A Tumblr post I saw recently got me thinking about my reading choices and how they’re stacking up in terms of diversity. Specifically, what are the demographics of the authors I’m choosing to read? Let’s look at some numbers.
So far this year, I’ve finished 81 books.
- 52 were written by female authors (about 64%).
- 29 were written by male authors (about 36%).
- Only a handful were written by authors I knew to be members of the LGBTQ community; I don’t know enough about most of the authors to make any safe assumptions about percentages here, however.
- 16 were written by authors I knew to be non-white, which is just under 20%.
It’s no secret that straight white men’s voices hold disproportionate weight in our world. I try to be fairly conscious of diversity when it comes to my reading choices, knowing that the work of white men is treated as universally appealing, whereas the work of women and POC somehow gets relegated to a “special interest” category.
I touched on this in my In Defense of Chick Lit post, but there’ something intensely grating about the fact that all categories of humans are expected to empathize and show interest in the experiences of straight white dudes, but god forbid you imply that there may be anything worthwhile for a straight white man in a book about, for example, a black lesbian’s experience. No demographic should ever be treated as the standard or default. I noticed quite a while back that I was reading more male authors than female; this was partially due to the fact that I’m partial to science fiction and fantasy, genres which tend to be comparatively dominated by male authors. I’ve since shifted the balance there, and the gender makeup of my reading habits has swung the other way.
Even with my attention to diversity, it was somewhat disheartening to find that 80% of the books I’ve been reading were written by white authors. This should not be surprising, however, considering white authors are disproportionately promoted over authors of color. Here is a piece by Roxane Gay from 2012, where she explores the racial disparity in publishing by examining the books reviewed by the New York Times, arguably some of the best publicity a book can get. She found that 655 of the 742 books from their sample were written by white authors.
The numbers are grim. Nearly 90% of the books reviewed by The New York Times are written by white writers. That is not even remotely reflective of the racial makeup of this country, where 72% of the population, according to the 2010 census, is white. We know that far more than 81 books were published by writers of color in 2011. You don’t really need other datasets to see this rather glaring imbalance.
These days, it is difficult for any writer to get a book published. We’re all clawing. However, if you are a writer of color, not only do you face a steeper climb getting your book published, you face an even more arduous journey if you want that book to receive critical attention. It shouldn’t be this way. Writers deserve that same fighting chance regardless of who they are but here we are, talking about the same old thing—these institutional biases that even by a count of 2011 data, remain deeply ingrained.
Before someone who thinks they’re being clever asks the question, let me get it out of the way here: do I think people should put down books that they want to read purely on the basis that they were written by white dudes? No, of course not. Blocking out certain voices entirely is unhelpful and you could miss out on a lot. Neil Gaiman is my favorite author and Neverwhere is a treasure. But voices like his aren’t the only ones that matter, and there are important stories that other authors are better equipped to tell.
This post isn’t about blocking people out; it’s about making room to let more people into your reading. At the very least, take a moment to be aware. If you keep a list, run the numbers of the last 20 or so books that you’ve read. Glance over your bookshelves. What trends are you seeing? Ask yourself what perspectives are missing.
We’ve made a lot of progress over the years when it comes to diversity in the publishing industry. Again using the New York Times bestseller list as a metric, the gender disparity has become much less pronounced over the years. But we must be careful not to see white women finally being heard and conclude that it’s good enough.