I never think about the gender, race or age of the author when I’m choosing a book to read – I’m usually only thinking about the story and style. But I wonder if in not thinking about it, my reading list has been accidently skewed.
I’d already been wondering about it in relation to translated literature – I didn’t think about the language of origin, so I didn’t think I had a bias there, especially because I think it’s useful and important to read widely. But I realised a few months ago that I was reading hardly any translated lit, I expect because I’m exposed to more English-language lit, so that’s what I ended up reading. Since I started making a conscious effort, the proportion of books in translation I’ve read has gone up massively, and it’s been great.
Do I have the same accidental-bias problem when it comes to gender or race? I don’t know.
It’s interesting – it may be that through genuinely not caring about the gender or race, for example, of the authors of what I read, I am unthinking. And this unthinking may mean that my book choices are skewed because I’m relying on there being a balance Out There in what I’m exposed to (through the media, friends and twitter). And actually, it’s pretty well-known that the vast majority of books reviewed in the press are by male authors (check out these charts comparing the numbers of male and female reviewers, and the number of male and female authors reviewed over the past three years. It’s depressing). And that’s without thinking what the count would be in relation to different races, cultures and languages (unsurprising guess: I think we’d get a lot of white guys).
I don’t actually get many of my book recommendations from print media anymore. Since I joined twitter, and followed various publishers, authors and bookish types, I tend to get all my book news from there. My sights have definitely been widened over the past few years that I’ve been playing about tweeting, but (and it’s a big but), I am only exposed to the ideas of people I follow. This seems kind of obvious, but when you think about it, it means there are whole pockets (and giant chasms) of cultures I hear next to nothing about, except when someone I know retweets something.
It’s basic selection bias – if you’re picking your sample (i.e. books to read) from a population that is already skewed, you’re always going to get a skewed sample.
By all this, I don’t mean that I think you need complete proportional equality across every aspect of author identity and book genre. It’s not going to happen. I’m a firm believer in reading whatever you want to read, regardless of what’s in vogue or considered a ‘good’ genre. So, does it even matter where the book is coming from, as long as you’re enjoying reading? As with what I said about translated lit, I think you limit yourself but not giving other types of things a go, but I also think it’s an important wider cultural issue. Given the biases in what’s talked about Out There, I’d rather be contributing to the expansion of our cultural expression, rather than staying in the rather limited bubble we still seem to be in. It just means there’s more to talk, argue and learn about. Far more interesting. Nothing will change Out There until the make-up of our bookshelves do. Until inclusivity becomes normal.
Casting an eye over my book shelves, I feel like I read a good mix in terms of gender, and I’m expanding culturally just through the fact I’m reading more translated fiction. I do seem to have an accidental bias when it comes to race, purely because most of my books are of western origin, and for some reason that means white dudes. It’s a bit of a disconcerting thing to realise actually.
So what am I going to do about it? Well, I think the first thing is just increased awareness, and in particular not assuming a lack of personal prejudice will automatically lead to an unbiased reading list. I want to know where my biases are. So, like many book bloggers and book-tubers, next year I’m going to do a monthly round-up of everything I’ve read in that month. I’m going to use it as a means of counting, of spotting the gaps. January and February will largely be determined by what books I get for Christmas, but I’m hoping that after a few months I’ll start to get a clearer picture. When I’ve found my gaps, I can fill them. I also just think it will be interesting to bring exactly what types of books and authors I’m reading to my attention. I expect I don’t read anywhere near as widely as I think I do.
I’d be really interested to hear if anyone else thinks they may have any accidental (or overt) biases in their reading choices. Or if you think it doesn’t matter! Any thoughts?