Discrimination — or unequal representation — in publishing has been a hot topic for the past few years. The discussion has centered, in part, around the Vida Count, a report provided by the US-based group for women in the arts, which has determined what percentage of contributions came from women or centered on women’s writing in a number of major literary periodicals over the course of the previous year. In turn, The Rumpus‘s Roxane Gay began a similar look at how writers of color were being represented. The results — sad but unsurprising — have shown that women writers and writers of color make up a minority of the contributions to the major literary magazines and reviews. They provide fewer works of fiction and nonfiction, write fewer reviews, and their books in turn are reviewed less frequently. Writers of color fare no better, and often worse.
Reactions to these reports have been mixed. Some editors blinked at the results, genuinely surprised to see the figures in black and white, and apologized for not make a more concerted effort to be fair and balanced. Others argued that they weren’t purposefully discriminating; rather they had a commitment to quality and were taking the best of what was submitted, or, in the case of choosing books to review, a cross section of the types of titles that merited attention, and if more of those happened to come from men or white writers, well, it wasn’t their doing. But one thing has been clear: Even among editors willing to change, not a lot has been done to improve the situation.
Enter a few determined souls who are anxious to do their part. Daniel Pritchard, the editor of Critical Flame, has declared that he will focus solely on women and writers of color this year. A growing number of readers have declared they will read only women and writers of color in 2014, buoyed by writer and artist Joanna Walsh, whose hashtag #readwomen2014 has been spreading across Twitter. Alison Flood, writing for The Guardian, gives a more complete rundown, and Cassandra Neace at BookRiot talks about reading writers of color. The idea behind the reading campaign is that the market will follow the money; if more people purchase books by women writers and writers of color, reviewers will be forced to take more notice.
This is, of course, a much more widespread problem than these articles indicate, focusing as they do on literary publications and ignoring genre writing. The SFF community has spent years analyzing the lack of characters within the genre that break out of the Anglo-European mold. Women writers dominate the romance genre and comprise the majority of its audience, but the romance world is still polarizing in its treatment of race. The reality is that books and publishing are a microcosm of the larger world around us, and humanity still has a long way to go in its fair and equitable treatment of all its members. Throw in a perception of “what sells,” and things get even more complicated. Ultimately, companies are motivated by profits.
So what do we do? Shedding light on the problem and spreading the word is a great first step. But so is adopting a personal philosophy. I was curious about my own reading habits. For work, I read a lot of things written by women; it’s the nature of the sorts of books I represent. Whatever else is going on in the publishing world, there are a lot of women writing romance, women’s fiction, young adult fiction… But in my personal reading, my interests run a much broader spectrum. I read all the genres I rep, plus classics, mysteries, memoir, and other nonfiction. However, it turns out I still read predominantly women writers. Not by conscious choice; that’s just how it seems to have turned out. Over the last ten years, approximately 80% of the titles I read were written by women. It varies a little, but that’s where it shakes out. When it comes to writers of color, my percentage is much more all over the place, but at the end of the day, allowing for overlap, I read more works by authors of color than by men.
There are many, many books by men on my shelves, and I certainly studied plenty of male-centric literature in school and university. But working in a female-centric area of the industry, I suspect I’ve simply heard more about women’s books than men’s in recent years. The mainstream publications might be touting primarily books by men, but my friends and colleagues have other recommendations for me. Goes to show you the power of word of mouth.
Unfortunately, there are no easy fixes. Not everyone cares about the problem. But I believe that those who do care are the vast majority, and that raising awareness can go a long way toward making people pay just a bit more attention to their choices. I’ve heard from a number of people that they plan to read only books by women or books by people of color over the next year, and I think that’s admirable. But even making a conscious effort to read more within a certain demographic is a step in the right direction. No one is discounting the works written by white men. Rather, we are saying that people should open their eyes and welcome all points of view and different worlds and cultures. Reading should be an adventure in addition to a comfort. For every book that’s cozy and familiar, try something new and walk a mile in a different pair of shoes.
I plan to look at different aspects of this effort to increase awareness and broaden people’s reading choices as the year progresses. I’m curious to see if this is one of the new year’s resolutions that gets forgotten or the sort that becomes a wonderful new habit. So be on the lookout for more posts on the topic, including what I hope will be interactive discussions where you bring me your thoughts and book recommendations to share with everyone reading this blog.
And on that note, go read a good book.