Reading Authors Not Like Me
I’ve been getting emails from folks asking me what I thought about and/or to comment on this article from K.T Bradford*, the headline of which is “I Challenge You to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year.” As with many headlines, it’s an unnuanced take of what the article actually is about, which is, as I saw it, to have readers challenge themselves by mindfully reading within a group of authors they may not been reading much of before, to experience different writing and to gain perspective on defaults in the publishing world. That said, part of doing that is moving away from a default set of authors, i.e., straight white male authors (Tempest also includes “cis,” in that formulation, meaning in this case males whose gender identity conforms to general social expectations of maleness).
As I am generally accepted to be straight and white and male and cis, I think people are interested in whether I see this as a broadside against my identity and livelihood as a writer, and whether I myself would cut out straight white cis male writers from my reading diet for a year.
Let me answer the second part first: No, I won’t be cutting straight white cis males out of my reading, for two reasons:
1. As a straight white cis male professional writer, it’s literally impossible for me not to read in that category, unless I decide not to write for a year, which I won’t be doing, because I need to eat. Note that this is a highly specific reason for not participating that applies only to a very specific subset, of which I am a member.
2. I grok that the article is not aimed at me, who already and mindfully reads a widely varied diet of authors as a matter of course. I flatter myself (erroneously or otherwise) to think I’ve always done this, primarily because as a reader I think it’s interesting to get inside of the head of someone who is not like you; also I’ll admit when I was (much) younger I would walk around ostentatiously with books by unexpected authors because I wanted credit for being that kind of reader. I got over that part of it by my late 20s, mostly, even as I kept reading the books themselves.
It also helped that when I entered into the SF/F community I fell in with a pretty diverse crowd of writers and fans, which a) meant that when I was reading my friends I was reading all sorts, b) when they raved about the writers they loved, they tended to be a diverse group as well. Having diverse, literate peers is a pretty good shortcut to diverse reading.
And yes, I am also mindful if I’m reading too much of the same old, same old, because like anyone I can lapse into it if I’m not careful. When I’m aware of doing that, I mix it up (mind you, this awareness is key, too, and needs to be cultivated). Doing so doesn’t require that much effort, and I find that it doesn’t limit the amount of interesting reading I can find out there, because why would it.
(Note well that in my particular case I get sent literally dozens of books on a weekly basis, from publishers and authors, so I don’t find it difficult to find books by diverse authors I might be interested in — they come to my door unbidden. I recognize that this is also an advantage I have others don’t. I am in many ways a not especially useful case for Tempest’s point.)
So that’s why I won’t be cutting straight white cis male authors from my reading diet – or, more accurately, reading only from a specific group of authors, the demographics of which by practical necessity would exclude straight white cis male authors.
But if someone else does, for a year? Well, you know. I generally support reading more and different authors. If digging down specifically into a group of authors you’ve previously neglected or who were swamped out by other authors means you leave other writing aside for a while, I think that’s fine. Readers don’t owe any particular author a sale or even a read; they also don’t owe that author a sale or a read at a particular time.
Also, some things to be made clear:
1. Tempest here isn’t saying never read another book by a straight white cis male ever again in this life or any other, which is a thing that seems to be strangely overlooked, with regard to this suggestion of hers.
2. She’s also not saying The Official Year of Not Reading Straight White Cis Male Authors begins March 1 at which point no one will read anything by these dudes. She’s suggesting a general idea which may be done — or not! — at the individual reader’s convenience. Even if a large number of people endeavor to read diversely, it will be on their own schedule.
3. Are any of us under the illusion that Tempest’s suggestion will galvanize the entire reading population of the world?
So simply as a practical matter, if the article convinces some people to read outside their usual habits for a year, then what that means is that someone like me won’t make a sale from that one person for a particular timeframe, but might possibly at some other point. Meanwhile, other people will still be available for potential sales.
Which already happens. I’m very sad to say that not everyone in the world buys the hardcover edition of my books when they come out. Some people don’t know I and/or my book exist; some people do know but don’t like me/my writing; some people like me/my writing but can’t afford the book in hardcover; some people can afford it in hardcover but choose to spend their money on something else; and so on.
Over time, some of those people who don’t buy my book when it comes out might buy it later. Which, again, already happens. It’s why I have a backlist. I like backlist sales. So does my publisher; they don’t have to spend a lot of time or money promoting my backlist, so the profit margins are nice. Honestly, spend money on me now, spend money on me later: It’s all good from my point of view. I’ll have use for that money whenever it gets to me, I assure you.
But — cutting out straight white male authors for a year is bigotry! Eh. Again, speaking as the proverbial straight white cis male author, I’m not feeling it, for the reasons noted above. Or at the very least I see no reason to feel threatened; maybe it’s because I believe that even if the advantage of a reader’s implicit default to authors like me is challenged or taken away, what I write will still be able to compete in both the stream of commerce and the marketplace of ideas. I don’t fear competition, and philosophically speaking, I would rather have readers who range far and wide and still choose my work, then ones who pick my work because they just don’t know any better. I’m not afraid to be set aside for a bit, while a reader explores works by other authors, and by other authors who are not like me. I figure they’ll be back, in which case our author-reader bond is even tighter. Hooray! If they don’t come back, it’s probably for a good reason. In which case: Too bad for me, but there are lots of other potential readers about there.
What if someone only or primarily reads from [Insert whatever combination of not white and/or straight and/or male and/or cis] authors? Would you have them set those authors aside to read only white straight cis male authors for a year? If that’s what they wanted to try, sure. Get out of whatever reading rut you’re in, I say! But note that (at least as I see it), Tempest’s formulation of reading is highly intersectional; someone who only reading [whatever combination of not white and/or straight and/or male and/or cis] doesn’t have to go all the way to “white straight cis male” to shake up their reading lists. And also, and again as a practical matter, the number of people only or primarily reading [whatever combination of not white and/or straight and/or male and/or cis] is likely relatively small compared to those reading only/primarily straight white cis males, which is to the point about bias in the system, and is worth thinking about, rather than sort of eliding in a rush to get to another point entirely.
Speaking personally, I think one can build more diversity into one’s reading without entirely dropping straight white cis males from one’s reading diet for a year, if that strikes one as simply too harsh to folks like me; make a “buddy system,” for example, in which every book you read by a straight white cis male is followed up by one written by someone who is not. Being mindful of your reading biases, and the practice of reading widely, are things that are beneficial however you do it.
But however you do it, at the end of the day, if you find more writers who speak to you, move you and make you think more widely, your life is going to be better. Find a way to bring in a wider set of authors to your reading diet, in a way that works for you. If it means taking a year off from me and writers like me, then good luck, have fun and remember we’ll be here when you get back. We’ll have stories to tell you when you do.
*Disclosure: I know K.T. Bradford (“Tempest”) and have for years, and consider her a friend. Note she calls me out from time to time, and we occasionally disagree on things, sometimes very widely. You can do that with your friends.