On The Subject Of Diversifying Your Bookshelves

Out of all the points I made during last week’s No-No-Misogyny-Fest (it’s like Lilith Fair!), I think the one that maybe generated the most conversation — pointed at me, anyway — was the notion that you might want to read more books by women.

A lot of the response was interesting. Some reasonable, some maybe not so much. Some folks felt they were gender-blind and didn’t want to read books with the gender of the author in mind. Some resented the idea that I was oppressing their bookshelves, as if I were personally coming to their houses and forcing some kind of literary affirmative action upon them (NEEDS MORE JANE AUSTEN). Some folks felt I was suggesting you should grab books by women regardless of quality or content or genre — just, y’know, run to Barnes & Noble and say, “I NEED CHICK BOOKS, STAT” and start grabbing books by them pesky lady-authors off the shelves and into your motorized book cart.

(What, you don’t take a motorized book cart with you to the store? Amateur.)

I’d like to unpack this a little, which means you may have to sit through a little redundancy. (It only stings for a moment.) It’s like this:

First, I’m talking more to writers than readers. Not to say this isn’t a valuable thought exercise for readers, too — but my feeling is that writers should be well-read.

Second, this isn’t about making your bookshelves a perfect Pie Chart reflecting the population diversity found in this country or any other. Further, you don’t need to make your shelves the United Fucking Nations, either. This isn’t about rigorous, enforced heterogenization.

Third, and this bears repeating: nobody is actually making you do this. Cool your nipples, twitchypants. Nobody’s burning your White Dude books. I have lots of White Dude books and, you know, hey, I like them just fine. You want a bookshelf full of nothing but Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME series in various formats and incarnations, more power to you.

Fourth, nobody’s saying you shouldn’t care about story or genre or content or the things you usually care about. This is about the very safe assumption that the type of books you like to read are probably written by both men and women.

Fifth, reading a book by a woman won’t turn your sperm into a slushy, sterile granita.

Sixth, and finally, this isn’t about feeling shame over your bookshelves.

I’ll retell the story here because, hey, whatever, IT’S MY BLOG I’LL DO WHAT I WANT TO, but it’s like this: about three or so years ago, before I actually had my own novel on the shelves, someone asked me who my favorite women authors were. And I was like, “Robin Hobb, Poppy Z. Brite,” and then I probably mumbled a third name because I couldn’t really think of that many. And when I went back to look at my shelves, it was pretty obvious why. My favorite authors were mostly dudes. And my not-favorite authors were mostly dudes, too.

And I thought, gee, that’s kinda sad. And maybe a little troubling. I always thought of myself as gender-blind, which seemed like such a good thing. Except, gender-blindness goes both ways — it means I might be blind to the other gender. I had an unconscious bias toward reading White Dude books. Which is maybe not the worst thing in the world…

…but it made me a little uncomfortable.

So, I set out on a purposeful mission to read more women authors.

Not some specific percentage — just, y’know, READ MORE OF THEM.

And it wasn’t just some crazy hair-on-fire grab-all-the-books-by-women — it was trying to find out what people liked or what I might like in the genres I preferred to read. And again, it led me to a wealth of wonderful writers — Lauren Beukes, Erin Morgenstern, Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Bear, Seanan McGuire, Kim Curran, N.K. Jemisin, Delilah Dawson, Cherie Priest, Gail Simone, etc.etc. — I’m forgetting some and had a long day at the zoo where I rode emus and stole lemurs and so you’ll forgive me if my brain is tired.

Point is, I’m much happier having discovered a wealth of great writers that I had possibly been unconsciously relegating to my White Dude blind spot. Maybe you won’t be, I dunno. But this isn’t about some neat little ratio, some nicely diverse percentage so that your bookshelves look good to your liberal hipster friends. It’s just about reading more widely, more completely. There is genuine value in reading beyond your comfort zone and outside your echo chamber — we sometimes should make an effort to read books by people with different experiences than us. That’s true whether it’s genre or gender or sexual orientation or race or whatever. (Non-fiction is particularly good for this.) No harm in trying, right?

Then again, maybe you already do this. And if so: high-five, what’s the problem?

All of this is, of course, IMHO, YMMV, you do what you like. I’m not your Dad.

The end.

*rides off on an emu with a lemur as a hat*

(See also: today’s guest post by Karina Cooper which covers similar ground.)