To Read Or Not To Read: A Matter of Choice

I have said this often enough on social media (Twitter in particular) that I am a very selective reader. I research before I read. Some disciplines treat the book as an island, isolated from anything else, unaffected by anything else. (I believe the literary term for this thinking is New Criticism but I could be wrong. Nope, Google tells me I am correct.) The book is an island and should be discussed as if it exists in a vacuum, unaffected by the world (and the events in the world) around it. The New Critic (again, this might be a misnomer and if so, I apologise) would have you believe that the author’s contribution to the book fades during the reading experience. What remains prominent during and after the reading is the reader’s feelings, background, and perception. The author, according to some critics, is the least important party in this three-way (author-book-reader) relationship. Needless to say but I will anyway, I don’t subscribe to this mode of thinking.

What brings about this post? Well, a host of things. Yash introduced me recently to the #ownvoices campaign and I read Read Diverse Books’s excellent post on writing. I read this article about Tina Fey’s TV show and her comment on “opting out.” ScarJo in a role originally written as an Asian woman, the other actress in a role originally written as an Asian man, life, and a strange capsule of free time.

I will talk about representation and diversity a bit later but for now let’s return to reading and selectiveness. There is no way to say this kindly so I’m going to put it out: as the YA genre flourish(ed? Some would argue it is waning now), publishers (they are a business) seized the day and churned out as many formulaic YA as they could in an effort to reap the most profit they could. A lot of the books put out were regurgitations of the same plot dressed up in a different white girl wearing a different dress staring moodily down a different scene. Because only a certain kind of people were being given book deals, only certain kinds of experiences were turning into fiction. Only certain kinds of stories saw the light of day and those who didn’t meet the profile didn’t get to tell their stories. But in time, there was a definite shift in awareness and POC discovered they had voices and they could make themselves heard–hello, social media.  POC also realized that they too hold purse strings and they too spend money and they too can demand stories of their own.

So we did. Does that mean our voices and our words get taken seriously? Sometimes but many other times people trivialize the issues brought up by diversity advocates by saying stuff much like Tina Fey does (quoted in the article I linked) as there being a culture of people whose only aim is to create discord. See, it is difficult for the people in power to admit that the advocates bring up pertinent issues that require discussion. No, it is far easier to dismiss these people because to do otherwise would mean accepting that the status quo is problematic and needs to change. Obviously there are some people who take things too far but that doesn’t negate the people who raise credible and important points with regard to the disparate levels of power in society. We aren’t even talking money here, folks. We are talking about people claiming ownership of something that clearly doesn’t belong to just them (in this case the culture) just because they are the majority. We are talking about erasure and systematic discrimination and oppression.

The refusal of the majority to listen to the minority doesn’t stop us. So we continued writing, we continued advocating, and we continued making noise about the things that are important to us.

But we didn’t live happily ever after. Because ever after is a myth. A mountain doesn’t move just because a dog barks at it, ya know? You have to take some shovels and start shifting dirt.

But really, I’m talking about reading here. Increasing demands for diversity and representation bring things like tokenism to the forefront. What is tokenism, you ask? Well I was reading an article for work the other day and the writer of the article defines it in such a perfect way. Let me share:

“The concept of tokenism implies that a small and distinct group, based upon its very limited proportion within a much larger group, will be susceptible to, and influenced by the social hegemony of that larger group. As such, the more dominant group dictates the overall organizational culture, either officially or unofficially.” – Kareem Negm, Canadian Military Journal, Vol 16, No 2, Spring 2016

This is rather different from a token character in a novel where token is used as an adjective meaning something done for the sake of appearance. Like you know, the nth POC servile fictional character? But returning to tokenism, take book covers with white models on them for an example. For a long time the visible lack of POC people on book covers was attributed to the audience refusal to buy books containing covers with POC people. As in POC aren’t sellable. (I think this is still a reason Hollywood takes out and parades around?) Only this is untrue in very many ways and people have documented how it is untrue in very interesting ways. (The film Gods of Egypt  is often mentioned accompanied by a snicker.)

But we’re still talking about reading here (as difficult as that may be to believe). Being selective means that I will be aware of who is writing what and whether it really is their story to tell. Mind you, I am not stopping anyone from writing what they want. You can be as creative in your art as you want but I will be the one deciding whether I want read the book. Being selective means that I will no longer be swayed by hype or a pretty cover or a superficial assumption of diversity based on a few names littered here and there. Being selective means I will no longer put up with ambiguous comments about religion or sexuality that can be read either way. You can call me whatever you like but ultimately the money is mine and the choice on where to spend it is also mine.

So what do I think my selectiveness will do? On its own? Nothing much. But if other people were to get similarly selective and demand a lot more from the literature they consume (especially children’s lit), I figure we could move that mountain. I know my shovel is ready.