Reduction of the binary ‘in between’. On diversity in reading..

I don’t recall exactly when, but some time ago, diversity in reading became quite the issue. Seeing as the publishing industry is predominantly straight, white and male, I can only applaud every effort that goes into cracking the walls of that stronghold. The road to hell, however, is paved with good intentions, and while reading diversely in itself can’t be faulted, the way it’s achieved and/or presented is up for debate.
The way people present the diversity in their reading, is through the miracle of statistics. The reason I call them a miracle, is because seemingly every premise can be supported by statistics. If you look long and hard enough, even two opposing claims can be found accompanied by a fancy graph or chart, or an even more elaborate analysis. Statistics don’t show you the world, they show you a reduction of it, called ‘your reality’. And here is the reason why this representation of diversity fails to deliver in most cases. This is by no means a way of me pointing an accusing finger, it’s the way the numbers work. With this post I’d like to stress the importance of reading diversely, yet take a critical look at how we talk about said diversity. Let’s elaborate a bit.


At first glance, by far the easiest stat out there is gender. Male or female. Well guess again.. In their effort to counter the male dominance, I’ve seen people actively searching out female authors and tallying the numbers of both genders. Equally balanced or female domination? Score! Alas, male and female as such simply refers to the biological sex, thus what’s to be found between the legs. It is our gender, a psychological notion, which defines who we are and while male and female is to be found there as well, gender is by no means a binary construct. There is an infinate range of possibilities between those extremes and an exact match with the biological sex is by no means necessary. By merely referring to your author as either male of female, you induce a reduction of the binary ‘in between’ to a binary construct. It’s an oversimplification of the human complexity.
Language isn’t helping either, on the contrary, it rather enforces this idea of binarity. When it comes to people, we only have pronouns for male and female. Anything with a bit more ambiguity to it falls outside of language and forces us to pick a side – the abysmal pronoun ‘it’ for a human being is not worth mentioning here. In this aspect, I’ve cringed more than once when, during the last ESC, the Belgian hosts felt it was necessary to, anytime Conchita was referenced, add an ‘… or she‘ whenever ‘he‘ was used or vice versa. There is no doubt in my mind that there was no ill intent behind this, but please. Pick a side, or better, do some research and find out how said person wants to be adressed and stick to that, but don’t project your own uncomfortableness with ambiguity and try to make a fluid construct binary. While you might be reading diversely, forcing your author’s gender in the two sexes for simply showing the diversity, is doing a disservice to the author, yourself and the debate at hand.
Same goes for sexuality. It’s easy to divide people as either gay or straight. Adding bisexual to the pool is a bonus! However, between those three, a lot of people are feeling left out. Much like gender, sexuality is very much fluid and can’t be captured completely by stats, not unless you do some extensive research. Trying to do just that is simply simplifying the complexity that is diversity, only for the showing of said diversity. Alas, you lost it in the process of doing so..

The idea of etnicity is even more complicated. Where white people seem to dominate the publishing industry, people are actively looking for ‘non-white’ authors. Great! But once again showcasing what you read by tallying ‘white’ and ‘non-white’ authors is oversimplifying once again. Ever wondered how that author identifies? Are we simply taking skin colour into account or do we go further and add country of origin to the pool? And what about religion? Taking this into the absurd, we can start tallying our vegan authors.. What is all comes down to is this. A human being is more than the sum of the biological sex, the colour of the skin and the sex of the partner (and every other stat that you might want to include). The beauty of humanity lies in our complex diversity and in trying to translate a human being in a collection of data, you lose the human. Stats may be fun to make, but the debate concerning diversity in publishing isn’t helped by a reduction of diversity to three (or more) binary statistics.

So where does that leave us? Simply keeping the debate alive does more than tallying your monthly reads, I believe. Talk about the importance of reading diversely and talk about the authors you’ve read. Who are they? What do they write about? How did you find their books? There’s nothing wrong with searching out diversity in your reading, on the contrary, it can lead to some great discoveries. But reading should be fun, and looking for diversity simply for the sake of it is doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Some moral idea shouldn’t lead you on a quest for diversity and no one, when in their right mind, will look at you differently if you don’t display how diverse your reading was. The bigots out there won’t change their mind because of some fancy balanced statistics. In this respect, I liked Marthe’s idea of looking for stories you like – look for something different that appeals to you – and in doing so, in looking for diversity in subjects, you’ll come across all kinds of authors. Discuss those books, talk about the authors, but don’t do them the disservice of reducing a complex human being to a binary-based statistic or your view of reality. The beauty of language brought us the books we’ve all come to love, now let’s use that language to pay back the authors and talk about this issue. With words, with dialogue, with conversation. Don’t smother the topic with numbers, but keep it breathing through language.

Where do you stand on this? Do you read diversely – by default of do you actively look for diversity? Discuss away!

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2 thoughts on “Reduction of the binary ‘in between’. On diversity in reading..

  1. Great blogpost! I totally agree with all of this! Also thank you for mentioning me 🙂 I wanted to ask: Have you seen this article on Book Riot? It’s titled “Brown Girl Reading: YA Books for Black Girls” (http://bookriot.com/2015/05/25/brown-girl-reading-ya-books-black-girls/). This article goes on to mention a list of books with black main-characters. It’s like I said: look for diverse reading. Although I think it’s a good idea to showcase books with main-characters of colour, I disagree with the title of the article: not only ‘brown girls’ want to read about dark-skinned protagonists! (Assuming they’re talking about skin colour in the article, not heritage) And I agree with the author of the text, saying that not all stories of ‘coloured girls’ should be about slavery. There should be black people in every genre! But I also feel like the list says: “Here, these are some great books if you want to read about black girls”, and ‘diminishing’ them, aren’t these books good outside of that too? Also I feel like I’m becoming too critical? This article was made with good intentions and trying to help young black girls to connect with literature, so, is it all that bad? I am once again, uneasy and lost :p Thoughts?

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    • Thx for the nice comment. Appreciated 🙂
      Re the article, I agree with you that the title is misleading in the sense that it suggests the list is for black girls only, even though we could enjoy these books as well. In that aspect, the article does just that, connecting with, based on a common singularity relevant to the audience at hand, here being skincolour. It’s like the article says, people look for themselves sometimes and the list enables that for black girls in a modern way, without suggesting these books are solely for them or praising the books for that and just that.
      I think that this feeling of wanting to find oneself in art is less dominant in us, though. I have come across lists of books based on a common denominator where I thought ‘why on earth..?’, but that is largely due to our cultural mindset, I think. Who knows what we would yearn to read had our history been different.. I know I’ve looked at lists of fantasy and bought books who feature a gay protagonist. Like the list in the article, those books aren’t good because of that single fact, but sometimes you want to read something closer to home and those lists can help in the search.

      Only you can say if you’re too critical, though I think being critical is underrated these days. As long as people don’t forget that their reasoning stems from a personal and cultural history and is thus relative, being critical can only lead to a healthy discussion and thus to more knowledge and mutual understanding and respect for all parties involved.

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