Reading While White (The Finicky Reader)

December 15, 2013 Opinion 8

tropical rain obscures the view of a sand colored building with palm trees

The TL:DR edition of this post is “Fellow white readers, we’re cheating ourselves.”

The PS TL:DR edition of this post is that I wrote it last week, and it’s been rendered moot by Liz & Beks laying it out straight in this comment thread.

“It’s been my experience that when people speak of a lack of multicultural romance, they limit themselves to books written by white authors.” – Roslyn Holcomb

Rather than derail the Author Roundtable, I decided to discuss this in a separate post. I don’t read enough authors of color because I don’t try hard enough. After more than 30 years in the game, I’ve gotten lazy. While I seek out small businesses, music, television, films and literature with a multicultural focus, my genre reading is super white. Part of this is habit. With far less reading time than in past years, I stick to publishers and names that have delivered for me in the past. Part of this is privilege. (Over the last six months I’ve been exploring the concept that all these billionaire dukes serve to reassure me of my cultural dominance. That’s an oversimplification, but go with it for the purposes of this post.) Most of it is a lack of effort.

Since we started LITM I set myself a 3:1 goal. For every two white centric (not necessarily white authored) books I read I would read at least a sample of an IR or non-white focused story. As a reader primarily of historical fiction, this also upped my percentage of contemporary romances. I think I need to up my goal to 2:1 or better. My sample to purchase ratio has been very small. I don’t think the books are the problem (although some certainly are) I think it’s my reader expectation. When you first start to read genre romance, whether it’s Avon Historical or Harlequin Presents, you learn a set of standards. Subsequent books are held up to that previous standard and evaluated not solely on their own merit, but on their comparison to prior reads.

When a white author brings me an IR romance, there’s little to challenge me. It’s in my familiar language, it’s going to follow a certain path. I might decry the othering or fetishization of the non-white character but I don’t question the frame placed around the picture. When I say I want diversity in my genre reading, I really mean I want it without having to do any work. Bring it to me in the package I’m familiar with and maybe, if I don’t have anything better to do, I’ll try it. The finicky reader. I’d love to say that in the last few months I’ve discovered non-white focused books I’ve adored. I haven’t. I’ve discovered a few I liked well enough and far more that I struggled to stay engaged with. What I’ve really discovered is how much baggage I’ve been bringing to my genre reading.

I know there are books out there waiting for me to discover them. I know it’s up to me to track them down. I want you to do it too. I don’t care if your ratio is 6:1, 12:2 or 1:1. If you’re a white centric reader set yourself a personal goal. Put in the work required to find the books we’re going to love. If word of mouth can make fan fiction into films, it should be able to diversify the Big Six. We’re cheating ourselves. We’re self segregating. Let’s put our eyes where our mouths are. I’m going to start posting samples I DNF’d along with my book reviews. Share yours. Let’s make it our 2014 resolution. I want to build the world’s laziest, most slacker centric book club and focus it on a wider romance world. The problem with genre diversity is me, which means it’s also you, because who can tell us apart? I sure can’t.

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Meoskop's first non-compulsory book review was in 1973. Although a hit with the 3rd grade, concerns raised by the administration necessitated an extended hiatus. Reviews resumed in 1985 but the concerns are ongoing.

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8 Responses to “Reading While White (The Finicky Reader)”

  1. Jill Sorenson

    Thanks for this post! So many things here resonate with me, this bit in particular:

    “When I say I want diversity in my genre reading, I really mean I want it without having to do any work. Bring it to me in the package I’m familiar with and maybe, if I don’t have anything better to do, I’ll try it.”

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot and wondering if I’m seeking the familiar in my reading and delivering it in my writing. Jeannie Lin was asking about authenticity on twitter and asking if readers really care about it. I’m not sure white readers do. The popular sheikh hero books don’t strike me as attempting to be accurate, but then I’ve only read 1 or 2. Maybe readers are drawn to the lack of reality/accuracy. Stereotypes are embraced, rather than rejected. I remember a debut novel with a lot of racist language. It has hundreds of reviews (more than any of my books/sour grapes), most positive. Readers do not squee over positive, authentic cultural representations. They squee over sexiness and “spice” and problematic content. Mentions about abusive heroes and wtf actions make more ears perk up than the opposite.

    I don’t have an issue with readers enjoying or exploring abuse themes, but it does bother me to see harmful racial stereotypes go unnoticed or worse, celebrated. I’m not sure what the solution is. I don’t know how to make authenticity familiar to those who’ve never been exposed to it.

    But I can be more proactive about seeking it out. According to GR, I read about 40 books this year. I don’t report everything I read, but anyway. 9 were lesbian or f/f, which isn’t surprising because I make an effort to read those. Only 6 MC books, 2 from authors of color (that I know of).

    I can do better.

  2. Rosly Holcomb

    Mainstream readers don’t want authenticity because it makes them uncomfortable. All those half Arab, oddly westernized sheikhs give them just a touch of the exotic, but not too much. Much like Ward’s wigger vampires. Give the readers the thrill of the forbidden BBC without dealing with, yanno blackness. There’s comfort in the familiar, in a white Santa and Jesus because it reinforces whiteness. Reading about POC actually written by POC. Oooh, here there be dragons. Reading about dysfunctional pathological POC? Great, bring it on! I can get my “progressive” card punched. But “normal” POC in love? That doesn’t support whiteness at all, and they want no part of it.

  3. willaful

    I’ve been thinking along similar lines… I know when I first started reading romance there was a real learning curve, and I rejected many books that I later tried again and enjoyed. I had to get used to the difference in style and voice from the writing I was used to. To really diversify my reading, I need to be willing to undergo that process again. And it has to be a conscious effort, because there are so many “easy” books available.

    One of the authors from the roundtable suggested her book to me, The Dom Project. I enjoyed it very much, though it wasn’t really challenging per se… it’s one of those “trojan horse” books mentioned there.

  4. Liz Mc2

    Obviously I’m in the same place. Beks’ comment really made me think about the way my preferences for voice/type of story–or just my laziness, I’m not sure that I’m not making assumptions about my preferences–are not neutral in their effect.

    I hate “assigning” myself reading, because it feels like my work, but I’m going to track what I’m reading based on a “good faith effort” approach, and if that doesn’t do the trick I’m going to try something like your ratio.

    I almost never read samples, which is part of why I tend to stick to what I expect to work for me (familiar authors or types of stories). I know it’s crazy not to sample, but my reading time is limited, and I want to get stuck into a book, not read bits and pieces of several. I should figure out how to make sampling work better for me so I’m more willing to try new stuff.

  5. willaful

    @Liz Mc2: I don’t like sampling either. It seems so easy but then I have to go back and delete it from my account. And I don’t think I have yet tried a sample and then went on to read the book. My book selection process just doesn’t work that way.

  6. Isobel Carr

    I put samples on my phone so I can read them when I have a few minutes here and there (ferry rides, standing in line, waiting for my lunch order, etc.). If I finish a sample, I can buy the book. If I don’t, it’s a couple clicks to delete it and move on. And they don’t clutter up my Kindle.

  1. Can we talk about multicultural romance?

    […] these posts at Love in the Margins: 1 – Recommended Reads: Multicultural Romance 2 – Reading While White (The Finicky Reader) 3 – Multicultural Romance […]