Today I’m going to talk about something that a lot of people are going to disagree with me about. This is something that has been quietly bothering me for some time, but came to a head in recent months, and I hope you’ll give me a chance to have my say.
There’s a lot of talk about representation in literature. Most often in 2019 we talk about diversity in terms of race/ethnicity and sexuality, however there is a growing movement calling for positive representation of mental health and people with disabilities. You don’t hear much about diversity in terms of religion. And if you do, you expect to hear about Muslim characters.
However, I am here to tell you, friends, that in 21st century literature, religious characters are highly underrepresented.
Most of the time, the concept of religion in books is either a) completely ignored, b) presented as a thing that people do, not a belief-set or philosophy, or c) atheist. And I find the first to be the most common. Even in historical fiction set in eras that religion was a fact of life, most authors choose to ignore it altogether.
And I get where authors are coming from. Many authors are not actively religious. Some authors who might be religious might want to avoid alienating non-religious readers. And others might be concerned that by including it they might have to make the book “about” religion, and that’s not what they want to write about. Truly, I understand, and that’s why for so long I didn’t give it a second thought.
BUT. If the character was Muslim, would we be concerned that non-Muslim readers would be alienated? No. If the character was Muslim, would an author be concerned that their book would “have” to be all about religion? No. So… this isn’t really about religion. It’s about the complicated relationship the West (and especially the book industry) has with Christianity.
So here’s the problem.
According to the Pew Research Center, 70% of Americans still identify as Christian. Over 75% of Americans identify with some religion. If we’re talking about diversity in books, and the importance of a reader being able to see themselves in the books they’re reading, shouldn’t that apply to religion too?
I hear what you’re going to say next, because it’s what I’ve said myself plenty of times. “Who says the characters aren’t religious? Just because it’s not on the page doesn’t mean they aren’t going to church or something.” To which I counter, who says x-character isn’t gay? Just because it’s on the page doesn’t mean they aren’t. Oh, that doesn’t work? That’s not real representation? Well, there you go.
For some religious people, going to church is just something you do on Sunday. It’s not important, so it might not bother them to not see it in a book. But to many, many people, it is something terribly important to them, something they think about all the time. And, in my opinion, that is something they should be able to see reflected in books other than just The Shack and weird Amish-romances.
Lately, in fantasy especially, I’ve read a lot of non-positive representations of religion or of pious characters. I LOVED The Priory of the Orange Tree, in part because the origins of the main Christian-esque religion are explored, and revealed being fraudulent for the gain of (you guessed it!) and white man. However, seeing only negative representations of religion is getting tiring.
Again, I get it. It’s not an easy thing to include in your book. I am an actively religious person, but in NONE of the books I have planned out to write (haha, yeah right) in my journal is there any mention of a character who goes to church. At this point it’s counter-cultural, at least in books. It’s easier to just leave it out. That way nobody gets offended. But I want to implore any writers out there who might be reading this (again, yeah right) and who are religious people, make the effort.
I want to leave off with a few examples of books I’ve read in the last few years that present a positive (or at least nuanced) view of religion or religion characters.
- Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
- The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
- The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
- Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series by Rick Riordan
- Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
- Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel