Reading Lists and Representation

Twelve days into 2015 and so far I’ve only read short stories by women.

It’s deliberate but not in the way you might think.  I’m not entirely avoiding male writers (after all, I’m still reading Othello for Dead White Guys), but, as I’ve said, I do want more gender-equity in my reading. So when I reach for a new book, I’ve been reaching for books by women. I started the year  with Aimee Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and have since moved on to Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood. The last several months, I’ve been slowly but steadily working my way through Lightspeed‘s “Women Destroy Science Fiction” issuewhich I’ve continued this month.

Now, you’ll immediately note that those first two books are both by white, Western women (although Atwood is at least Canadian) and that’s a trend I also hope to adjust as the year continues. But it’s not always easy; in fact, seeking out books by underrepresented groups remains something that must be done very deliberately. It is all too easy to–without even realizing it–only consume culture presented by white, American, heterosexual, cisgendered men. It is still the default, as much progress as we’ve made.

I was thinking about this during the Golden Globes last night.** I was thinking about how easy it is to only see movies or watch television made by white men. They are, after all, ubiquitous. And many of them are very good. I’m sure Boyhood is an excellent movie, but there’s no compelling reason for me to see it instead of Selma. In a perfect world, of course, I watch both films and appreciate both for their respective merits. But time is finite. Movie-going resources are finite. So we make choices. It’s much the same when I step into a bookstore. I can buy Ishmael Beah’s Radiance of Tomorrow or All the Light I Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.*** Doerr wrote an excellent novel–so did Beah. But I’m more likely to see Doerr, I think, on the Featured Novels shelf.

We want to believe, of course, that art is a meritocracy. Good art gets venerated, bad art gets ignored. The cream rises to the top. But, cynicism aside, we know historically that this isn’t the case. We know a lot of people missed out on Melville, Whitman, Van Gogh when those men were alive. And we know not at all how many writers and artists humanity has missed out on because they were not in a social position to be artists. It begs the question, at least for me: what are we missing out on now?

As a reader and a viewer, it might mean doing more work.  It might mean choosing an author I don’t know over one I love. It might mean moving out of my comfort zone. It might mean missing the book all my friends love to pieces.

It certainly means making specific choices. I can’t expect critics or movie theaters or bookstores to do it for me.

*Slowly because I’m savoring it–rare thing such as it is.

**I’m kind of a sucker for awards shows and even more of a sucker for Twitter during awards shows.

***Just two random examples from my bookshelf.

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