Thoughts on Years of Reading (Mostly) Women

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Back in 2015, roughly 92% of the works I read were by women. This was mostly intentional, as The Skiffy and Fanty Show hosted a women-centric (and non-binary friendly) theme throughout 2015.1 In 2016, the numbers were less skewed, with 61% of works by women. Including my teaching numbers into this list is a bit too complicated, so I won’t bother including it here.2 Obviously, having a more “open” year for reading meant my numbers were more fluid. But even with that fluidity in place, there’s a clear indication that my reading habits have changed.

So, here’s what I’ve learned from the past few years:

First, it is far too easy to skew your reading in one direction or another. The way we decide what to read begins early in our lives: our parents, our schools, and our extended families help us develop our early reading habits, and these habits are difficult to change without directly trying to do so. I grew up in the late 80s and the 90s, in which most of the conversations I had about literature didn’t really include women, if not intentionally, then simply because most of the works I can recall from my childhood were by men.3 I didn’t realize this until my early twenties. The first time I read a book by a black woman was in college (Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower), and while I’m sure I read some sf/f by women before that, the only author I can recall is the exceptional Robin Hobb. College opened my eyes to a lot of literature that I was missing — a testament to the value of college professors who inject diversity into their syllabi.4 I didn’t make a major change to my reading habits until those college experiences, and it took several years for to take the next step in that process.

Here’s the thing:  once you make that change, it becomes a lot easier to maintain parity without really trying. When I used to run open calls for female authors on The Skiffy and Fanty Show, it was to correct an obvious imbalance in the folks who came to us for interviews. Women simply weren’t asking to be on the show in the early years.5 Running open calls targeting underrepresented groups worked to improve the diversity on our podcast. And it took basically no real effort — write a blog post, post it, wait. Our numbers were never perfect, but they were better. What we gained, though, was far more than just a number. We gained contacts. Authors asked to be on the show again or told their friends about us. I’m not bragging; I’m pointing out that by deliberately seeking parity at first, we made it much easier to achieve parity later on (even organically). It also freed us to seek diversity elsewhere, since making ourselves “available” to one group meant we could do the work to introduce ourselves to other groups.6

The product of this was a natural shift in what I like to read. By deliberately seeking out works outside of my normal sphere, I discovered a whole lot of authors I really enjoyed. My reading tastes changed, too. I found myself enjoying work I wouldn’t normally go for simply because I gave it a shot. 2016’s numbers reflect years of self-interrogation. And I’m quite satisfied with it, not because I’ve always wanted to read more of one side than the other, but because it means I’m not running into the problems I might have ten years ago. More importantly, doing all this initial work means I often don’t have to try that hard to make sure I’m reading enough women. None of these arguments about “going out of your way” apply anymore. By looking for work by people I wasn’t normally reading, I found a lot of places into which to plug my reading brain to get what I ultimately wanted. And every time I push the envelope in some other way, I tear down a few more barriers.

This leads me to another thing I learned:  diversity will never be perfect. There’s no such thing as a perfectly diverse book. No year of reading will catch everyone. It’s impossible. Diversity is basically infinite. But if adjusting my reading habits can plug me into new things, then continuing to interrogate my reading can help me expand my vision of diversity and inclusion. Maybe one year I’ll read a whole lot of work by indigenous writers. Maybe another year I’ll read a lot of work in translation. All it takes is a will. Not a big “will.” Just a little nudging will of inclusive happy.

There’s a dark side to this, too. Of course there is. There’s always a dark side… The past few years have taught me that some people will hate you for doing this work. The very idea that you might “exclude” men from your reading leads some people into a frenzy. It’s not just about “women,” either. It’s all forms of diversity. Doing the work of trying to change my reading patterns or giving more attention to underrepresented groups has led to some mild harassment by those in the community who think diversity has gone too far. My colleagues who are more prone to engage with such people have received the brunt of the abuse, of course, but if these people want to bother you, they’ll find a way to do it. They’ll also write big screeds using faulty statistics to prove that the sf/f community hates the menfolk. What I’ve learned about all of this isn’t exactly novel. It’s a seemingly universal truth:  when you challenge the status quo, no matter how minor, the people invested in keeping things as they are will revolt.7

I’ve also learned not to care anymore. Not literally. I just mean that I’m not the person who years ago spent hours and hours and hours writing blog posts, tweeting, arguing, etc. with people who just can’t accept that diversity is a good thing. I disengage when I feel like my time would be better spent promoting the work of people I like. That’s both an important thing to realize and a tragic flaw. If you don’t want to engage, you’re unlikely to change minds or nudge people in a different direction. But sometimes engaging can do more damage than good, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with prioritizing self-care over engagement.

Maybe I’ll eventually find that careful balance between these extremes. Maybe not. All I know is this:  reading more women (on purpose and not) does wonders to change your reading habits. I also know this:  I’m going to keep interrogating my reading habits so I can keep finding good things to read from all sorts of people.

  1. If you count the works I assigned in my classes, the total comes out to roughly 55% in favor of women. The dramatic shift from 92% to 55% can be blamed on the relative absence of female writers during the periods in which my courses have focused, and so some of my courses swing in favor of men (though not by a massive margin; I didn’t actually read that much in 2015, so it’s not that hard to swing things in the other direction).
  2. Complicated primarily because one of the courses I taught focused on “Queer Autobiography,” which includes numerous works by people with gender identities that are difficult to classify without making assumptions. If you count LGBTQ+ as a factor, at least 22% of the works I read were by people in that category. For all the numbers in this post, I went with easily accessible information about identity for what I hope are obvious reasons.
  3. R.L. Stine, The Hardy Boys (written by a lot of people, some of whom, I’ve just learned, were probably women), Lloyd Alexander, etc.
  4. A skill I now apply in all of my courses. As a general rule, I try to include women and people of color into my courses, especially since I often teach works from the early-20th century, where both groups have been historically underrepresented.
  5. This may have something to do with some conversations I have had with some female author friends. I’ve heard from two women that they often don’t approach podcasts for fear that they’ll be perceived as “too forward” or “aggressive.  In one case, an author basically implied that if I hadn’t said “hey, want to be on the show?” she might not have approached me at all. This isn’t a universal thing, of course, but it goes to show that there are barriers in place that can make organic parity difficult.
  6. My co-host, Jen Zink, has done an enormous amount of work trying to improve the diversity of our podcast this year while I attempt to finish my degree. She’s done amazing work.
  7. I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve got a laundry list of enemies. Since I tend to avoid engaging with certain people, I’m mostly only bothered by a few exceptionally troll-y people from time to time. I’m also not famous enough to guarantee the kind of abuse other folks get. If you’re not that important, you’re probably not going to get burned all that much, I guess.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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