Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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Affirmative Action for Literature

Only a few months ago, I looked at my intended reading list and realized that the gender ratio of the authors on it leaned disturbingly to the male side. Perhaps if I were reading a lot of 19th century literature this could be attributed solely to a lack of female authors available, but I read almost exclusively 20th-21st century literature, and the majority of what I read was written in my own lifetime. I also observed how many other reading lists (both individual people's and officially compiled suggested ones) leaned even more disturbingly to the male side. I decided it was time to institute an affirmative action policy for literature: I looked for specific lists of female authors and researched which authors on those lists looked like they might interest me. I also looked through the past winners of the Pulitzer Prize and the Booker Prize, and added nearly every woman I hadn't already read who'd ever won either of them, even though this felt very strange since I was skipping over all the men on those lists without a second glance. When I finished, I'd added about two dozen female authors to my reading list, and it really felt like perhaps I'd gone a little too far, and imbalanced my gender ratios in the opposite direction. But I restrained the impulse to make any specific effort to add any more men or remove any of the women.

In the months since then, I've been inspired to add many more books to my intended reading list. These came from a variety of sources, none of which purported to be gender-specific, and all of which purported to be fairly stridently left-wing. I added many books mentioned in Salman Rushdie's book Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, many books mentioned in Gore Vidal's Palimpsest: A Memoir, many books I found on a website I haven't been able to relocate since that listed writers from around the world who've been persecuted for political dissidence, and several books mentioned in the latter pages of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present (again, I'm not that big a fan of literature written a long time ago, so I largely ignored the books Zinn mentioned from pre-1950).

So anyway, today I decided to count up the demographic representation of my current intended reading list. In addition to counting the gender representation, I tried to count the race and nationality representation, although this required a little more research about a few of the names. This is what I came up with:
  • 92 books by male authors, 75 books by female authors
  • 101 books by authors of exclusively European descent, 66 authors of any other descent whatsoever
  • 80 books by American-born authors, 87 books by authors born in any other nation
Probably that should be further broken down into individual races and first-world countries versus third-world countries, but that would require me to decide upon a way of classifying authors of mixed race and nations of intermediate economic classification, so I think what I listed above will suffice. (I could also try to count queer authors, but it would be even harder to decide who counts as queer and who doesn't.) The point is that this kind of reading list doesn't allow one to hear all views of the world represented equally. For me to achieve proportionate representation of the world's population, 51% of the authors I read should be female, 83% should be not of exclusively European descent, and 95% should be born in nations other than the U.S. Since it's not my fault that 50% of all the books in translation now published worldwide are translated from English, but only 6% are translated into English, perhaps it's unreasonable to expect to achieve proportionate representation of the whole world on my reading list - but come on, I'm not even achieving proportionate representation of the 20% of people in the world who speak English! For me to achieve fair representation of English speakers, 77% of the authors I read should be born in nations other than the U.S. (I haven't been able to find any statistics on the racial demographics of the world's English speakers.) Why is this so hard to achieve? I'm sure that part of it is due to economic circumstances that prevent as many members of some groups as of others from being able to spare the time to write at all, or to do it well. But I think a great deal more of it, probably the majority, is due to prejudices that prevent society in general from appreciating and promoting the work of authors from some demographic groups as much as the work of authors from other demographic groups.

Anyway, this makes me want to start a meme. Everyone should count the demographics of their intended reading lists. If you don't keep an intended reading list, count the demographics of your bookshelves. If you don't have any bookshelves, count the demographics of your CDs, for all I care. Just pick something and count it. And then ask how the numbers got that way.
Tags: books
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