A bookshop owner has called for ‘a substantial shift’ in ‘woke’ Australian publishing

Victoria University

The owner of independent Victorian bookshop chain Robinsons has come under fire for a series of (since deleted) social media posts on X, including a list of “books we don’t need”.

“What’s missing from our bookshelves in store? Positive male lead characters of any age, any traditional nuclear white family stories, kids picture books with just white kids on the cover, and no wheelchair, rainbow or indigenous [sic] art, non indig [sic] aus history,” read one post from Robinsons’ chief executive Susanne Horman.

Horman’s list of books we don’t need includes “hate against white Australians, socialist agenda, equity over equality, diversity and inclusion (READ AS anti-white exclusion), left wing govt propaganda”. She called this “the woke agenda that divides people”.

Robinsons has since made an official apology, claiming Horman’s comments had been “taken out of context” and “misrepresented”. Horman’s X account has been deleted. Horman later told The Age her bookshops “fully support and encourage stories from diverse voices, minorities, and we are most definitely stocking these important topics and the authors that write them”.

Ironically, her earlier call on social media for less diversity comes as many librarians are calling for more diverse books in Australian bookshops and libraries.

Last year, a study, looking at the cultural identity of the authors of 1,531 books published here in 2018, found authors of colour were “dramatically underrepresented” in Australia. Books by Indigenous authors accounted for 3%. (3.2% of Australians identified as Indigenous in the 2021 census.)

Only 7% of books were written by non-Indigenous people of colour (defined as non-European backgrounds). In 2021, nearly a quarter of Australians (22.8%) reported using a language other than English at home. Of the 284 picture books in the sample, eight were by First Nations authors and eight were by people of colour.

Horman had complained of “way too many indigneous [sic] books coming out. Remember you need to publish for the other 97% and listen to those who said no to the #Voice.”

Yet a major survey of Australian readers in 2017 found 63% believed “books written by Indigenous Australians are important for Australian culture” and 42% were interested in books and writing about Indigenous Australia.

In relation to positive male lead characters, in April 2019, I examined the 100 bestselling picture books at Australian book retailer Dymocks. In their bestsellers list, 46% of books had male protagonists, while only 17% had female ones (32% had no lead character). There were only seven female-led books in the top 50, compared to 26 male-led books.

Last year, Natalie Kon-yu, chief investigator on the project researching the cultural identity of authors, known as the First Nations and People of Colour Count, told The Age she suspects there’s been a positive shift towards diversity and inclusion since 2018. “There’s certainly an awareness that there’s a problem and I think people are acting in that way, which is good”.

‘Traditional nuclear white family stories’

While Horman claimed “traditional nuclear white family stories” were “missing” from Robinsons’ bookshelves, such households are commonly portrayed in Australian picture books. (Yes, more family types are now being explored, but white, two-parent families are far from missing.)

When I conducted a study at my local library in 2018, I found that of the children’s picture books with families in them, 78% of their collection showcased “traditional” families, while 22% were diverse in structure (not nuclear).

Approximately 1.1 million Australian children live with only one biological parent; approximately 2.3 million Australians identify as LGBTQ+; and 167 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are spoken in homes.

Australian booksellers’ peak industry body, Book People, posted on X yesterday: “We stand with bookshops that celebrate inclusivity”.

Not ‘missing from the mix’

Robinsons is a chain of seven bookshops across suburban Melbourne. In another of Horman’s now-deleted posts, she wrote: “I am advocating for a substantial shift in the focus of Australian publishers to be in line with public opinion and requests for books and for what is GOOD!”

Its subsequent apology, posted on Facebook, said in part:

While some genres are overflowing on the shelves, others are noticeably bare. Positive stories with men and boys as the hero are almost missing from the mix. Neither Susanne Horman, nor Robinsons Bookshop are making a value judgement on this observation. Susanne apologises if people have taken this comment as a negative reflection on an excellent range of diverse books.

Ironically, Robinsons’ list of current new releases on its website does not seem to corroborate this, nor Horman’s claims of white exclusion.

In all of Robinsons’ new release categories for January 2024 (children’s, young adult, fiction, non-fiction), white characters outnumbered people of colour. Likewise, while picture book and children’s novel releases did not have much in the way of human representation, there were still an equal number of male and female characters on the covers.

Only Robinsons’ young adult releases had all-female leads (with one male co-protagonist) featured on the covers and this is in keeping with the genre. Young adult books are the only genre of children’s literature where female protagonists are more common than male ones. (Girls are far more likely than boys to read a variety of books, crossing perceived gender boundaries.)

Is the industry changing?

Natalie Kon-yu says awareness of diversity and inclusion in Australian publishing is ‘good’.

There have certainly been recent shifts in diversifying characters in our stories, and highlighting women’s experiences and authors of colour. However, the Australian publishing industry is a long way off equitable representation. Its workers remain “largely white”, which is reflected in its publishing output.

Australian picture books, for example, remain predominately white in representation, with people of colour making up approximately 12% of characters.

Unlike Horman, I view this as a problem. It is lack of diversity, not the inclusion of it, that creates “divisiveness” in Australia. As First Nations author Ambelin Kwaymullina has written:

We need diverse books because a lack of diversity is a failure of our humanity. Literature without diversity presents a false image of what it is to be human. It masks – and therefore contributes to – the continuation of existing inequities, and it widens the gulfs of understanding that are already swallowing our compassion for each other.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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