Every year I create reading goals and mostly fail at them. My goals are rough guidelines, more than hard goals.
This year I accomplished some of them. I had a goal to finish the fiction of three authors. I finished all of Marilynne Robinson and Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. But I still have one more Octavia Butler fiction book. I also had a goal to read at least three books by both Madeleine L’Engle and James Baldwin. I read three books by L’Engle and one biography. But I only read one book by Baldwin and two books about him. (I am aware that the two authors I didn’t complete my goal were Black and the ones I did were White, including O’Connor who has some very questionable writing about race.)
I had a goal to read more about beauty, and did not pick up a single book on beauty.
Race and Gender of Authors
Sometime around April, I sat down and figured out the race and gender of the authors I read in 2017 and early 2018. At the time I was reading roughly 2/3 non-fiction and 1/3 fiction. I realized that I was roughly even between men and women authors in fiction, but my non-fiction was disproportionally male.
My real hole was reading non-fiction by non-White women. That is still a pretty big deficit, but I went from 1% in 2017 to 4% in 2018. I also am not reading hardly anything by authors that are Asian, Native American or Hispanic. As far as I can tell, I read no books by Native Americans or Hispanic authors and only six books by an Asian author in the last two years.
This chart is the percent, by category, with each year equalling 100% and the sections (non-fiction and fiction also equaling 100%). In 2017, 50% of the books I read were non-fiction books by male authors and 35% of the books I read in 2017 were non-fiction by white male authors. I read nearly twice as much fiction by women as men in 2018, and that holds true for both Black and White authors. But I read just over three times as much fiction by White authors as Black authors.
I actually increased the percentage of White non-fiction authors this year from 46% to 51% because I was reading more White women non-fiction, without reducing the amount of White male non-fiction authors. One of the parts I did not foresee was that while I have been reading a number of books about race, history and theology around race, a number of those books were written by White authors grappling with race from their place as Whites. Of the 23 books I read this year around race, 10 of them were by White authors. None of them were bad books. But that is actually an increase from 2017 when I read 21 books roughly about race and only 6 of them were by White authors.
David Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass was definitely one of the best books I read this year, and Jennifer Harvey’s books on Raising White Kids was written to White parents about how to raise anti-racist White children. The Introduction of Critical Race Theory has two White authors. The local history of the expulsion of Black residents from Forsyth County, GA from 1912 until the late 1990s was by a White resident of that county trying to grapple with the racist history of his county. Even in a category that is conscious of race and gender categories, the default often is White male authors.
When I look at my other largest category, books that are roughly theological, the disparities are far worse. I read 36 books in 2018 about theology, 58% of them were by White males. And additional 22% were by White females. Leaving only 20% of my theological reading by non-White authors. That is an improvement from 2017, when 77% of my theological reading was by White males and only 15% of my theological reading was by non-White authors, but not much. I more than doubled the percent of women in 2018, but actually read less by Black women and still did not read any theology books by Asian or Hispanic women authors.
I have been thinking about the diversity of authors, but I have not held to any particular goals or quotas. But it has been harder to increase the diversity of authors than I thought it would be. I need to work harder and be more intentional and get some specific goals that I track throughout the year.
Increasing the diversity of race and gender of authors is a good goal. But increasing the diversity of opinion and perspective is also part of the goal. So I also need to be reading more old books. Any given year I am reading, 75-90% of the books are less than 10 years old. And geography is also important. I read a White male author this year that is a modern Russian novelist, he is still White and male, but that was part of the goal of increasing the perspectives I was reading. And reading a book by Athanasius is hard to categorize; he was before modern racial categories. Do I count him as Black because he was from Africa? He certainly should not be considered White, but he was part of the cultural history of European theology and the introduction to the edition I read was by CS Lewis, who is clearly a White male.
I am not sure the exact date I first looked at the data. But it was roughly April 1 this year. My post-April 1 reading has been slightly better. But only slightly. White male non-fiction is under 1/3. And total White male authors is 40%, down from 44% in 2017. And I read 10 more White male authors in the first four months of 2018, when I was not tracking the data, compared to the remaining 8 months of the year.
If you are wondering how I tracked the data, I use Goodreads to track all of my reading. You can export your tracked books into a spreadsheet. That list has the authors, publishing data, title, etc. I then created columns for data I was interested in and added by hand the race, gender, non-fiction/fiction and some rough topical categories. Then I used pivot tables in Excel to analyze the data. It is possible that I have some of this data wrong because it was done by hand. But generally I know the author’s gender and race, although a few cases I had to look it up and a few cases my perception was wrong.
I have been continuing to think about this and one small aspect that I think I should not undervalue is sale prices. I buy a ton of books on sale. I track books I am interested in on ereaderiq.com, I pay attention to sales on Amazon and Audible and look at my library. Books by minority authors go on sale less often. Part of this is because books by minority authors are read less and less likely to be blockbusters, which is where sales often happen.
There are also historic trends, Open Road Media, a publisher that specializes in brining older out of print books to ebook and audiobook does have some minority authors like Octavia Butler and some of Alice Walker’s books. But the vast majority of their catalogue is White authors because historically there were many more White authors publishing.
In areas like academic publishing for theology and history, there are certainly good minority authors publishing, but minority authors are under represented for structural reasons as well. Minority professors, not only need to publish, they are also called upon to be mentors in disproportionate numbers, to be on committees focused on inclusion or similar topics. Minority professors also are more likely to be at teaching focused universities, not research focused institutions, so have high teaching loads that do not allow them the time to publish as much.
There are always both structural and individual reasons for racism. We should be addressing both. Structurally that means I need to be buying minority authors at full price. I need to be requesting books at my library, and I need to making specific choices in my own purchasing and reading time that supports minority authors to overcome historic and systemic barriers. And there are additional blind spots that I am sure I have not yet identified.
On a private facebook group I am a part of (Pass the Mic 101) it was suggested that I at least make a commitment to read at least five new non-White authors over the next year. I will formally write out some reading goals for 2019 later, but that will be one of the goals.