I haven’t gotten on my soapbox for a while now, so I thought it was about time I went on another rambling.
For the last seven weeks on the blog, I’ve been reviewing the shortlisted titles on the WHSmith Thumping Good Read award – that’s after I had the pleasure of reading over thirty books back in March to help choose the shortlist.
My reading style has never been the most commercial. The books that sell thousands of copies are crime, action or romance stories – they all have their merit, but they’re generally fast-paced crowd-pleasers. There’s nothing wrong with them, this isn’t a blog about commercial vs non-commercial books – at least not in that sense.
The types of books I LOVE are those that slow it down and explore their characters. Their critics would say these are the books wherein nothing happens, and while that’s not exactly true, I can see their point. My favourite book – A Little Life – is well over seven hundred pages long and has plenty of plot – but a thriller writer might dispatch of those plot points in two hundred pages or so.
Like I say, this isn’t to pick holes in either genre – I love reading all books and all have their positive and negative points. The real reason I’m highlighting these differences is because I had never read so many commercially focused novels in such quick succession before and it really brought something home to me.
For Thumping Good Read, publishers were asked to submit their best books, the page-turners that readers just wouldn’t be able to put down. Those brilliant books that people who don’t read would want to read. It’s a prize for people that don’t want to read a hard-going tome like A Little Life – or this blog post, the way it’s going.
In those thirty plus books – and I’m not going to name names, they were all wonderful books, and dismissing any of them was extremely hard – I can count the number of gay characters on one hand. The three that I stumbled across were – 1) a dead body 2) a cardboard cut-out best friend 3) closeted until page 223.
The number of ethnic minorities were fewer: One.
Ok, so that one’s slightly disingenuous. A majority of the time race wasn’t explicitly mentioned for many of the characters, but there were clues.
Perhaps I was reading them as white – projecting my own societal expectations and unconscious racism onto the fiction that the author had written. It’s possible, but there was at least one occasion where I read a main character as black – only for, three quarters of the way through the book for the author to make a point of highlighting the character’s milky white skin.
If I could read that character as being from a BAME background, why couldn’t I have read others in the same way? It’s just as possible as me reading them as white, that they were written white.
Some of my favourite books of the last couple of years contain representatives from minorities – Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Sarah Winman’s Tin Man and the up-coming Take Nothing With You from Patrick Gale. These books exist – but they haven’t all broken into bestseller lists, and perhaps more tellingly, they’re not being submitted for a book prize that in its very mission statement is looking for commercial books.
Even as I write this, I can see that these books are skewed towards my own interests, mirror aspects of my own life. Perhaps the simple reason commercial books are mostly white and mostly straight is because most of the book-buying public is mostly white and mostly straight?
Representation is important. Recognising yourself in a character is a shortcut into understanding a novel – but so is learning about other people, other cultures, it’s how we learn about the world, develop our empathy.
With all this in mind where are the commercial novels serving these minorities? Why are we making it so hard for their voices to be heard?
Is it because publishing is full of straight white people, publishing straight white people for straight white people to read?
As someone on the inside of the business I can tell you this – while publishing is very white, it’s not very straight, so there must be something else at play.
Perhaps the state of the economy has led us as an industry to become risk-averse. We look at the bestseller lists, see what people are buying ask for more of it, then flood the market with it.
Customers are looking for good books, at the end of the day that’s all they really want, and I believe that most of them are grown-up and educated enough to be able to read and enjoy a book that doesn’t match their own demographic.
We – the publishing industry – are unconsciously discriminating (and I do think in many cases it is unconscious – we’re not horrible bigots) and so we need to start consciously changing the things that we can control.
From authors to agents, editors to publishers, retailers to reviewers we need to start championing the books we all love and not just dismiss them as ‘uncommercial’. We need to have more faith in readers.
It’s also worth noting – that of the four characters I identified above from the thirty plus books, three of them ended up on the Thumping Good Read shortlist. Even those that were thin cardboard cut-outs helped add a difference, a richness to the worlds they were introduced in, helped their books stand just above the others.
I know that I’m going to start mixing things up in the books and stories I write – even if all that means is I stop referring to girls with milky skin and blue-eyed boys…