Sunday, April 02, 2006

We talked about author's gender, what about race?

Slush God refers to an interesting discussion about the importance of author's race as well as gender.
It all started with a list of Sci-Fi books for the ages in NYT fully comprised of white men.
It continued with comments on the above mentioned list in Locus.
Then Slush God asked his readers to list the top ten books written by women and top ten books written by people of colour. Here is the discussion in Slush God.

Naturally, in a perfect world, these questions would be ridiculous to ask but in our world, apparently they aren't.

There is, however, one things I'd like to add. Some people, yours truly included, don't pay attention to race and gender of the authors. Not because I'm trying to paint myself as a saint, but because I don't usually care about the writer, his life, where he lives or his dog's name. So unless I actually take the time to try to find out, there's no way of knowing the race of an author (jacket picture, but I rarely buy hard covers). As for gender, I only recently found out, for example, that one of my favourite authors is a man (he has one of those names that can go both ways and I always thought he was a she).

But as naive as I pretend to be, I can still list female authors with greater ease than non-white authors. I'm not sure what it means, if anything, but I know it's something I'll start paying attention to more often from now on.

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Jack Slyde said...

I'm not sure it means anything at all, Melly. I would have thought this was one area where it would be of almost no relevance, as you said unless you actively look for information on an author how can you know their race, and in a lot of cases even their gender. I rarely read the about the author bit, because I don't care about the author, I only care about the quality of his/her work.

If there is a problem, it probably lies with the people publishing and marketing the books, as let's face it, they essentially decide which books make it, and which don't.

Or maybe writing sci-fi just appeals to more geeky white boys than anybody else :)

Benjamin Solah said...

Thankfully, you can't really tell which race the writer is, unlike with gender. But I would still say I've read more white writers than people of colour.

And like Jack said, this is because of the publishers. It could be put down to entrenched racism, but a bigger factor could be seen much deeper down with socio-economic problems, ie. people of colour are more likely to be poor and under-educated through no fault of their own and so writing wouldn't be a past-time as common.

Cavan said...

I would say that I generally am one of those people familiar with the author when I read their book, if only because I tend to read a little bit about a book before I actually put down cash for it.

I definitely do take note when I'm reading someone who's either a woman, non-white, or gay. The reason for this is that I think the perspective of minority makes for more interesting fiction. This isn't to say that white males write bad fiction (after all, William Gibson and Chuck Palahniuk are my favourites), but on average I find that women, for example, write consistenly more interesting books.

A quick browse down my shelf reveals a number of women, both heterosexual - Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. LeGuin, Pat Cadigan, and homosexual - Nicola Griffith, Ann-Marie McDonald, Kelley Eskridge. As well, there's also a lot of books written by non-white writers: M.G. Vassanji, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler (who also happens to be a lesbian), Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Thomas King, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, Ali Al Saeed and Khaled Hosseni.

Now, a portion of this stems from the fact that I find Western culture a lot less interesting than, say, the Middle East. The fact of the matter is, though, that I do actually seek out non-white male writers because there's generally a different, and more interesting focus.

Melly said...

Thanks Jack :)
Pretty much my feelings on the subject, only I was shocked to realize when I actually thought about it that I could only count 3 African-American writers, and all female.

Very interesting, Benjamin. Trust you to find the social problems here :)
Perhaps you're right.

Cavan, knowing about authors could also be attributed to your studies, no?
You give an interesting list. Quite frankly, I never thought of Arab, Mid-eastern or Jewish authors (which I do read and can usually tell by name) as non-white, but I guess that in the context of different culture, I can see how that would make sense.
I totally agree that these authors have a new/different way of looking at things. Anoter layer I don't read in "Western male" authors. Same is true for African-American authors such as Toni Morrison, a whole new dimension.

Georganna Hancock said...

What I find fascinating is that more women write, but more men are published.

Anonymous said...

I don't care about an authors race or geneder. In fact, unless there is a picture of the author on the book, I usually have no idea what they author looks like.

Deborah said...

This is an interesting thread, Melly, and something I've never given any thought to. Curious, I went to my bookshelf and found that most (around 70%) of the books I own are written by white males. Hmm.

Thinking about Ben's and Georganna's comments right now, it's kind of scary how society's predjudices can seep into your subconscious whether you want them to or not.

madukwriter said...

Why do you need to list ten of your favourite female writers and writers of colour? What useful purpose does that serve? I always wonder about the motivations of people who feel the need to do this kind of thing.

There are plenty of people of colour out there who do not have obviously non-white names e.g. people who come from the West Indies for instance. Unless you see the writer or there is something in the blurb you have no idea who they are. How many people knew JK Rowling was female before it was announced?

I'm sure there are writers out there who don't feel the need to announce to the world there racial identity and sex. What about pen names? There are female writers out there with male pen names. As I say unless the writer has done publicity or there is blurb and a photo then you don't know who they are.

As a black woman I couldn't care less who wrote the book, just as long as they have told a good story and it has been well edited.

Melly said...

Goerganna, that is indeed a fascinating fact.

Fred, yup, that's pretty much what seems to be the general view on this comment page. Obviously not among the population at large as many many men won't read female authors.

Deborah, you really think it's subconcious, or maybe it's just that most books are published (not written) by white males?

madukwoman, indeed this seems to be the feeling around this comment page of most people. As for race, you're right. Unless the name hints something, no one would know if they didn't seek the information. As for women authors, however, the situation is different since the name usually (not always) indicates the gender and it is men who make that distinction and don't read female authors. Most never even try so it's not like they can say the female author doesn't write well. They just think females write differently. Studies have been done about that.

Zoe said...

I found out the other day that Octavia Butler was black. Before that, I had no idea. The only time I know if an author is black is if there's an author photo in the back of the book or if they (or other people) talk about it online.

I notice an author's gender more than I notice an author's race, but for a simple raeson - name. An author with the first name of Jessica, for instance, is likely to be female. (And a science fiction author who uses two initials in place of a first name - for example, S.L. Viehl - is likely to be female.) I know you can sometimes tell race by names too, usually the last name, but I seem less astute at this than most - I was reading a book on writing the other day, and it listed a bunch of different last names to illustrate how they each gave a different image of a character's ethnic background, and I could tell that one of them was a Jewish name but I had no clue about the rest.

I don't care about an author's race, and I'd like to say I don't care about gender, but I will confess to having a slight propensity for female authors. I don't find that they write differently from male authors (though men seem to be slightly more likely to write in the dense heavy style that I don't like), but I've always related better to women, so I'm slightly more likely to buy a book if it was written by a woman. Silly, I know.

But one thing I don't like is books that try to beat you over the head with their inclusiveness. "Look! We're writing about black people! And gay people! And people from far-away countries! And to show our amazing sensitivity, we're going to write about how they're so much better than white straight Americans, because we're tolerant and inclusive and white straight Americans are horrible bigots!" I like seeing inside other cultures and subcultures; I don't like reading things with such a blatant agenda, especially when I feel like the agenda is attacking me. It shouldn't be any more okay to say that white people are all bigots than it whould be to say that all black people live in slums.

Cavan said...

This topic touched a nerve with me - I've written up a post on my take on the subject, if anyone's interested:

Melly said...

Zoe, sure it isn't okay, but it's almost inevitable. Fact are facts and fact is that whites have been historically the biggots and worse. So for me, I don't really care that much because I think that reminders of these things are still very much needed and that we're a long way away from real equality race and gender wise.
I can see your point, and many times I also grit my teeth thinking, don't include me with those biggots, but my feelings are probably minor compared to the healing process certain groups still have to go through.
Do I make sense? Or do I sound pompouse? I find it hard to write about such a sensitive matter without offending someone. I hope I didn't because it was never my intention and I'm willing to be educated so Zoe, anyone, feel free to correct me :)

Cavan, I know what you mean. I'll come take a look.

Zoe said...

Melly, I agree with you there. You make a good point. Often minority groups were treated horribly, and it makes sense that members of those groups would be mad at those responsible. And you make a good point, that this helps remind us that we still have a lot of work to do in this regard. I hadn't thought of that.

It just bugs me to be lumped in with the oppressors when I had nothing to do with the oppression. It's interesting how this works - if you're connected to the oppressed, you're often angry on behalf of the oppressed (and strengthen the connection), but if you're connected to the oppressor, you're often ashamed and want to distance yourself from the oppressor (and minimize the connection).

Melly said...

Zoe, I can fully comprehend what you're saying and fully sympathize.