The Tricky Thing About Reading ‘Neutral’

The following was prompted by a recent Telegraph article responding to K. Tempest Bradford’s reading challenge on XOJane. (I’m not linking the Telegraph article because I think it’s a steaming pile of crap – it’s poorly-researched, uses terrible argumentation, and includes personal attacks)

A response I see come up frequently when people talk about reading challenges or pushing for greater diversity in reading is some variation of the following:

‘I don’t pay attention to gender or race or sexuality of authors when I read. I just read what I like and what looks good.’

On the surface, that’s a laudable approach – it’s meritocratic, it avoids bias based on the background of the author.

But…

The tricky thing that comes with a reading habit an intentional neutrality with regards to race, sex, gender, ability, etc., is that the publishing industry, being part of society, dis-proportionally supports and prioritizes the work of people from the kyriarchally-dictated norm – so works by able, cisgender straight white men get the most support and acclaim. This means that many excellent works by or about marginalized people do not get as much exposure and are less likely to come up in search results, less likely to appear in good supply on bookstore shelves, and so on.

In my opinion and experience, diversity reading challenges help readers find work they love but might not have found otherwise. It’s an intentional expansion of one’s horizons for the purpose of seeking out new works and creators that they might otherwise miss if reading just whatever sounds good. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been making specific strides to read works by authors from diverse backgrounds and lived experiences, and it’s lead me to some of my favorite works.

Some people responded positively to the original reading challenge – talked about how similar challenges helped them find new authors to love, helped them see the world in new ways. Others indicated this challenge wasn’t for them. Reading challenges are not a good fit for some people, for a variety of reasons. Some people benefit from taking a specific bloc of time to change a habit, and others benefit from small changes in reading behavior, expanding the range of their sources of information about books, so that the books they come across organically are more diverse.

I don’t want to force anyone to change how they read. But I think it is very useful to examine how the status quo warps the range of works that are most readily available, and to be on the lookout for ways to swim against institutional bias to find excellent work that is not as favored by the establishment.

EDIT:

For folks looking to diversify their reading, K. Tempest Bradford has started a video series called The Tempest Challange!

3 thoughts on “The Tricky Thing About Reading ‘Neutral’

  1. Paul (@princejvstin)

    Thanks, Mike.

    “I only read what’s best. I never pay attention to the author’s gender/color!” seems to me, too, to be crying for a meritocracy that really doesn’t exist. It also seems to be protesting too much. Does any reader not learn things about an author? It seems unlikely to me. And as you say,the status quo establishment reinforces a predominantly white male diet of books. It takes effort to swim against that. There are plenty of ways to do it, but I do wonder just why Ms. Bradford’s challenge caused so much negative reaction.

  2. Ms Thang

    I applaud your efforts. I’m a lover of fantasy fiction, a genre where diverse characters are generally green, or purple-spotted. They are the fill-in diversity, because many can’t bring themselves to use human diversity. Still, oftentimes, the same old cookie cutter heroes fill the lead roles. I’m on this website because I picked up The Younger Gods on Audible. I love the diversity in the story – though I don’t like the way Luke Daniels reads the black character. It’s so cliche. Everyone else is pretty well done, and he is one of my favorite narrators. Of course, some people wouldn’t like that you’ve got a human-skin tone Crayola box of players, but it gives me a sense of realism. That realism, with everyone working together to stop the bad person, who is not tan or brown, is refreshing. I read hundreds of books a year. Very few of the characters are black, like me. Many of the books have a subtext (hopefully unintentional) that darkness is evil. I’ve even read sentences like: His face darkened in anger. Thus associating anger with anything dark, including skin tone. What about, “Angered, he frowned.”? That works even better. I know I’m being nit picky, but ultimately, The Younger Gods is nice because it tells the reader, without sermonizing, that we can all be heroes. Isn’t that a better subtext than one in which writers tell the reader that there is a hero caste, and that hero caste is always fair of skin? Michael Underwood, I’m a fan. About to buy Shield Crocus. Keep up the good work, and give us more kick butt diverse stories like The Younger Gods.

    • Ms. Thang,

      Thanks for your feedback – I’m really pleased to hear people’s responses to work along the lines of diversity – working from a privileged position, I know how fraught it can be to presume to speak for others, and I worked hard to see that my work does far more good than harm in terms of representation.

      And I think you may be pleased to learn that diversity in casting was in the forefront of my mind when designing my cast for the Genrenauts series, and it’s been a welcome challenge to continue to stretch my perspective and craft.

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