Diverse Reading by Neil McGowan

 

As part of my day job, I was recently on a panel about improving diversity and during a break I was chatting with one of the delegates who mentioned writing. Of course, my ears pricked up at this, and we ended up having a chat about books in general. She asked if I’d seen the latest spat on Twitter about diversity on books.

Now, I’m not really a follower of any social media – I have a FaceBook page that I suspect needs the cobwebs blowing off, and a Twitter account that I might glance at once or twice a month – as I’ve never really understand it. I know I should engage with it more, especially from a marketing perspective, but I always manage to find something better to do. (The garden won’t weed itself.)

Still, this piqued my interest enough to go have a look, so that evening I logged into Twitter and did a wee search.

Sure enough, there was a series of tweets along a similar theme. Almost all of them started with a photograph of a Waterstones store window, captioned with some variant of the following: ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’

The first picture I looked at, I rolled my eyes and suspected it was about the number of celebrity books on display; I was,however, wrong. (Well, mostly; the celebrity author book cliche did come up a fair number of times, but it wasn’t the main thrust of the argument.)

The point was, virtually all the books were by (and this is the description pulled from Twitter, rather than my words) ‘privileged white males’.

(There were also comments that one of the books was even worse, as it was by a woman masquerading as a white male, but I’m not even going there as that’s a whole different can of worms I have no desire to open.)

Anyway, I took a closer look, and on the surface, I agree – it was a very one-sided demographic. However, I suspect that, like my local Waterstones,the interior is quite different with a range of books from just about every demographic possible represented. This got me thinking: what is it that makes me buy a book?

Quite an easy question to answer, on the surface – what I want is a well-written story with a decent plot, in a genre that I enjoy. But I looked a little deeper, trying to see if there was any form of unconscious bias on my part.

I don’t think so – I rarely consider an author’s ethnicity or sexuality when I buy a book – I recall in the days pre-internet when, if you had a hardback book, then you might get a picture of the author, but for the vast majority of paperbacks you’d be lucky to get a paragraph of author biography. In this age of global information, where you can have an author’s entire history, including images, political affiliation, religious beliefs, and more, available at the click of a mouse, it’s easy to forget that historically authors were, on the whole, fairly mysterious people that were rarely seen in the limelight. Of course, there were exceptions (I suspect few readers in the eighties didn’t know something about Stephen King, whether they read him or not, for example), but I think that holds true for most. Just to give an example, one of the authors I read a lot of when I was younger was Graham Masterton (no idea to this day what he looks like, or anything about him, but I do recall enjoying his writing – mainly pulp horror, which I couldn’t get enough of when I was a teenager).

I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that, when I buy a book, I buy it because the story sounds interesting to me. I don’t buy a book just because it’s by an author who is black, or gay, or because it contains characters that are black, or gay, or transgender; I’d buy it because of the story. A recent example: I’ve just finished reading Cara Hunter’s All The Rage, which has a fairly major plot line that deals with violence against a transgender character (trying to be a little vague here so as not to give away too many spoilers - it’s a thumping good read if you’re a fan of crime thrillers).

I bought the book (buy a female author, which already starts to deflate the white privileged male argument a little) because the synopsis intrigued me – I didn’t know it featured a transgender character at the time, and it wouldn’t have influenced my purchase one way or the other. In an (admittedly unscientific – I literally asked a few people) survey, most people responded the same – they bought books based on the story. One lady was adamant she’d never read any horror; for myself, romance is a tough sell – I don’t care whether it’s straight, gay, or a mix, it’s just not a genre that holds my attention.

But even knowing all this, I still get the point – there is very little diversity being promoted, and I wonder if the root cause is discrimination or financially motivated.

See, the big publishing houses are motivated by profit, and I suspect if a diverse author started to sell then they would start to get heavily promoted. After all, there are a huge range of places to submit that cater to all sorts of diversity; as a male, for example, I can’t submit to one of the publishers that only accept female writers; and a quick scan of the submission opportunities in this month’s writing magazine shows a range of requests for work from minority authors, queer writing, and others. No, the problem, as I see it, is one of simple economics. Because these books are not heavily promoted, they don’t sell in the same numbers as, say, the latest John Grisham or Stephen King (or one of the celebrity authors, whose name usually guarantees a decent return on investment. But because they don’t sell, the marketing budget is much smaller, with less opportunity to push them into the limelight, and I think that’s where the real issue lies.

It’s something I’ve never really considered before, but it did make me think. I’ve always tried to promote books I’ve read that I enjoy, recommending them to others whom I think might get a similar pleasure from, but could I do more? I’d like to. (Although, I can see this means I may have to get to grips with social media. Shudder!) But for me, there has to be an honesty to any recommendations; I just can’t see myself mindlessly retweeting a plug for a book I’ve never read. But I do intend to try and highlight books by lesser-know authors, and if they’re from a more diverse background, then even better. Surely, more choice of books means more people may get pulled in by a book that connects with them; if I can manage to help provide that spark for just one person, then I’ll be happy. Merry Christmas, everyone!

 

Comments

Peter Leyland said…
That's an interesting piece Neil. Considering again how I choose books to read now that I've retired from teaching them, I think book groups are a useful place to find ideas. In mine, CarersFirst, we have just read a fascinating novel by Claire Fuller called Swimming Lessons which followed an earlier one called Unsettled Ground. This way people whose judgement you respect share their liking for an author and/or book. And how did I know about the group? Why through Twitter of course...

Thanks for your post and season's greetings to you too
LyzzyBee said…
I have always been very interested in stories about people who are different from me, so I don't exactly seek them out to share, but I try to commit to diversity, anti-racism, etc., in my life and part of that is sharing things on one's platform. As I work for myself from home and am not part of a faith group etc., my main platform is my blog, so I do share and promote and write about diverse books and authors as a specific M.O., even though I knew at first I would get far more engagement, reads and comments if I just posted about White mid-century women writers (that has changed a bit now). What I did do intentionally was seek out Black and other Global Majority People book bloggers so I could read and absorb their thoughts and insights on books I read; that has definitely deepened my experience and allowed me to share more nuanced reactions.

As to the economics of the thing, there have been waves of enthusiasm about publishing diverse authors/subjects - there was one in the mid to late 90s and I found a lot of authors through that. Post-George Floyd, there has been a huge surge in publishing (although a friend who runs a diverse author mentoring scheme notes the balance is still very low in children's books et al.) and that does seem to be continuing. I'm having a policy of buying up books while I can get them but sharing them gradually, to try to maintain the momentum in my own small way.

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