Changing the Way I Read

It started last August, when I read Roxane Gay’s essay/call to action, “We Are Many. We Are Everywhere” about writers of color:

The world of letters is far more diverse than the publishing climate would lead us to believe. You only need to open your eyes and open your mind. I challenge everyone to pick five (or more) writers from this list with whom you are not familiar, look up their work, see what these writers are about.

Though the phrase “binders full of women” would become a laugh line a few months later, that’s exactly what she created: an online binder of the names of writers of color, with links to web pages and blogs, for anyone thinking they’d like to read (or publish) more diversely, but with no idea where to find diverse voices. Turns out, it’s not really that hard; you just have to look.

Like one of the good well-meaning people I am, I nodded my head in approval and did pretty much nothing to change my own behavior. Oh, I looked through the list, I noted who I’d read and who I hadn’t, and I bookmarked it. Did I change my reading habits? Not really.

I’m pretty much an impulsive reader. I click on links and end up buying a book on a whim (or, more recently, put them on hold at the library in my own version of austerity). This haphazard approach has mixed results. I have books from five years ago on my to-be-read shelf, and I have a book waiting for me at the library (library books have to get priority, since they, unlike me, have deadlines). But a lot of it depends on my mood at a given instant. If I were to pick a dozen must-reads from last year (besides the short story prize anthologies and literary magazines), would I pick those same dozen books I actually read? Probably not. Do I want to change that? Yeah, sure. Am I going to? Um, maybe later, I’m kinda busy right now.

Then, just last month, two near-consecutive media events convinced me to change the way I read.

First was Andrew Ervin’s response, also published in The Rumpus, to the VIDA report showing the wide gender gap in book reviews printed in the most widely-distributed and prestigious journals and magazines. Andrew discovered he, another well-meaning sort, was not immune: only 23.5% of his reviews were of books written by women.

The big question I face now is: What can I do to change this? I don’t want to be part of the problem any longer.

And that’s where I started some serious cogitation. I don’t want to be part of the problem, either. But I was still not sure what to do about it.

Then Media Matters published their report on the diversity of Sunday morning talk show guests, divided by White Men and Everyone Else (and that pretty much illustrates the issue right there, doesn’t it). Across the board, on all networks, a little more than 60% of the guests who got to explain their views to the American public were white men. Except for UP with Chris Hayes on MSNBC, where 57% of the guests were Everyone Else (for some reason, Melissa Harris-Perry’s show, also on weekend mornings directly following Chris on MSNBC, was not included in the statistics, which again, pretty much illustrates the issue).

Hayes explained the diversity of his guests to the Columbia Journalism Review:

“We just would look at the board and say, ‘We already have too many white men. We can’t have more.’ Really, that was it,” Hayes says. “Always, constantly just counting….

“You have to say, ‘We give ourselves this rule,’ and that’s going to force us to just be more resourceful,” Hayes says. “Because I genuinely don’t think there’s another way to do it. If you don’t do that then the inertia and the tide are so strong, unless you are committed as a priority to actively fight against it, you’re going to end up reproducing what everyone else does.”

You have to change, or you’ll end up doing the same old thing. That’s what Andrew Ervin said. That’s what Roxane Gay said.

That’s what I say.

So I’m changing the way I’m reading. Not entirely, of course. I’m still committed to the BASS, Pushcart, and PEN/O.Henry prize anthologies, to TNY and One Story. They come with some measure of diversity built in, particularly of gender. But the other reading – the impulse reading – that’s where I can make a small change.

The first step towards changing the future is seeing the present, and coming up with a measurable goal.

I created a spreadsheet of the books, using my Goodreads account, to get a statistical picture of my reading habits for the past couple of years. Leaving aside the anthologies, I discovered the following:

In 2011, 75% of the books I read were by White Men.
In 2012, 64% of the books I read were by White Men.
In 2013, 50% of the books I’ve read so far were by White Men.

At least I seem to be heading in the right direction. I could stop reading for the year right now… no, I have a better idea.

For every book I read by White Men, I’ll read a book by Everyone Else. I’ll stay at 50/50 for 2013.

[I had a whole riff about the strangeness of determining who’s white and who isn’t, but I got scared that it could be misinterpreted, so I deleted it. Then I realized I deleted something because I got scared, and that’s not who I want to be, so I’m putting it back in again, and if someone wants to complain about it, go ahead.]

Some of this got a little tangled, of course. Nothing’s ever as simple as statistics makes it seem. The most fun exploration was, what is “white”? How do I count someone who’s biracial? And how do I find out race, when I don’t know anything about the author and the bio doesn’t say? Do I just find a picture and guess? And just what am I suppposed to do with Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams, whose American father and mother from the Northern Mariana Islands “raised her on a yacht in the South Pacific”??!? At least she’s clearly female (and, by the way, her novella The Man Who Danced With Dolls is spectacular), so I can put her in “Everyone Else” and not worry about it. Hisham Matar, whose Anatomy of a Disappearance has been on my to-read list since I read the excerpt “Naima” in TNY, is on Roxane’s list, but not Saïd Sayrafiezadeh (or Etgar Keret, and I also want to read Suddenly, A Knock On The Door) – how do I count these?

Yes, I’m having a little fun with this. But I’m also glancing alongside a serious question: since “race” is so nebulous and meaningless, why have we as a society given it so much power? And can changing the way I read help to fix that? No, probably not. But at least I won’t be part of the problem any more. And the more people decide to not be part of the problem, the smaller the problem becomes.

My goal opened up more interesting cans of fascinating worms. Would I have been so quick to grab Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, on the strength of his wonderful Financial Lives of the Poets and guided by a bunch of awe-struck reviews, had I instituted this rule at the time? Maybe. As is, I’m sorry I “wasted” one of my White Men slots on it. I’m glad I didn’t spring for the Saunders collection – not because I wouldn’t have enjoyed it, but because I’ve already read four of its stories – and adored three of them (but I wouldn’t have wanted to have wasted another WM slot on what would amount to six stories, see?). This is why (some) White Men worry about reverse discrimination: they know exactly what it means when you have to be better than everyone else just to seem as good as. They invented the game.

On the other side, I wasn’t really tempted by the new Diaz, though I love the final story; I just don’t really want to read more “Miss Lora“-style stories, and I’m more interested in the science-fiction novel the excerpt “Monstro” was taken from. I bypassed Alice Munro, for the same reason I didn’t check out Saunders; I’d read four of the included stories (at least I think they’re included), and while they’re outstanding, I wasn’t going to pop for the rest of them. So I’m not going to be reading books I wouldn’t otherwise read, just because they’re written by Everyone Else.

So am I changing the way I read, or not? Yes, but it’s not a matter of not reading books I want to read or reading something I’m less interested in – not at all. That’s usually the complaint about quotas – and let’s be honest, that’s what we’re talking about – that less qualified minorities will replace more qualified majorities. I disagree with that premise. I think it’s a matter of expanding the base of choices, and being sure you’ve got a full view of the field. And looking at what’s meant by “qualified,” which in the case of reading often boils down to: “Just how much of my desire to read this book is based on being able to casually mention to my friends that I read it?”

What this means in practical terms is that I keep expanding my field of vision. I see fifty, a hundred book commentaries every week (depending on how much attention I’m paying to Twitter and my feeds). It’s easy to remember the book everyone’s talking about. Just by the numbers in the VIDA report, the book people are talking about most is probably going to be a book by a White Man.

What if instead I kept a running list of books, paying special attention to those that don’t get that much attention, the books I only see mentioned once or twice, by someone who makes it a point to read diversely? A binder full of books by Everyone Else. What if I start thinking of a book as a little more interesting because it was written by someone who’s going to give me a different perspective, because it’s about a person, theme, event that isn’t familiar? What if I value Other Voices as much as I value Big Names? I can’t read every book that appeals to me, but I strongly suspect I can still read most, if not all, of my “must haves” and still keep my Diversity Quotient at 50/50 if I’m a little more mindful with my impulse choices.

I’m not trying to change the world here. I’m just picking a book to read. And I won’t be part of the problem from now on.

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