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Challenging the Classics: Questioning the Arbitrary Browsing Mechanism

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013 | Posted by Foz Meadows

Malinda Lo Adaptation-smallOn what basis, really, do we choose the books we read?

Imagine you’re given a voucher to spend at your favourite bookstore, the value of which is sufficient that, in addition to picking up whichever must-have titles from your favourite authors you’ve been desperate to get your hands on, you’re able to grab some new things, too. The store is well-stocked, you have all day to browse, and a keen desire to spend your voucher all at once, just for the sheer satisfaction of going home with as many books as possible.

So how do you decide what to buy?

Actually, scrap that: there’s a more important question to ask first. Namely: how do you  decide what to contemplate buying? Because regardless of how much free time you have or how broad your tastes, it’s highly unlikely you’ll give equal attention to every book on offer. For whatever reason – or sometimes, given the automatic, reflexive nature of our deeper mental processes, for no real reason at all – in a sea of unknown titles and unfamiliar authors, certain works will nonetheless catch our eye. The font, the cover image, the colour scheme, the title; even the author’s name is sometimes enough to have us reaching for one equally unknown story over another, and if the blurb or first page looks promising, too, then why not give it a try? I’ve certainly bought books that way, and while the resulting purchases can be hit and miss, the act of experimentation is always fun.

But there are different gradations of unfamiliarity. Some books we flirt with over time, never quite sure when we’ll finally take the plunge, but ghosting their spines with our fingertips in the interim – a preemptory possession. Other books are so ubiquitous, their titles and themes infest our consciousness, forcing us – sometimes against our better judgement, but more often in keeping with our desire to exercise it fairly – to see what all the fuss is about. There are books we’ve heard about from trusted sources, titles we’ve seen reviewed by favorite blogs or which our friends have raved over; but also books that have caused a stir, whose reviews have been mixed or strident enough that we want to read them just to see which opinion feels right, or to join in the conversation as it happens.

There are new releases we want to check out and old classics we’ve always meant to try; and of course, there’s the siren-song of our favourite tropes and genres versus the thrill of something different. And on top of all this, whether consciously or unconsciously, those same superficial elements that help us to differentiate between wholly unknown books are still in the picture, pointing out that, although Book A has a prettier cover, Book B is half off, while Book C, despite being both slightly uglier and more expensive, has a really intriguing title.

There are, in short, any number of reasons, whether individually or in combination, that might prompt us to purchase a given book – but when it comes right down to it, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re making an impartial, informed decision. Rather, our choices are often deeply personal, and I hasten to add that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. At the end of the day, nobody buys a book who doesn’t think, however briefly, that they’ll be interested in reading it, and as interest is as much defined by mercurial passion as dispassionate reasoning, it’s not always easy to try and pin down exactly why we picked a particular book instead of the one beside it. Even so, the fact remains that, whatever the process by which we choose which books to buy, the browsing mechanism itself is often decidedly arbitrary. We stick to particular stores, sections and authors out of habit – sometimes consciously and rationally, sometimes not – but when it comes to choosing something new, we tend to rely on a mishmash of intuition, randomly acquired knowledge, aesthetic prejudice, curiosity, and luck.

The Tiger in the Well-smallWhich is why, to come to the point, I feel deeply suspicious whenever I see anyone claim, as  seems to be happening more and more frequently, that actively trying to diversify one’s reading choices – for instance, by making a conscious decision to read more books by women, POC (people of color) or QUILTBAG (queer, intersex, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, asexual and gay) persons, or which feature non-Western settings – is somehow an undermining betrayal of the usual book-picking process; because clearly, if you didn’t already know about such novels or feel moved to read them independently, then they mustn’t be any good. As though there’s something sacrosanct and inviolable in the act of just buying books on autopilot; as though the very act of acknowledging our own biases, or the biases of others, could cause the whole edifice of literary integrity to come crashing down like an elephant dropped from a helicopter. I say again: there’s nothing wrong with buying books that fall within your comfort zone. But the idea that it’s an inherently superior choice mechanism simply because we’re deploying it unconsciously? That doesn’t make sense to me.

I mean: what’s the real concern here? That hunting for new authors might see you wasting your time and money on a bad book? That’s a reasonable worry, to be sure, but let’s be honest: that risk is always present every time you try something new, no matter how many precautionary measures you take. Favourite authors can disappoint. Great plots or tropes can be executed badly. Promising prose can tail away into incoherence. The fear might be closer to the surface with something you’ve already decided lies outside your comfort zone, because the very unfamiliarity of the act reminds you of how precarious the unknown always is; but does that really mean the risk is greater? Well, that depends: exactly why is your comfort zone so comforting?

Or, here’s a better question: what is it about other novels you find discomforting? Are there particular plot devices that unsettle you, or whose inclusion actively makes you upset? (For instance: I struggle with stories that hinge on false accusation as a trope. I find it genuinely distressing to read about the innocent being persecuted for crimes they didn’t commit, which is why, as a teenager, I had to abandon Philip Pullman’s The Tiger in the Well after the first few chapters.) Do certain genres or plot-devices bore you? Do you dislike first-person narratives? All of these are completely understandable reasons to steer clear of particular books; or at the very least, to put some serious thought into deciding whether their cons outweigh their pros. Reading, after all, is something we do for pleasure, and if pushing at your personal boundaries doesn’t fall within the bailiwick of things you deem pleasurable, then so be it.

What does concern me, however, is the nature of those boundaries, and the extent to which the reinforcement of prejudice – both our own and institutionally – is often disguised as mere aesthetic preference. This is how unconscious bias manifests: as a culturally inherited belief whose prejudicial core is a crucial one or two steps removed from the language with which we express it. We learn to disparage the attributes, the trappings of a thing, as a coded way of dismissing the thing itself, and fool ourselves into believing that there’s no correlation between the two. I hate feathers, we say. I hate orange beaks and webbed feet and swimming, and laying eggs is just gross. But ducks are awesome! Why would you think I hate ducks?

Clarkesworld 57-smallIn this way, we teach ourselves that disparaging femininity and female-oriented culture isn’t misogyny, but an aesthetic choice; that characterising natural locs and afros as dirty/unprofessional, black slang as unintelligent and black culture as trashy isn’t racism, but an aesthetic choice; that dismissing foregrounded queer narratives as unnecessary and tacky isn’t homophobia, but an aesthetic choice. And in so doing, we not only ignore the origins of our biases and their ongoing consequences, but forget that prejudice has always had an aesthetic component; classifying someone as either exotic or ugly, after all, is a key component of Othering.

And thus, the issue surrounding our reading choices: because when you assert that actively looking for books either by or featuring women, POC and/or QUILTBAG persons, or which focus on non-Western perspectives, is upsetting the natural order of things, what I hear you saying is, my bias isn’t bias, but a neutral aesthetic choice. And as deeply as this bothers me in other contexts, it bothers me infinitely moreso in SFF: a genre that’s meant to be all about the wonders of the unfamiliar, but which so often defines that unfamiliarity along the very strict lines of ‘people who look and think exactly like me, but with magic or spaceships’ – a celebration of different tools instead of different cultures or people.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still read books we find comforting, and it doesn’t mean we’re morally obligated to enjoy particular works simply because the author is female or the protagonist a POC, regardless of the quality or our own legitimate, non-biased tastes. It simply means that we should consider the possibility that such stories are not only worthwhile investments, but that the institutional biases and conservatism of publishing houses, brick and mortar retailers, and mainstream reviewing means that, if we don’t expressly look for such stories, we’ll be left with a far narrower range of narratives to choose from than we perhaps realise.

And ironically, that’s even more true now that ebooks and online purchasing are competing with physical bookstores. Growing up in Australia, if I went into my local Dymocks or Angus &Robinson, I could be pretty certain that what I was seeing on-shelf was a pretty accurate representation of what was actually available to me, period. Sure, there’d be some variation shop to shop – larger stores would have a bigger range, and some books, particularly if they were by lesser-known or local authors, would be available in one place and not another – but by and large, there wasn’t a lot that was missing. Speciality SFF stores that ordered in American or UK titles that lacked local distribution did exist, but there weren’t any near where I lived, and in any case, the higher prices were prohibitive to teenage-me: far more often, I bought my fantasy books secondhand.

Which is why Borders, back before the whole thing collapsed in a fiery supernova of fiscal mismanagement, was something of a revelation: not because it also featured a cafe and chairs, but because it reliably stocked authors whose work I couldn’t purchase anywhere else, opening the door to new books that had previously been the purview of readers on other continents.

Clarkesworld 69-smallBut now, with Amazon and ebook readers and a thriving international bookblogging community, there’s a whole new world of stories to explore, and particularly for younger people, its existence has completely changed the way we find and buy books. Ebook versions of novels whose physical copies are only available in their country of origin can now be purchased internationally; similarly, even if a particular novel isn’t available for overseas distribution, readers in those countries can still order a physical copy online. Some ebook novels are released in advance of their physical counterparts; others are exclusively digital. And sometimes, digital ordering is literally the only way to obtain a book we’ve heard about elsewhere: Malinda Lo’s Adaptation isn’t technically available in the UK, for instance, but if I wanted, I could still buy a copy from The Book Depository. Which is why the international flavor of book blogging is so important: with reviewers getting ARCs from online sources like NetGalley or swapping books with colleagues in other countries, to say nothing of bookswag gleaned at cons, there’s no longer any guarantee that the books I hear about through my usual sources will even be physically available in my country – which is why, more and more, I buy my books online.

All of which means that, even though I still buy books from brick and mortar stores, I’m acutely aware of the fact that their stock is no longer even close to being the be-all, end-all of what’s available. If I want to keep up with the latest books from favourite authors based in the US, Australia, and elsewhere, the Internet is, of necessity, my first port of call. Being predominantly an SFF/YA reader, there was never a time when newspaper and magazine-based book reviews catered to my tastes, and as such, I learned to mistrust them early on; the idea of dedicated genre-specific publications was foreign to me, and as an Australian teen, all those US-based fanzines and journals were inaccessible to me (and even if they hadn’t been, it seems likely that, given my age and gender, they still wouldn’t have considered me their target audience).

Now, though, I have a monthly Clarkesworld subscription on my Kindle, and access to any number of other publications through various websites. I can buy indie books direct from their digital publishers and on Smashwords, I can buy ex-libris copies of old SFF novels from digital booksellers, authors like Seanan McGuire and Chuck Wendig post ebook versions of short stories on their personal websites for free download and, increasingly, English translations of internationally-authored SFF stories are being made available as ebooks too, with sites like the World SF Blog working hard to make such titles known to wider audiences.

Which makes me wonder: exactly how confused, then, are the legions of reviewers and readers whose go-to resource for new titles is still their favorite hardcopy trade publication, who think the books in physical bookstores represent the whole of what’s available (or at least, the best and most important part of what’s available), and who view ebooks and online purchasing as some kind of traitorous, confusing fad? And if even some of them are the same people baulking at the idea of actively diversifying their reading choices, to what extent do they genuinely not realise how much is hidden from them, not because of any lack of quality, but because they realise neither that the older system is biased nor that new systems exist?

Late Eclipses-smallIn either case, it doesn’t seem irrelevant that, overwhelmingly, the books I’ve had to purchase online or in Kindle form due to their lack of availability in physical stores are written by women, POC, and QUILTBAG authors; which, at least for this particular subset of readers, may be part of the problem. Given the many identifiable biases in the publishing industry against diversity – female SFF authors still being asked to use male pseudonyms, the repeated whitewashing of book covers, authors being told to remove QUILTBAG characters from the story, female authors being promoted less by publishers – it doesn’t seem like a stretch to imagine that the books receiving the most favorable treatment from their publishers (and which, as a consequence, would be more likely to dominate traditional reviewing and bookselling spaces) would skew more strongly towards straight white male authorship.

And if that’s true, then along with each successively depressing set of VIDA statistics, it might well explain the flabbergasted attitude of readers who don’t see why they should have to make an effort to read diversely: because they’re trusting that the sources they trust – the brick and mortar booksellers, major awards longlists, and traditional publications – have already filtered the wheat from the chaff using equitable, meritocratic means.

So naturally, if the end result of that hallowed process is a landslide of straight, white, male, Western-oriented novels, then that must just be a coincidence. The idea that there’s bias in the selection process might never occur to them, let alone the fact that there exists a bigger pool of potential books than the one their preferred sources are drawing from to start with. Add in the issue of unconscious (or sometimes screamingly overt) bias, and you’ve got a recipe for the kind of literary comfort zone that’s built to keep out, not bad writing, troubling tropes, or dull stories, but the narratives of people who are different to the reader – and that will always bother me.

And so, I ask again: on what basis, really, do you choose the books you read? It’s not always an easy question to answer, but the next time you find yourself book-browsing – whether in a physical store or online – and find your attention being drawn to one title over another, maybe stop and ask yourself why that is.

There doesn’t have to be a sinister answer, or even, as I said at the start, any particular answer at all; but the act of asking why – that, of itself, is a worthwhile thing to do.


Foz Meadows is a bipedal mammal with delusions of immortality. As well as being the author of Solace and Grief and The Key to Starveldt, she also reviews for A Dribble Of Ink and Strange Horizons, and is a contributing writer for The Huffington Post.

10 Comments »

  1. If it has explosions and spaceships on the cover, that’s good. Beyond that I’m not fussy. Honor Harrington is female and Eurasian but written by a man. Miles Vorkorsigan is white male aristocrat, but written by a woman.

    Give me battling spaceships and power armor and you have any milieu you like and protagonists of any culture, color or orientation.

    However, since I am a Westerner, I am most intellectually engaged by books that examine aspects of my culture. For example Campbell’s “Stark’s Moon” series looked at the role of the military in Western society. However his cast was multi ethnic and co-ed…

    Comment by zornhau - September 10, 2013 12:29 pm

  2. Martin,

    Don’t you think a well-rounded reading experience goes beyond just reading novels with a diverse cast, though?

    Sure, Jack Campbell’s STARK’S WAR books have a multi-ethnic, male and female cast. That tells me Campbell is a white guy making a genuine effort, but it doesn’t necessarily inform me about, say, the POC experience. To get that, I frequently have to turn to POC authors.

    I understand that not everyone is interested. But for those looking for writers with a fresh cultural or ethnic perspective (or sexual perspective, in the case of QUILTBAG authors… still getting used to that acronym), I think it’s refreshing to see that the current crop of digital books has a growing number of titles to choose from.

    Comment by John ONeill - September 10, 2013 1:32 pm

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  4. I tend to get those perspectives by reading blogs and news channels, and speaking to my very diverse real life friends – I live in Edinburgh, hang out with altish people and teach some of them German Longsword. I come to fiction to be entertained.

    However, I certainly don’t discriminate against POC QUILTBAG books and authors and am cross at the idea that publishers may be second guessing me and doing this on my behalf

    Comment by zornhau - September 10, 2013 7:35 pm

  5. […] what basis, really, do we choose the books we read?” Challenging the Classics: Questioning the Arbitrary Browsing Mechanism by Foz […]

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  6. […] and unconscious, and how the industry responds and contributes to these issues in the article “Challenging the Classics: Questioning the Arbitrary Browsing Mechanism.” And she even references me! Specifically the piece I did in July on publishers needing to prove they […]

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  7. I really liked this post; it resonates with me because it echoes an ongoing issue I have — there’s so much writing immediately available to me that it’s difficult to prioritise. I’ve got something like a thousand books around the apartment waiting to be read, plus access to a very good local library, plus access to a university library. Plus the internet. Even if I stopped buying new books completely, I’d still easily have enough text (and enough fiction) to read for the rest of my life. So I liked your listing of the different forces acting on one as one chooses what books to read, and appreciated your defense of selecting for diversity of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity — it’s as good a way as any other of choosing the particular texts one wants to investigate, of selecting for the stories one wants to take into oneself.

    (I will say I think there are more reasons to read than pleasure alone, even if ‘pleasure’ is defined so broadly as to include ‘curiosity.’ I always felt ‘research’ and ‘education’ are distinct from ‘pleasure,’ though sometimes they overlap. Arguably ‘cultural interest,’ reading a book for the sake of reading it and being a part of a culture or conversation, is a little different as well.)

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - September 13, 2013 2:01 am

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