Sunday Salon: “Preaching” and Practising Diversity in Reading

This week, I participated in a discussion over at Jillian’s blog, A Room of Ones Own, on the Western Canon. Now, the more I consider this topic, the more the canon becomes flawed. The dominant discourse of what is worthy of recognition as a classic and the privileged white male selection mechanism is a well-known argument, but reading through the comments it became a lot more visible how this line of thinking still influences much of how we view “quality” and “literature” unconsciously. The more I think about it, the more I want to reject the canon and establish counter-readings of literature that “could just as well have been canon”. Except that to do so I think the word canon is insufficient anyway. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I enjoy reading “classics”, I like looking through lists such as the 1001 books you must read before you die list, but browsing them it is hard to ignore what has been so consciously omitted. Why so little women? Why so little literature outside of Northern America and Europe? Why so much general fiction? Why so little fantasy? These are questions that need to be asked, I think. It is important to be aware of them.

However, after reading about the topic on Jillian’s blog, while posting comments and etcetera, I started to contemplate if I practise what I preach. And I came to some startling (or not so startling) conclusions.

Overall, I read, and write about, more books written by women than by men. It is not so much a conscious decision (on some level it is, but that would be a whole different post), but I do consciously not care to make the numbers more equal. Why? Because there is an overload of male authors being reviewed over female authors, so I think I could justify writing more about women (not that I think my small blog has any effect, it’s just that, as I said before, I want to be conscious about what I’m doing).

There’s one exception though. And that is Dutch Lit Month. If there was one chunk of reading that skewed the male-female ratio more towards equal it was my dedicated month of reading Dutch literature last year. I reviewed a grand total of two Dutch women authors. Two! One of which was a DNF. This, of course, needs to change. So I have been looking into some details, trying to find a way to make my reading more equal this year. To this purpose, I took out this book from the library:

Women's Writing from the Low Countries 1880-2010, edited by Jacqueline Bel and Thomas Vaessens // Amsterdam/Manchester University Press, 2010

It contains small informative summaries of the lives and works of numerous Dutch women authors. Disappointingly, there is no list of translated works included, even if the book itself is written in English. And here the other problem I have in trying to write about more Dutch women authors comes into play: the issue of translation. Let me illustrate that.

This is a row of twenty books my parents received as a present when they subscribed to a national newspaper recently. They are a specially issued series of “the best Dutch debut novels”:

75% of the novels pictured above are written by men. Only five out of 20 were written by women. Only two of those have been translated to English (most of them were translated to German).

So here’s the thing: How do I keep the number of Dutch female authors reviewed during Dutch Lit Month equal to the number of men, without reviewing books of which I can only hope that they will one day be translated to English? I’m not saying I’m not going to try, I’m browsing the library and books at the family like crazy, and I’m sure I’ll figure something out this year. But in the long run, there’s the fact that if I want to continue Dutch Lit Month with a focus on books that are available to English readers, how do I keep from a skewed gender balance?

Apart from a gender imbalance in books read and written about for Dutch Lit Month, there is also the factor of ethnicity, race, country in my general reading.. My focus is heavily on European and North American lit. I sometimes read a few books from Australia, Africa, Asia (never yet from South America, I think?), but it simply is not enough. And here, I cannot blame translations or availability so much. I can only blame myself. For not taking a more conscious effort to remedy this. To be lazy enough to read books I bought, and get books from the library, that are so undeniably “Western” in their focus and authorship. So, I think I see a project coming on, or something, anything, to do better on this score. And to turn awareness into actually doing something about it in my personal reading. Knowing myself, I will find this incredibly difficult. I already feel myself thinking in terms of problems and what I have to “deny” myself in reading plans, instead of in terms of opportunities.

I am not sure if I will be able to change this overnight. I am pretty sure I cannot. But the least I can do is write it down, and acknowledge it publicly to myself, right? In the hope that I will make more of an effort. In the hope that some of you might help make me accountable to myself.

7 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: “Preaching” and Practising Diversity in Reading

  1. Teresa

    This is something I think about a lot and have waffled in my opinions about. For myself, I’m not comfortable committing to a particular percentage or white vs. nonwhite authors, but I’m trying to be more aware of authors from different countries and of different ethnicities and to give their work a try at least. On Netgalley, I request tons of translated fiction, and although I don’t get around to reading a lot of it, I am reading more translated works than I used to. And when I go to the library, I try to take out at least a couple of books my nonwhite authors, although, again, I don’t necessarily read them all. I guess what I’m saying is that I try to make a conscious effort to keep books by diverse authors on my radar, but I stay loose about what I actually commit to reading.

  2. Vasilly

    What an honest post. I think it’s great when readers actually “look” at what they’re reading. Several years ago I realized that I read a ton of books by white male or female Americans. I didn’t read as much translated works as I once did or books by people of color. I decided to change that. I’m still a work in progress. I suggest that you don’t look at it as a “problem-solving” but as trying to read things that you would otherwise miss.

  3. Jenny

    This is something I struggle with a lot because I have a hard time reading books in translations. The vast majority of translated books that I read, I get frustrated with because the translation feels awkward and acts as a barrier to entry. I need to make more of an effort to diversify my reading too!

  4. Leeswammes

    I think as a reader, you should read whatever you like and not worry about the background of a writer – I read 80% (or more) women’s writers in my 30s and now it’s maybe 50% or less. It may just change depending on the types of books you’re interested in at certain points in your life.

    For the Dutch Lit Month, I can see that you might want a certain balance between the sexes. Indeed, I think actively looking for translations of Dutch female authors is the only thing you can do. Make or find a list of authors, and check whether you can find translations.

    Graasland’s favorite bookshop, in Utrecht, has a shelf dedicated to translations of Dutch writers (male and female), which is good fun to browse. But you probably won’t find that very often.

  5. winstonsdad

    I have opposite problem I read more male writers Iris I try to be more diverse in my choices but seem to end up with more males ,One reason I love your blog is it place to find new women to try ,all the best stu


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