Representation in Nonfiction

Fri, 27 Jan 2017 17:00:59 +0000

A lot of the popular discussion of diversity revolves around representation in fiction. When compared with the American population, white characters are overrepresented in American fiction, and nonwhite characters may be depicted as white on book covers. Different people want to see diversity in fiction for different reasons, but I think common reasons are often related to how this can affect understandings of community. In the American context, one reason representation in literature is desired is so that people can feel recognized as part of the American community. There are concerns about the underrepresentation (as well as poor representation) of minority characters leading the public to have distorted ideas about the composition of American society. The hope is that with representation that better reflects the actual American population, more people can feel they are a full member of American society, and the general public will be more understanding and inclusive.

These concerns can be applied to nonfiction as well. In the American context, US history that ignores nonwhites will be incomplete, leaving nonwhites feeling excluded from the American story while creating and maintaining misleading narratives that ignore nonwhite contributions and experiences. In such a context, I think it makes sense for the benchmark of representation to reflect the demographics of the United States.

However, a lot of people engage with nonfiction for reasons that fall outside of strictly American concerns. And for those engaged with nonfiction for education in world history and global politics, the basis for what constitutes balanced representation is more complicated. Crude metrics don’t seem adequate for the task. If based on population, one in three books should be about China or India (though perhaps one in six books being about the PRC would not be so outlandish, given its political importance). Roughly the same number of books being published about each country is absurd on its face—it is unimaginable to publish the same amount of material about a country like Nauru as one might publish about Russia. Gross domestic product corresponds reasonably well with political importance for the major economies, but it would leave untold the story of why certain parts of the world are poor, and it seems to value money over people.

We can see, then, that there is no clear benchmark one can use to determine what is appropriate representation in global-minded nonfiction. But this doesn’t mean that thinking about these metrics is an empty exercise. Even if it isn’t clear which metrics are best, they show us goals that can be worked toward, and thinking about any of these considerations can work to balance out Eurocentric distortions.

Verso is a publisher I admire a lot. They have published many books on world history and global politics, and they continue to be important for me in learning about the world. Their online catalog has categories for six geographic regions. At the time of writing this post, Europe has 121 books, North America has 105 books, the Middle East has 61 books, Central and South America have 44 books, Asia has 31 books, and Africa has just 10 books. The reasons for this precise composition are doubtlessly complex, and what diversity they have reflects the seriousness they put into providing informative books for those serious about learning about the world.

Still, I can’t help but feel personally dissatisfied with these numbers. Verso’s definition of Asia—which does not include the Middle East—still includes the PRC, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, five of the eight most populous countries in the world. The PRC and India are widely expected to have leading roles in the twenty-first century; so to my mind, even if all thirty-one books were just about these two countries, this number would be inadequate preparation for thinking about the twenty-first century. Only one book is about Japan, a country that has consistently had the second or third largest economy in the world for the past fifty years. Having just ten books about Africa, to my mind, seems inadequate when one considers that Nigeria alone is projected to have a midcentury population of nearly four hundred million. Verso is, in my estimation, an uncommonly good publisher. But I have to feel that even with them, more can be done.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.