On "Seeing Yourself" in Literature
I'm in several different book clubs and I've noticed something when members like a novel. They'll say things the following about the characters:
"I could really relate to So-and-So when they..."
"When So-and-So did X, it reminded me of myself when..."
"I've so been there! When X happened to me, I responded the exact same way she did..."
Consequently, when someone doesn't like the book they'll say things like:
"I just don't get why he did X. It doesn't make sense! Who does that?!"
"I just couldn't relate to her at all. I just don't understand her..."
Sounds familiar, right? Because so much of the way we contextualize books and our feelings about them relates to ourselves. It's much easier to like characters that remind us of ourselves or have motivations, value systems, struggles, and backgrounds similar to ours.
The ability to see yourself in books (regardless of genre, but especially fiction) is a beautiful thing and I hope every reader has the experience of feeling understood on a deep level through reading. While I wish that for everyone, it's much easier if you're white, straight, and able-bodied.
The publishing industry, particularly the Big 5 (aka, the biggest publishers in the world: Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins), are largely whitewashed. And the publishing industry, like any other industry, is subject to the whims and the biases of those who control it. Therefore, if most of the editors are straight white able-bodied people and we know that readers tend to enjoy books where they relate to the characters best, that means most of the books chosen for publication are those by and about straight white able-bodied characters.
When you're straight, white, and able-bodied, you can see yourself in hundreds of thousands of books, in virtually every imaginable genre. And that's to say nothing of the many small presses, self-published books, and the plethora of fan fiction in existence. I'm talking about books published by the Big 5 alone. People of color, LGBTQIA people, and disabled people can't say the same.
The ability to see yourself in books––whether as you are in reality or in an aspirational sense––is a privilege, one readily available to some, but not all. While it is getting better thanks to the We Need Diverse Books movement and a loud and growing group of readers (both with and without marginalized identities). However, the shift toward equality isn't happening fast enough, so it'll be a long time before publishing reaches parity.
To be clear, it's not wrong to see yourself in books. But it's important to be mindful that not everyone is able to do that. Or, if a person with marginalized identities can see themselves in a handful of books, it's possible they could power read those books and be out of options before more are published. That's never going to be a problem that straight, white, able-bodied people have.
That's also why it's important to read books by and about people who aren't like us. It's the only non-offensive opportunity to walk around in the shoes of a person with one or more marginalized identities and experience life through their eyes. Sometimes pushing ourselves out of our reading comfort zones takes a little more time and effort and research, but it's so worth it. If you're not already, I hope you'll join me.