Reading Diversely: My reading year so far

by Sunita

Hello again! I’ve been delinquent about blogging, but I have been reading, and the mid-year point seems like a good time to take stock of my reading to date.

Reading diverse books and diverse authors (in terms of non-white and non-straight authors) has been a goal of quite a few online readers, in romanceland, SFF, and mainstream fiction more generally. There have been articles about reading only women authors, and the #weneeddiversebooks hashtag and its offshoots continue to flourish. When one of the major book conventions managed to pick 30 panelists and the only “diverse” member was Grumpy Cat, it’s hard to argue against that kind of initiative. I’ve tried to review more diverse books at Dear Author over the last two or three years, and for the most part I’ve succeeded, although obviously I could do more.

My reviews haven’t been universally appreciated (although whose are?). There have been authors who said flat out that they thought I was being harder on them (and more unfair) than I was to white authors. Which brings up another aspect of the “read more diversely” effort: are we supposed to review the books the same way we review non-diverse books? Are we supposed to give authors points for trying and go easier on their books’ flaws so that more people will take a chance on them? Or is our main job as readers to buy them?

I recently read a post about supporting diverse books, which talked about buying, promoting, and marketing, but said nothing at all about reading. I not only find that vaguely insulting (I’m not your publicist or your mother, thanks), I think it’s counter-productive in the long run. I remember buying romance novels by African-American authors years and years ago, when they were justifiably complaining that the big review sites didn’t review them. This was before I was a reviewer, but I could still buy the books and I intended to read them. But I never did. I bought them, announced via blog comments that I bought them, and then they went into the TBR. So the authors got a sale, but that was it.

Buying the books isn’t enough, you have to read them and talk about them with honest enthusiasm. Tweeting out that automatic Amazon link which tells the world you bought a book might get someone to go and look at it, but unless you talk about it, why should anyone be persuaded to give it a try? Buying books is about putting money in authors’ pockets, which is important (that way they can keep writing). But it’s not reader enthusiasm, it’s reader subsidy. It seems obvious to me that actually discussing a book, whether you bought it or got it from the library or borrowed it from a friend, is more likely to lead to new readers than just buying it.

Authors may think that attention to diversity when buying books is the first step, or the minimum one, the one that leads to more buyers and readers. But it can work in a different, less helpful way: someone can buy the book, feel they’ve done a good thing, toss it on the TBR and then never read or talk about it. The latter attitude doesn’t generate more reads or even more sales, whereas reading a book written by an underrepresented author or featuring underrepresented characters, and then sharing that experience, puts the book into the larger conversation.

Bearing all this in mind, how have I done on the diversity issue, i.e., what have I been reading this year? It turns out to be easier to figure that out than it would be for previous years, because I finally started tracking my reading. In January I set up an account at Booklikes. I also started two reading challenges (the PopSugar challenge and SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge), and I’ve been keeping track of those using a spreadsheet. Amazingly, I’m on track for Wendy’s challenge and I’m nearly halfway through the PopSugar challenge.

I’ve read 30 books so far in 2015 (that figure is print, ebook, and audiobooks combined). This is nothing compared to a lot of genre readers, and it’s low for me compared to other years, but I’ve been reading longer books, I think, and I’ve been in a bit of a genre slump. And I’m not counting research or teaching books. Anyway, 30 it is. Here’s how the books break down:

Female POC Author POC Main Char LGBT Author LGBT Main Char
Total thru 15 July 20 4 8 3 5
Percentage 66.67% 13.33% 26.67% 10.00% 16.67%

Remember that these numbers represent books, not authors; I have read more than one book by the same author across the spectrum of above categories.

The number of female authors isn’t surprising, given that I read romance and mystery (and my mysteries this year have tended to be toward the cozy side). In the POC category, I’ve clearly read POC books by non-POC authors, but what the numbers don’t show is that I’ve read non-POC books by POC authors as well. That’s less true for LGBT authors and characters, although I’ve read two books by non-LGBT authors which feature major LGBT characters.

I haven’t been consciously trying to read more POC and LGBT novels, although I started the year intending to read more gay fiction. My half-year list includes Michael Nava’s historical novel, City of Palaces, and EM Forster’s Maurice. In addition, I’ve just finished Sean Kennedy’s latest Tigers and Devils novel (not included in this tally) and I’m currently reading Caleb Crain’s lovely Prague-set novel, Necessary Errors.

The POC authors include the usual suspects for me (Jeannie Lin, Aliette de Bodard and Michael Nava) as well as some new authors (I’d never read Sandra Kitt before this year).

By comparison, here’s how my Dear Author reviewing looked last year (plus some books I didn’t review there but put on my Best of 2014 list over at VacuousMinx). The total for 2014 (for the combined categories) is 32 books:

Female POC Author POC Main Char LGBT Author LGBT Main Char
2014 total 23 10 9 5 6
Percentages 71.88% 31.25% 28.13% 9.38% 18.75%

It’s apparent that when I consciously try to read more books by and about underrepresented people, as I do for DA reviewing, I manage it. When I’m reading primarily for my own pleasure I still read in those categories, but not as much. So making a concerted effort is probably important if I want to increase my numbers. And given that a number of those books wound up as recommended reads, it’s an overall benefit for me to have stretched myself.

You can’t see this from the aggregate information, but in 2014 (as in 2015), some of the 9 books in the “POC Main Character” category came from books written by non-POCs. There’s disagreement over whether this “counts” toward more diversity, since it doesn’t increase the visibility of POC authors. I don’t want to get into that debate here; there are compelling arguments for and against. I basically think more POC everywhere, like more LGBT everywhere, should be the main goal unless and until the non-POC/LGBT authors are crowding out the underrepresented authors. But I’m a reader, not an author, so my stakes are different.

The other thing I noticed in my reading, which the numbers also don’t tell us, is that “POC” winds up being an overly broad, even misleading label by which to categorize books and people if our goal is to increase the visibility of underrepresented authors, characters, and settings. For example, it makes no sense to me to label the powerful and aristocratic members of Tang Dynasty China as “POC.” That we do that is more about us than it is about them. I understand we’re talking about fictional characters, not people, but it’s our (predominantly US-based) ignorance about them (and our US history) that others them, not who they are in their own setting. With a Jeannie Lin book I’m clearly reading the work of a POC author when I read her Tang-set romances, but with GG Kay I’m not. In both cases I’m reading about affluent, urban aristocrats. These are not disprivileged people in their own environment.

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence suggesting that books, especially genre books, set outside European and North American settings don’t sell as well, so they don’t get published as often, no matter who is writing them. So in that sense they’re underrepresented, no matter who writes them, and regardless of whether they should be designated POC or not.

On yet another hand (let’s use the goddess Lakshmi’s hands since she has four), there are authors and books which are not counted as POC but which are definitely underrepresented across genres. For example, I’ve been slowly working my way through David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, which is set in Yorkshire in the 1970s and 1980s. These were times of severe economic hardship, the non-official characters are almost entirely poor and/or minority, and one of the themes of the books is the extent of political and police corruption. The characters don’t have much privilege, and Peace himself doesn’t come from a privileged background. But he’s not POC. So on my spreadsheet his books get a “no” for both character and author. So would the Scottish author James Kelman, whose Booker award-winning book was heavily criticized because he wrote in the language and cadence that reflected his Glasgow setting.

On Lakshmi’s fourth hand, there are the non-POC people who were historically oppressed because of their sexual identity or orientation. EM Forster was affluent enough not to have to work to support himself, took degrees at Cambridge, and was a member of the Apostles, no less. But his artistic/professional life choices were constrained by his homosexuality (as was his personal life). When I read Maurice the collision of privilege and exclusion was evident on every page. And that’s still true, although thankfully to a lesser extent, in Tigers on the Run and Necessary Errors.

I want diversity to be an important component of my pleasure reading. I want to stretch myself. That means reading more books by underrepresented authors and featuring underrepresented settings, which includes the POC category but is not limited to it.

If you’re interested in more information on the specific books I’ve read, I’ve reviewed a number of them at Dear Author and there are more informal reviews and notes at Booklikes. And feel free to ask questions in the comments.