When I was an undergrad, I had a work-study in the school career center. My main role was internet research, a sweet gig for a sophomore which came with an office and unfettered access to a computer. One day I was called into a planning meeting for a networking event. What made it different from the other networking events was its focus on multiculturalism. The office hoped to attract multicultural alumni and connect them with multicultural students. It was an excellent idea until I pointed out what I thought was an obvious glitch. Multicultural included the GLBT community and would attending our networking reception as say a white male, automatically out that student as gay? Here I was, a 19 year old intern and I’d stumped the professionals. Then I asked, perhaps naively, why the event had to be labeled as multicultural since anyone answering to that label should feel free to come to all networking receptions?
I bring up this odd memory because I’ve been looking at literary agents “what I’m looking for” blurbs and noticed an odd trend. Some list within their interests “multicultural”. Is that a genre? I always assumed that when they listed categories like YA, sci-fi/fantasy, thriller, and such they weren’t specifically asking for white. For that matter, if they could, would an agent say they were interested in white lit? I think the backlash would be tremendous. I thought the publishing community was in the business of supporting those who create engaging stories with protagonists we can connect with and antagonists we love to hate. Does that have a color? A gender? An age?
I’m well aware of the current hue and cry being sent up to make literature more inclusive and I agree that it should. I just wonder if trying to get more diverse will create a sort of literary segregation where multicultural will become its own genre. I’m sure there are those who would applaud the shift, but I think it would miss the point. In an age when the world is getting smaller while at the same time we’re becoming more cosmopolitan shouldn’t we embrace the idea of multiculturalism as a foregone conclusion? Not doing so sounds as antiquated as referring to female medical professionals as “lady doctors”.
Then again, I remember going to a writer’s conference and having a pitch session with an agent who felt my YA fantasy wasn’t edgy enough because the protagonist was too optimistic and attached to her mother. She explained that YA audiences expected more angst and snark. I wanted to explain that snarkiness doesn’t fly in all homes, and particularly not in a Hispanic home, but I was too crushed to say anything after my protagonist was labeled middle grade. Would a separate category give my protagonist better opportunities?
I don’t know what the answer to this question–it’s becoming a trend. But my research into NA and my adventures in publishing (or pre-publishing I should say) has given me more perspective. I’ll take my cue from those NA writers who said the best way to change the market is to be a part of the market. Labels are a marketing tool, not a definition as to how I should write my stories.
In the end, the career center decided to have a networking reception open to all and attracted students from all walks of life, but they still opted to call it a multicultural event. I still think it was just an event.