Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Reading Challenge

I recently became aware of an article published this year which issued a blanket challenge to book nerds: go an entire year without reading any books by white, heterosexual, cisgendered men. It was intended to be provocative, which of course means the interwebs went apeshit, so much so that the point of the article seems to have been lost amidst the controversies about reverse sexism, misandry, out-of-control political correctness, &c. &c.

It would be difficult for me to identify as more white, more straight, and more cis-male than I currently do, so if that combination of attributes is being examined, then I am a decent representative of the type. But I don't feel like I personally am under attack, or that this is all about setting up an enemy in order to concentrate on taking them down. When someone says "the literary canon is too white or too male" I don't ever feel the need to dig my heels in and shout back "what's wrong with white males? I happen to be one and I like myself just fine!" Mostly I find myself saying "yeah, it really is." The point is not that any one particular segment is bad in and of itself, the point is that any dominance of one segment to the detriment or exclusion of all others is very bad, and even dominance in terms of majority while still allowing a token under-represented class here and there is still pretty bad.

As an abstract idea, most people would probably agree that balance and moderation are key in various aspects of life. It's just that nobody likes being told what to do, and some people don't even like the hint of an intimation of a suggestion that there might be a better way to do things that what they're currently, possibly probably unthinkingly, doing. I understand that facet of human nature well enough, which is still well short of actually defending people who have tried to whip up the backlash and shout down Ms. Bradford with harassment, insults and threats. There's really no defense for that kind of thuggishness. It would be nice to live in a world where the very concept of thuggishness is a non sequitor in the context of a comments thread after an article about reading habits, but we have to live in the real world instead. People get defensive; idiotic, overly entitled and emotionally stunted people lash out. I will officially go on the record as saying they shouldn't, but beyond that, what should we do about it? Other than ignoring it and never, ever feeding the trolls, I really have no idea.

But narrowing the focus a bit to my reaction to the challenge, I think it's a good idea overall. Which means I'm going to keep it in mind, even though I'm not fully prepared to take it up.

I looked back over the books I've read just in 2015 so far, and here's the tallies:

8 books read
1 female author (Karen Maitland, Company of Liars)
0 POC authors
0(*) LGBT authors

OK, that is kind of embarrassing! Given that I like to think of myself as a proponent for equality, those numbers are abysmal. I can say with confidence that I don't actively turn my nose up at books by authors writing outside the white, hetero, male perspective. I guess I just don't pay enough attention to it, and that's enough for the insidious disproportionality in the publishing industry in general to take hold in my personal reading habits.

The truth is, I almost always read books based on what they're about, not who they're by (with exceptions for some of my favorite prolific authors). I might read a review that makes something sound great and/or right up my alley, or become intrigued by a publishers blurb after an algorithm recommends something, or just like the look of a book's cover or think the title has a nice ring to it. It's never going to be second nature to me to start with criteria for an author and then work my way through to the premise, especially when we're talking not about the author's expertise or literary reputation but their cultural/gender/sexual identity.

Plus, not trying to throw shade on Ms. Bradford, but I'm honestly curious how I'm supposed to know the sexuality of authors to begin with. I can tell because our society has designated "Karen" as a feminine name that Maitland is female. Also, her Wikipedia article uses the "she" pronoun, while also informing me that she is English, and thus I presume white (the article has no photo). It doesn't mention a husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, or any other clues as to her orientation. There are certainly gay themes in Company of Liars, but I don't know if the woman exploring those issues had a personal connection to them or not.

And this of course is where even well-meaning bleeding heart liberals can and do get all tangled up. We say it doesn't matter if someone is male or female, black or white, gay or straight, and that's fair enough. We can usually tell at a glance where someone falls in the first two splits, but not necessarily the third, and we also say it's really not anyone's business unless the person in question chooses to share. Hence the asterisk up by the zero for the number of LGBT authors I've read this year. There's a chance one or more of them is gay, though nothing obvious has stood out to me. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing, the fact that it hadn't even occurred to me to wonder? Am I super-progressive, because I'm not constantly searching for signs of otherness to be outraged about? Or am I naively sheltered in my straight white male privilege, assuming these things don't matter at all because they don't bother me?

It's exhausting sometimes just trying to be a decent person. I can kind of see why some people don't bother.

I could probably spend a whole year just working my way through Octavia Butler's bibliography, but that might be missing the point.

Again, I'm not disputing Ms. Bradford's main point. If anything, I'm underlining it. To really make sure that my reading list doesn't just lapse complacently into a big old pasty sausagefest, I'd have to be very selective, probably do some research and actively seek out intersections between my areas of interest and the de facto fringes. It would make sense to make a Year-Of project of it, to do the (admittedly, probably minimal) Google-fu required to track down a list of LGBT sci-fi authors or pop culture critics who also happen to be people of color, and go from there. I could do that. I should do that.

But it also feels like doctor's orders, and like I said at the outset, everybody has some aversion to that, myself included. I've been told by medical professionals that I should watch what I eat and exercise more for years (probably decades at this point) and ... I sort of do. Not as much as they meant when they said it, but more than nothing. I'll eat more green leafy vegetables. I'll work out when time permits. But I'm going to break down and gorge on candy (frequently) and give myself permission to sleep in rather than hit the gym. If something is better than nothing, then at least I'm doing something that nods toward self-improvement, even if I'm not perfect.

Straight white dudes like Neil Gaiman and Patton Oswalt have new books out that I really want to read, and Stephen King has one coming this summer as well. I could put them all off for a year, but that feels like starving myself now while planning on binging later. Long-term balance and moderation are key, right? A change for the better is preferable to a stunt.

What feels like an achievable goal at this point is for me to at least be more mindful of who I'm reading. I know I have a few more female and POC authors sitting in my to-read piles at home, and I can certainly bump them up in the priority order. I can make an honest try at improving the numbers I cited above over the next year or so. Or at an absolute minimum I can make sure that every time I talk about a book I've read I mention whether or not there's anything remotely outsider about the author, which keeps me honest and might shame me into switching things up more frequently than if I just elided right over that.

So, it's not so much an all-consuming Big Project announcement, but it's a bit of an introduction to an idea which I may very well revisit again and again. Stay tuned for more.

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