Reading Diversely: My reading year so far
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|
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|
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.
Hours after I said I would….
I guess I have a couple loosely related thoughts:
1) I can’t stop reading Beverly Jenkins’ westerns. I read them slower, I can put them down–but they are harder. There’s so much joy, too, though. And I forgot I really love historical fiction, like all the Gilbert Morris I read when I was little. And yes I’m tweeting about it. (And sometimes she tweets me back!)
2) I forget while I’m reading what I think of as comfort reading–often by British or Australian authors, I think, all the quick Harlequin reads,–but I actually have a lot more in common with the Kimani books than the ones set in the Outback. When I read books by AA authors, part of me just sighs in relief–yes, this part is home. (And usually “yes, you need to have hair day”). It’s comforting to read Beverly Jenkins writing about beautiful brown skin–that’s what I see every day. But it’s still hard for me to remember that that is a home-place for me.
3) all the social media campaigns are hard for me because it seems like the loudest voices write books I will never read because I have my nice little prudy conservative Christian lines. I love you, but I don’t want to read about orgies or menages. I love them on Twitter but I need tamer diverse books. I’m really looking forward to reading Piper Hugheley’s books.
4) I have been thinking about my own author tagline and how to code for diverse without sounding fetishy or…obvious? Still working on it.
I remember the first Jenkins historical I read, and I was struck by two things: the language, which had a different cadence than a lot of European historicals, and the sense of being inside a culture that was always there but rarely uncovered. I also like Jenkins’ contemporaries that I’ve read; she’s just a very good writer.
Comfort reading is a weird thing. It’s not necessarily about the setting or the characters but the feel. When I was a teenager and fairly new to the US, I read a lot of UK novels, because that felt more like home to me than the US. It wasn’t the place so much as the attitudes, language, and personal interactions. They felt much closer to my Indian experience than the US did.
I like the “ordinary” Kimani books a lot, i.e., the ones with more ordinary characters. The Presents-like characters don’t do it as much for me. I have a bunch of them in the TBR (see, there I go again). And I’m just done with social media campaigns. I don’t begrudge people making a living AT ALL, but I’ve come to realize that how I buy books and how I read books don’t always line up. And when I acquire/buy too many because I’m supporting a campaign, it can affect what I want to read and how likely I am to sit back and just enjoy the reading experience.
I think that’s such an important point about reading being of higher value (in all ways) than simply buying. Maybe things like read-alongs of more diverse books would help? Or Tiny Twitter Reviews (I’ve been enjoying those a lot).
And I’m with Emily about needing to find diverse books in the less sexy end of the genre. There must be some!
I really like the Tiny Twitter Reviews you guys have been doing, and I need to do some myself. Since I’ve been writing up my reactions as Booklikes and I haven’t been tweeting much (about anything), just lurking, I haven’t done them. But I think I’ll start. I really like Alison’s TTRs because she talks about books in genres I read but I often don’t know the specific books. And I like her voice. 😉
I guess the not-hot books just don’t get talked about much. We should have a pact that if we find them we should read them. They’re still there in categories, I know that.
So far I have really enjoyed Synithia Williams (who as a bonus has the same kind of job as my mom!) and I love the Lena Hart basketball series. Sometimes I have to remind myself that there’s an element of safe-space/own traditions in the kimani-esqe ones and just like the way I wouldn’t expect black church to be the same as white church I have to check my cultural preferences, and enjoy the cultural stuff that I do share.
Thanks for the suggestions, those sound good. I don’t think I have either in my TBR.
I like them because it focusses the conversation on books, not authors, not romland kerfuffles, not publishing, just books.
Yes, that comes through in both the original TTR and the discussions around them. It’s great.
Thanks!! I’m a genre jumping fiend.
My reading satisfaction has improved immensely since I started reading more genre-diversely again.
I feel conflicted about writing negative reviews of books by underrepresented PoC. But I try to do it anyway, as long as I’m fair, because I figure that’s part of bringing those books into the discourse, and I’d rather be honest with myself and my readers about what I like and don’t like. Did you ever feel conflicted about this sort of thing?
Oh, absolutely. It’s hard to strike a balance between writing an honest, comprehensive review and worrying that you’re giving the reader even more reasons not to pick up the book. I try to say when issues are my personal hangups, or because I know too much, but that doesn’t always work.
In the end, though, it feels condescending to the author not to review her book the same way I’d review any other, and it feels unfair to the reader.
I’m astonished that the site about supporting diverse books was more interested in talking about buying than about reading. I would think the author would primarily care if her books are getting discussed. Otherwise, they may get some minimal initial sales before fading into obscurity. What an author should is for people to buy OR borrow the books but most importantly TALK about them to all who will listen. The more talk, the more sales. Ergo, not much promotion or marketing needed…just readers who love your books. Word of mouth is way more powerful than the author promoting her own books.
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I think the focus on buying rather than reading comes a range of sources: first, whether authors will get picked up by a publisher depends on sales, so sales are critical. Second, authors seem to put a fair amount of weight on hitting best-seller lists and even narrow Amazon categories, presumably because it helps their visibility and makes it more likely Amazon will highlight them. This is true for self-publishers, who market directly to readers, not just trad publishers authors, who only sell indirectly to readers.
I totally agree with you that word of mouth is the best, but authors and even bloggers and readers seem to think that buying a new copy of a book is the precondition for that happening. Whereas those of us who read print, or get our print and ebooks from the library, or borrow from friends, know that buying a book doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll read it, but reading and liking a book means we’ll talk about it.
Oooh, data! You know how I love data analysis of reading. Glad to know that you, too, decided to spreadsheet your reading this year. I’ve been doing it for a few years and have found it so useful in looking at reading patterns and goal-setting for the new year.
I’ve been using a very broad definition of diversity. Mine does not follow the census or common societal understanding of diversity. According to my definition, diverse books are what I didn’t used to read before. So a book by a male author is just as diverse as a book by a Caucasian woman set in London where she’s Muslim. A children’s fantasy book is just as diverse as a book by a Caucasian author set in Regency England but about a slave girl’s daughter who is of mixed blood/heritage and is adopted by a noble family and raised as their own. My reading goal has been: “Read broadly. Go outside comfort zone and read widely.” I haven’t set more concrete goals this year, because I wanted to see what I would do with a vague goal. I want to then use that data to set more specific goals next year.
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I love your definition of diversity, not least because it highlights how ever reader is individual and reading outside one’s comfort zone can lead to diverse reading of all types. It’s hard to know what will appeal when you’re trying out a new type of book, but the more you find stuff that does, the more likely you are to keep reading that way.
I’ve found my Booklikes posts to be really helpful. I don’t approach them as DA-type reviews, but in writing up my thoughts more informally I wind up with the bones of a review, which then I can use at DA for a full review or a “what I’m reading” post, or just to have something to remember the book by. And I like the spreadsheet too! I wouldn’t have done it without the challenges, but when a book doesn’t fit a challenge, I just add it to my Booklikes shelf, with or without a review.
I third the request for tamer diverse romance books.
This is timely. I just calculated this for the year so far. Last year approx 10% of the authors I read (I did authors not books) were LGBTQ and approx 10% were POC. So far, for 2015, I think I’m at about 20% for POC authors and 25% queer, so that’s good. And I’m currently reading an anthology, Recognize; the Voices of Bisexual Men, which will skew my numbers, so I’ll probably count the editors, not all 61 contributors.
I’ve noticed that paying attention to the identities of authors makes me a little uncomfortable sometimes – especially when I have to google the author because there’s nothing in the author blurb.
I know what you mean about paying attention to identity and orientation. My numbers are based on public information when it’s available. If I didn’t have info I assumed straight and/or non-POC, which would skew my results downward. Which seems right, given the default assumptions we tend to have.
I’ve also been assuming straight and/or non-POC without any other publicly available information. Although I’ve realized that I tend to think that a man writing m/m or a woman writing f/f is probably some flavor of queer, but I absolutely don’t make that assumption with women writing m/m. And for my record keeping, I just go with the public information I can find. And I certainly understand why some authors would rather keep parts of their identity private.
I’ve been thinking about reading diversely and reading out of my comfort zone and I think that my goal is to expand my comfort zone to include a more diverse stable of favorite authors. It’s surprisingly slow work – I tend to forget how many years it took me to build my current list of go to authors.
That’s more or less my tactic as well. I try new a new book and if I like it, I read more by the author. If it’s a first book and it doesn’t entirely work for me, I pick up later books and try again (that’s how Jeannie Lin became a favorite author). I’ve accumulated quite a few new authors that way, some I never would have come across on my own. It really is an ongoing process, but it makes my reading more rewarding. That’s what the “buy POC” strategy doesn’t capture. Readers will add new authors and buy and talk about their books when they work *for them*. It turns into a symbiotic relationship where both the author and the reader benefit, and the benefit for the reader is the reading experience, not the transient sense of doing the right thing that buying the book offers. The key is to help readers get to that point.
I agree. My mental list of reliable authors is more diverse today than it was a few years ago, since I’ve added authors like Jeannie Lin and Nalini Singh and Aleksandr Voinov, etc. It is very rewarding to find a new favorite author.