they experience. If we only ever read books about people like us, surely our empathy will only go so far.
Our world is becoming harsher and more divisive. As we find our views drifting further and further from those of the people around us, it’s all too easy to become more defensive, more likely to fall into the mentality of ‘us vs them’. We are encouraged to define ourselves and separate ourselves into groups of people whose views and experiences are the same as ours – left and right, immigrant and nationalist, Brexiteer and Remainer – and as we do so, it becomes more difficult to empathise with those who we deem to be different. Conversations turn into arguments, and nothing ever gets done.
But, if we expose ourselves to stories about people who, on the surface, are nothing like us, but who still think and feel and suffer like we do, we can remind ourselves that, despite our differences, we’re all still human. We can tackle hatred and bigotry in all its forms, and we can learn to empathise with people, even when we share no common ground. Where there is empathy, there is room for compassion, and only when there is compassion can there ever be progress.