Fiction is the Most Segregated Place in America

Cover of Fiction is the Most Segregated Place in America

Brown vs. Board of Education—the Supreme Court ruling in 1954 that unanimously shut down segregated schools in America—may be almost a septuagenarian, but segregation still seems to show no signs of going away anytime soon. While plenty of places in this country remain separated along racial lines, the one domain where this divide seems to be getting bigger, not smaller, is in books. Debates over diversity in publishing are nothing new, but now more than over, the division seems to be driven by invisible forces that no one can pinpoint but everyone can witness the effects of—namely, what sells (vs. what doesn’t), and the kind of stories we’re expected to tell. 

Publishing is a business, but the curiosity is this: the people who buy books and the people who award them seem totally different, and never the two shall meet. Compare the NYT Bestsellers list with the list of major book award winners (Nobel, Pulitzer, National Book Award, PEN) and you will find that the former is overwhelmingly White and the latter is overwhelmingly diverse. If you are a book person, you might be tempted to chalk the former up to something idiosyncratic to the New York Times’ secret, proprietary algorithm for computing what exactly contributes to its elusive “bestseller” status—something that the institution apparently guards closer than any family secret. (Apparently, there is not a single metric for determining whether or how a book becomes a bestseller, and what goes into the determination involves a proprietary formula that considers not only sales, but also other unspecified data points privy only to the NYT.)  However, a cursory glance at other lists of the bestselling books of this past year (2023) reveal very much the same trend. 

Per Publishers Lunch, for example, the top ten remains an overwhelmingly Eurocentric array. Even if we exclude both non-fiction as well as children’s books in order to limit ourselves to adult fiction for the sake of comparing like with like (in this case, this includes two celebrity memoirs, Prince Harry’s Spare and Britney Spears’ The Woman in Me, plus a Golden Book version of Taylor Swift’s biography by Wendy Loggia along with kid favorites Dav Pilky’s latest Dog Man plus Jeff Kinney’s latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid installation), the trend remains: two books from Rebecca Yarros’ popular fantasy series, Fourth Wing and Iron Flame, a duo of rom coms—Hannah Grace’s Icebreaker, Emily Henry’s Happy Place—and of course, Colleen Hoover (whose Heart Bones comes in at #10, but whose other books, Never Never and Too Late, comes in at #11 and #12, making her the most prolific author on this list). 

Meanwhile, on the other book aisle, major award winners of 2023 include a much more diverse cast: Hernan Diaz’s nested historical saga, Trust, and Barbara Kingsolver’s contemporary masterpiece, Demon Copperhead (both Pulitzer winners), Justin Torres’ form-bending Blackouts (National Book Award), Ling Ma’s tightly-crafted short story collection, Bliss Montage (National Book Critics Circle Award), James’ McBrides’ intersectional murder mystery, The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store (Kirkus Prize), Yiyun Li’s unsettlingly dark tale of female friendship, The Book of Goose (Pen/Faulkner)—just to name a few. 

Together, a side-by-side comparison of the demographics embodied in these two lists leads to a number of possible conclusions about the state of race in fiction, all of which are uncomfortable. At best, it’s all a coincidence or self-selection. Maybe writers of color just so happen to be more likely to write literary stories that prize sentence structure and experimenting with form over more commercially appealing conventions like plot or sex between improbably attractive walking red flags. If these are just the types of narratives different categories of consenting adults like to make with their craft, then to each their own (I suppose), but examine this any closer and we get dangerously close to the age-old myth that some groups of people are just “naturally” better at some things while other groups are not. Alternatively, maybe this is some sort of attempt by the presumably progressive folks on award committees to make up for centuries of underrepresentation, a form of literary affirmative action. But even a cursory glance at the history of affirmative action—not to mention its recent predicament following the latest Supreme Court decision on the matter—reveals that if even the oldest and most revered private university system in the country (Harvard) couldn’t get away with it, it’s unclear what that bodes for everyone else. 

But maybe part of the problem isn’t just with what we feel like we should award (diversity) vs. what the masses invariably end up spending their book dollars on (the status quo). Part of the issue might be with the stories themselves. There’s no isle in the bookstore or under Amazon’s categories labeled “Identity-driven Fiction” but there should be, because the identity of the author is, under certain conditions, enormously diagnostic of the kind of story we associate with them. At least in the literary fiction arena, stories by authors of color almost always make a point about privilege vs. inequity, whether it’s related to race, sex, class, colonialism, or all of the above. Like eating our vegetables, we know these are “good for us”—hence why we keep on giving them awards—but when nobody’s watching (and judging), they’re not the ones we consume voraciously, at least not at the rate we’re apparently consuming Colleen Hoover.

One possibility is this: maybe we do not always want to be thinking and unpacking the male gaze or the white gaze or revisiting the horrible things our ancestors either did to other people or experienced themselves (or, for that matter, both). But reading, like travel, may be the most brutal of all pleasures because whether we like it or not, it gives us eyes. It shows us things, teaches us things, about ourselves and the world. Let us be honest: Some of these things are not very nice. Many of these things are depressing or traumatic or shameful and therefore not the kind of story we want to be transported to at the end of a long day, when we are in bed and just trying to do something more productive than scrolling through the never-ending but wildly entertaining content on Tiktok (or Instagram, or whatever our drug of choice). So we do what the droves of readers eating up the bestsellers list do: we pick something escapist, something that either is delightfully funny and romantic or fantastical. And if it does involve unimaginable suffering, it involves the suffering of celebrities, for which most ordinary netizens seem to have a whole separate stomach for. 

Let me be clear: I am not judging what anyone reads. As far as I can tell, me having a strong opinion of what anybody has on their bookshelf is the equivalent of judging a person over their favorite color, or the dish they would want to eat if it was their last night on earth, or their go-to sleeping position. But I do think that when there are overwhelming, population-level patterns taking place as to the types of books that succeed critically vs. the type of books that succeed commercially—the equivalent of everyone magically picking the same favorite color—that should give us pause and wonder: is there something else going on here? 

Even if it is true that escapism is driving the proliferation of romantic comedies, fantasy, and celebrity memoirs dominating bestseller lists, this still does not address the observation that, genres aside, most of the authors of these incredibly popular books appear to be white. So that raises the age-old question of the chicken or the egg: is this a matter of white privilege, or self-selection? In other words, are readers implicitly—or explicitly—more likely to buy a book from a white author, and that is why they seem more likely to populate these coveted lists, or are white authors simply more likely to write in these highly popular genres?

Short of doing a series of tightly controlled, double-blind experimental studies on both readers and writers, this remains an open empirical question. Still, if I had to guess, as a first-generation American, debut novelist, and social psychologist myself, I suspect that the answer involves a little bit of both. Part of it has something to do with the fact that stories that teach us things easily come off as pedantic whereas stories that entertain do not face that liability. When your group has been in power forever, pure entertainment is something a writer can afford. But when you have spent most of recent history clawing your way for a seat at the table, the impulse—and expectation—is that you are going to bring with you something more substantive, a lesson we need to hear perhaps. Only when we do what is expected of us do we realize that the audience may not know what they want.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have a confession about my own bookshelf. If I glance over at my beloved list of Asian American authors whose work I have read in search of representation, I invariably notice the underlying thread of identity—and the collateral damage that comes with living as hyphenated Americans—that punctures many of their stories, as varied as they are: R.F. Kuang skewers white privilege by taking cultural appropriation to sinister new levels in her recent thriller about literary theft, aptly titled Yellowface; Elaine Hsieh Chou takes down the scaffolds of power in academia in Disorientation; Alexandra Chang pokes at the microaggressions Asian women face in both the tech industry and relationships with white men in Days of Distraction; Jenny Zhang breaks your heart with her stories of immigrant childhood in Sour Grapes; Charles Yu breaks down all the old Hollywoodian stereotypes about Asians in Interior Chinatown; Kevin Chong rewrites his protagonist’s personal history over and over in The Double Life of Benson Yu while commenting on the larger socioeconomic structures of Chinatown in the eighties.

At the same time, writers are not monoliths, and writers of color are as diverse in their literary leanings as the geolocations their ancestors hail from. Identity-driven fiction is one route, but plenty of authors from historically underrepresented groups write stories that are not necessarily situated in their own experiences as members of a specific social collective. In some cases, an author will take one approach in one book and the other in another. After all, as Walt Whitman famously reminded everyone, we are large and contain multitudes. 

Take the example of Charles Yu. Sorry Please Thank You was my gateway drug into the Yu universe, and as a science fiction short story collection, racial identity did not seem to figure prominently into his short fictions, likely because zombies, time travel, video games, and pharmaceutical board meetings do not exactly inspire identity politics. But then came How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which deftly managed to make a devastating point about the abortive realities of the American Dream while spinning an immersive time travel saga involving an immigrant father and his son. All of this, of course, was before Interior Chinatown, the most explicitly identity-centric of the bunch, with upfront take-downs of every pigeonholed stereotype popular media has ever assigned Asians (“generic Asian man,” “striving immigrant,” “Kung Fu Dad”). 

No better satirical example of this comes to mind than Percival Everett’s Erasure, which recently got made into the critically-acclaimed film, American Fiction. In the book and the movie, Everett explicitly tackles how the (largely white) publishing industry expects Black authors to write a certain type of stereotypical “Black” book, and while they will tolerate deviations from this presumed ideal, they will not reward it as richly. Only when our authorial hero gives the audience exactly the so-called “Black novel” they want—as a hoax, no less—does he ironically find the kind of commercial success never before granted to his previous, more literary books. 

Others tackle questions of identity from a less obvious angle: Hernan Diaz, for example, was born in Argentina, and even though Argentinean identity does not seem to figure into his Pulitzer-nominated Western, Into the Distance, or his Pulitzer-winning epic, Trust, broader themes of immigration do. Moreover, as he has pointed out in interviews, his experiences living in Stockholm, London and New York have contributed to the ways foreignness emerges as the center of the maelstrom in Into the Distance as its hero navigates America’s frontier as a solo Swede.

Still other authors feature their own identity in their characters without necessarily commenting on it head-on. YA author, Jenny Han, of the enormously beloved series To All the Boys (not to mention The Summer I Turned Pretty, both of which have been turned into popular Netflix and Amazon Prime series), opts for a half-Korean American heroine in Lara Jean Song Covey, but her storyline features the kind of universal coming-of-age challenges facing any teen girl regardless of what her 23andme scores might say about her heritage. She falls in love with a duo of boys as opposite as can be and sublimates her intense adolescent feelings into all variety of shenanigans (literary, domestic, and otherwise)—gripping, no doubt, even in the absence of any commentary about whether being Wasian figures into any of this. 

Watching the series on Netflix, I felt a tinge of envy towards Lara Jean, because what a privilege it is to be able to walk through life—or at least high school—without ever thinking twice about what your race means for who you like or who likes you, and why. Being oblivious to race is something not all of us can afford. But when someone—however fictional—pulls it off, it is a marvel one way or another. 

Turns out, this dilemma of who gets to write what (or more accurately, who is expected to write what) is nothing new. Apparently four decades ago, Salman Rushie noted something similar when he declared that “literature is not in the business of copyrighting certain themes for certain groups” (Rushdie, 1992, p. 15). Rushdie was grappling with the question of writing about India as an expatriate—an experience he likens to dealing in “broken mirrors, some of whose fragments have been irretrievably lost” (Rushdie, 1992, p. 11). Even as he questioned his own understanding of his homeland from the vantage point of someone who has left, he also pointed out that “Western writers have always felt free to be eclectic in their selection of theme, setting, form; Western visual artists have, in this century, been happily raiding the visual storehouses of Africa, Asia, the Philippines. I am sure that we must grant ourselves an equal freedom” (Rushdie, 1992, p. 20). 

That freedom that Rushdie waxes poetic about invariably came to mind when I was writing my own debut novel, The Band. When I started writing it deep into the pandemic in 2020, I just wanted to create a fictional book inspired by my favorite (real) band, BTS, whom I had just discovered a few months prior (thanks to a Carpool Karaoke episode with James Corden that made resistance to the global pop superstars completely futile). But read The Band and you might notice that despite its pastel-colored cover and pop-culture tropes of fandom, boy bands, and celebrity obsession, social commentary about race/culture and gender makes a surprising number of cameos. At the same time, it is not quite “identity-driven” per say: after all, you don’t even need to look me up online to figure out that I am not a Korean boy bander at the apex of global domination. So, the commentary isn’t really about me distilling my own life story into a form of autofiction. Still, maybe it’s because I’m an immigrant or because I married outside my tribe or because I’m a psychologist who spends my other life studying cultural differences, but I couldn’t help myself. Identity did not drive this novel—superstardom, cancel culture, and musical stans did—but let’s not pretend: whether I meant to or not, identity remains everywhere, including when I least expect it. How big of a deal it is largely depends on who is telling the story. As I tell my cultural psychology students, identity is to humans as water is to fish—omnipresent, but sometimes undetected. 

Speaking of water and fish: there’s this fictional music video in the beginning of The Band that ends up being the catalyst for all the spiraling drama that follows. In it, a boy jumps into the ocean in the hopes of becoming a fish so that he can see his fishmonger father—who, like many dads before him, loves his kid but loves his job more. The problem, though, is that the boy succeeds. He ends up in his father’s fishing net, fully transformed into yellowtail. At this point, he sees his dad choose the fish next to him and fillet it into sashimi before depositing a piece of its flesh into his mouth.

The real question here is not really whether the dad ends up eating his son, or if the kid foresaw this very real consequence of his transformation. The question I’d want the answer to in this hypothetical metaverse where boys can magically turn into fish in the effort to address their daddy issues is this: does the fish (boy) gasp desperately for water when he’s subjected to the asphyxiating effects of air? In other words, which of his identities—human or fish—trumps the other when push comes to shove and he is flailing on a foreign vessel in the middle of the sea, desperately trying to figure out if he will live to see another day and realizing that in life, as in fiction, there sometimes isn’t an exit strategy?

Speaking of exit strategy, back when I was in college, I had this Spanish lit instructor. She was my favorite. When the time came to apply to grad schools, I gave her my personal statement and asked for a recommendation letter the way all the good kids with ten-year plans in their back pockets did. She read my personal statement—which invariably circled around being a first-generation American facing a somewhat predictable list of prejudices familiar to anyone who has ever moved or traveled or stood out—and kindly suggested that perhaps one day I could figure out how to write a new story, a different one. 

I didn’t know what she meant then, but now I’m starting to get the idea. The fact that a certain type of book gets awarded and a totally different type of book gets on bestseller lists is not inherently a problem. Mass popularity and highbrow acclaim rarely are seen together in public, and fiction is no exception to this. The problem is when we find ourselves stuck with a specific storyline and feel compelled to see ourselves in it over and over again, whether as readers or authors. Trying on a different story for size—it doesn’t always work, but when it does, it makes the world seem both more breathtaking and broken, all at once. 



Rushdie, S. (1992). Imaginary Homelands. London, UK: Granta Books. 


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