Reading Diversely FAQ: Part 1

It’s no secret that diversity in reading is an important value at Book Riot. We write about it so often, in fact, that we’ve noticed that the same questions come up again and again from our readers in the comment sections of those posts. I, along with Riot Contributing Editors Swapna and Preeti, are going to answer those questions in a series of posts coming out over the next few weeks, so anyone who has asked these questions (to us or just to yourselves) can get a straight answer. Just search the “readdiverseFAQ” tag on the site to find every post in the series. Let’s get started:

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1. Why Is Reading Diversely Important, Anyway?

Preeti: When I was 9 or 10 years old, I desperately wanted to be a blonde girl named Tiffany. Mostly because I thought being brown was weird and being white was normal. I was the only brown kid in my class, the only one who ate weird food and hey, was it true Indian people ate monkey brains – you see where this story is going.

Seeing yourself reflected on the page imparts an important understanding of your role in society. If someone gets no representation, or if it is only negative, what does that say to that person? Your people don’t matter enough to be written about as the fully realized character that you think you are. You are not important.

“Ok,” someone might say, “So those people can read books about themselves, but what does that have to do with me?” Well, a lack of diversity in books and television is harmful to everyone. Reading about cultures, races, and sexuality outside of your own breeds empathy and respect. It expands your world view. And honestly, who wants to keep reading books about people like you by people like you? Doesn’t it get repetitive? Don’t you want a new and different perspective?

And speaking pragmatically, more people reading diversely means more diverse books being published. That’s just how the world works. If you support diversity in a big way, then so will publishers.

Swapna: I wanted to be a blonde girl named basically anything that wasn’t Swapna. The first time I read something about someone who looked like me, it was revolutionary. Though I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen until college because there were really no books about POC characters when we were growing up. Or at least none that I knew of.

I like to read diversely, about other cultures, not just Indians, because I feel like it makes me smarter, sharper, broader minded, and just a better human being.

In other words, what Preeti said.

Amanda: I second (third?) everything Preeti said, as well. It’s an especially big problem in children’s books- in 2013, 3,200 children’s books were published, and only 93 of those were about black children, for example. Young readers of color have very few places to go to read stories where they are represented at all.

Beyond the importance of providing stories in which readers of all types can see themselves, reading diversely is important because of the racial disparity that exists within publishing itself, and the disproportionate difficulty writers of color have in getting their books publicized. Authors of color have difficulty securing agents who don’t pigeon-hole their stories, and they experience countless racial micro-aggressions in the quest to get published. 89% of the publishing industry is white, with only 1% being African-American. A mostly white publishing industry produces mostly books by white authors (not intentionally, necessarily, just as the result of internalized biases we all carry and of systemic racism) and put publicity money mostly behind white authors. That means those white authors then go on to win most of the awards, land most (or all) the spots on the best-seller lists, and be singled-out for recognition by readers on the biggest bookish social media platforms– whether or not better books were written that year by POC- which means more white authors are signed to publishing houses, and on the cycle goes. The only thing readers can do to break that cycle is to make sure publishers notice that we’re buying more and more books by diverse authors. It’s the thing readers can do to combat prejudice in both the publishing and book world, and within ourselves.

 

2. Isn’t Paying Attention to the Race of an Author Racist?

Swapna: I understand why this is a question we get so often. We’re told that we live in a postracial society (or at least, that’s the ideal) and that we shouldn’t notice race. So specifically seeking out an author based on race feels wrong. Let’s dispense with the whole notion that I find the idea of a postracial society bothersome, because I think our differences are a thing to be celebrated, and focus on the fact that WE DO NOT LIVE IN ONE. Not even close.

We talk a lot about how publishing is a very white business. White authors are more likely to get published (in this study from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, less than 20% of the children’s books they looked at featured PoC authors) and much more likely to get coverage for their books (this study by Roxane Gay looking at all the books covered by the New York Times in one year divided by author’s race is fascinating). This means that what we’re being sold and marketed (which is usually what we buy) is overwhelmingly white.

And as far as we can tell, most readers want to read more diverse authors, more POC authors. They just don’t know how to find them, and not enough of them are being published.

If more people are buying/checking out books by diverse authors, then publishers will put out more. It’s a pretty simple equation. And it starts with deliberately seeking out authors of color, by specifically paying attention to race instead of ignoring it like you’ve been taught your whole life. If you haven’t been consciously seeking out diverse authors, then take a second to look at your bookshelves. What percentage of the authors on them are white? I didn’t feel great after taking a hard look at my own reading, but that’s what not paying attention to race got me. It has nothing to do with racism, it’s just a by product of what is available and marketed to us as readers.

Preeti: Swapna has it pretty much spot on. If you want a more diverse number of books to choose from, you have to prove that you’ll buy diverse stories. For the longest time, bookstores and publishers were convinced that “multicultural stories don’t sell.” We’re slowly changing that point of view by recognizing who is in the books we’re reading and who is writing the books we’re reading (and by realizing that diverse books should not be labeled ‘multicultural stories’ by default).

We don’t live in a color blind society. And we shouldn’t. People shouldn’t be judged based on the color of their skin, or their religion, or any one characteristic they might have. But we can recognize and celebrate the differences between us. And reading diversely gives people a chance to do that.

Amanda: Pretending that a person’s color isn’t important negates that person’s experience, which is a crushing feeling. When you look at someone and say, “I don’t see your color,” you’re saying that this part of my identity that has been very important to my life- both in positive and negative ways- simply isn’t relevant. But you don’t get to make that decision. Color-blindness is erasure of a person’s humanity, even if it comes from a well-meaning place. But the bottom line is this: paying attention to to the racial diversity of your reading with the purpose of reading about marginalized groups or reading work from authors whose voices are not being heard as loudly as they should be cannot make racism worse. That’s like saying fighting for women’s rights is sexist, or that the Civil Rights movement was racist, or that recognizing LGBTQ rights is homophobic. It feels strange to recognize an author’s race because of what Swapna said about what we’ve been taught in regards to living in a post-racial society, but what we’ve been taught is ineffectual, offensive, and wrong.

For the vast majority of us, not paying attention means we’ll buy and read what we’re sold, and that means we’ll buy and read almost exclusively white authors. The only way to correct that is to pay attention.

 

3. What If I Just Want to Read a Good Story?

Amanda: That’s all any of us want to do. There are a few assumptions here: one, that people who read with intention are reading stories of questionable quality in order to check some sort of proverbial box. That’s simply not true- if a book is bad, it’s bad, and I won’t finish it. I don’t care who the author is. Secondly, there’s the assumption that books written by people of color are automatically of questionable quality in the first place, even though someone you trust is recommending it to you at the moment. If someone says to you, “I think it’s important to read books by people from other backgrounds, here are a few great examples” and you say “I just want to read a good story,” you’re in essence saying “Books from people from other backgrounds don’t meet my criteria for being a good story.” There’s a lot of bias in that statement. Reading good stories and reading books by people of color are not mutually exclusive, and examining the bias in assuming that they are can be really eye-opening. It takes a second or two of mental effort to find a good story that is also by an author of a diverse background, but the excellent, fascinating, transporting literature you’ll read as a result of that effort make it well worth it.

Essentially, I think when most people say “I just want to read a good story,” what they mean is “I want to read a comfortable story about people to whom I can relate.” But we’re all human beings: there’s something there for you to relate to in every author and every character. If you just don’t want to do the mental work to get there, that’s a personal issue, not an issue with the idea of reading diversely in general.

Swapna: I totally agree with Amanda. All I want is a good story too; I read for fun and amusement. But diversifying your reading doesn’t mean you have to give up on good stories in order to accommodate PoC authors. Think about it this way: it’s even harder for a PoC author to be published than a white author (which isn’t easy to begin with). So the books out there by PoC authors REALLY have to be the best of the best. I’m not saying you’re guaranteed a good story, but the statistics are in your favor.

Really, the bottom line is, I want a good story, and I also didn’t like looking at my reading stats and discovering that 85% of what I was reading was by white people (which happened to me in 2014). That made me feel REALLY uncomfortable, to say the least. But the two are not mutually exclusive; PoC writers write good stories too!

Preeti: All any of us want is to read a good story, that almost goes without saying. But it doesn’t hurt to take a step back and think about what you’re exposing yourself to. All that’s doing is actually giving you an even bigger list of potential stories to pull from. Because as Amanda and Swapna said, there’s a huge cache of diverse writers who have written beautiful, wonderful books. And it might sound hokey, or sentimental, but what a way to learn and grow. Carl Sagan has this quote about how incredible books are, and in it he says, “an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you.” Reading diverse books is an opportunity to experience an unknown quantity, to catch a glimpse of a piece of human experience that is outside anything you’ve seen before. I mean, talk about a good story.

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That’s it for installment 1! Keep an eye out for the next installments coming over the upcoming weeks (or months). In those, we’ll be answering the following questions:

  1. Where can I go to find authors from diverse backgrounds?
  2. Isn’t this publishing’s problem?
  3. Who counts as a “POC”? For example, does someone from Spain count? Or someone who is Jewish? And what’s up with the term “POC” anyway?
  4. What about other kinds of diversity? Isn’t reading diversely important in terms of politics, religion, and where an author is from, as well as race?
  5. What about books written by white people that are about POC? Do those “count”? And as an author, what if I’m uncomfortable writing a character who is a POC?
  6. How can I, as a non-POC person, relate to a story by/about a POC?
  7. Why does everything have to be political?
  8. So what’s a “good” percentage to aim for? And isn’t that just filling a quota?
  9. Am I a racist if I just don’t care?
  10. Why are diverse books specifically important in children’s literature?
  11. Isn’t it enough to have at least one PoC character?
  12. Why is it important to have PoC characters in stories that are about more than just their racial background?

Have a question not on this list? Leave it in the comments, and we’ll do our best to answer it for you!

 

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Read the rest of the series here:

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

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