Thoughts on books and diversity…

So this popped up on my Twitter feed

Silvia, with whom I was originally familiar from Future Lovecraft and Historical Lovecraft (which you should all read), poses a pair of valid questions. Unfortunately, I’m not a statistician and can’t provide mounds of data; I do, however, have twenty years of library experience under my belt, so I can at least answer from my own observations.

Note: anecdotal evidence is anecdotal and your mileage may vary.

1) Don’t adult POCs read? In my experience, yes, but not nearly as much as their white counterparts, and the reasons for that “not nearly as much” are largely socioeconomic. I can cite two reasons from experience at my last library:

A) Functional illiteracy. I encountered this mostly in older people (whites and POCs) and, particularly, among teenagers of color. I understand the former: I live and have worked my entire life in Tennessee’s smallest county, which is overwhelmingly agriculture-driven and is also one of the twenty poorest counties in the United States. In the local population, anyone over about 65, regardless of ethnicity, has a very good chance of not having finished school at all, or of being able to attend school only sporadically, thanks to the demands of farming at a time when it was much less industrialized and much more manually labor-driven. For these people, reading as a leisure activity was and is hardly prioritized.

As for younger generations (say, born after 1993 or so), as a rule, the educational playing field is much more level and the necessity of underage labor is largely removed, so I’m really at a loss for why so many teenagers and young adults in my community read poorly or not at all. Maybe it’s lack of familial involvement in the education process. Maybe it’s a bevy of undiagnosed learning disorders. Maybe it’s simply apathy. I don’t have a good answer for this.

B) Lack of time. This, from my observation, is a particular problem for adults of color in my few square miles of the country. They’re much more likely than their white neighbors to work multiple jobs, retire later (if at all) and have a large part in rearing grandchildren or other younger relatives (again, just observing the local happenings here). If you’re working a sixteen-hour day, or raising three great-grandchildren, when you do get down time, it’s most likely to be spent on food and sleep.

All that said, Silvia’s second question was:

2) Or no one is interested in adult ‘diverse’ books?

Oh boy. Um. Yes. Yes they are. People are so interested. Part of the problem? Well, if you’re relying on a library for reading material, and that library happens to be continually strapped for funds (not at all uncommon anywhere), you can expect that most of the incoming material will cater to the largest user demographic. (This may well be true of bookstores as well, especially small independent ones, but libraries are my point of reference.)

The libraries I’ve worked at have received both their funding for new materials, and their means of obtaining those materials, from the Tennessee state library system, which keeps an eye on each county’s demographics. Left to their own devices, the people who handled book acquisitions would have filled my library shelves with the latest NYT bestsellers and mind-numbingly saccharine Christian fiction–because that’s what “the people” want and “the people” are, according to census reports, overwhelmingly white. In order to get books written by people of color (as well as any sort of books that were scifi, fantasy, hard science nonfiction, or non-Christian religious nonfiction), I had to jump through the hoops of a manual ordering process and hope I didn’t get hit with “we’re not ordering this” or “no one’s going to read this”. The problem wasn’t lack of demand; I had demand. I just had to get past the “white people won’t read this” crap, and a lot of times that meant I had to buy and shelf-process the books with my own money, because by God, I wanted to read it, and if I wanted to read it surely someone else did too.

Demand exists. Need exists. People want to read books about characters like themselves. We’re just going to have to shift the market paradigm (does that make sense?) and make those books easier to obtain.

Now I’m curious: is there a disparity in positive publicity received, for white authors vs. nonwhite authors? Anyone got numbers?

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