Diversifying your reading

Been a whirlwind of fussing in the blogs I follow about sexism in publishing and in game design. My first reaction was Duh. But I read on. First there is some truly ugly sentiments being expressed out there, some by hate-filled scum buckets, and some by the clueless who think they mean well. Barbie as a role model, any one?

But the response that pissed me off — and it was a frequent refrain — was “I’m not going to read a book simply because the author is a woman. That’s as sexist as not reading a book by a woman. If a woman writes a good book that catches my attention, then I’ll read it.”

The suggestion to diversify your reading pile isn’t to do women authors a favor. Quite frankly, all harassment aside, they’re doing fine. Diversification is to help you, as a writer, expand your perspectives. To see the world from a different point of view. As writers we should seek out writers from different cultures, genders, generations, ethnic and racial groups. They expand our thinking. We should read broadly.

My latest discoveries include Scandinavian mysteries, British science fiction, and urban fantasy. I read a lot by women — at one point I had a collection of almost every science fiction book written by a woman before 2000. Wonderful stuff. And yes, I read male authors too.

I used to tell journalism students that when I was really pressed for time, I cut back on my reading to publications that I disagreed with. I made myself read the Wall Street Journal instead of the New York Times. I read George Will. They challenged my thinking, because they represented a different viewpoint.

We can’t necessarily walk a mile in another man’s shoes, but we can read his/her book.

So read widely is one commandment for any writer.

A second commandment is to read deeply. Especially in science fiction where there are rich traditions and a long heritage of writers, it is important for writers to immerse themselves in the writers of the past. One of the complaints of some bloggers is that the romance writers who are moving into science fiction don’t know that history or the tropes that come along with it. (Why that matters is beyond me — it isn’t as if they’re forced to buy those books.). But in the same way, if you haven’t read C.L. Moore and her Mars books or Andre Norton’s juveniles (as YA was called back in the day) or Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness which is every bit as seminal as Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, or Joanna Russ for a foray into feminist SF that reflects the 1960s thought better than historians will ever do — if you haven’t read the female side of SF you are ignorant of SF’s great traditions as well.

And the third commandment is know your audience. I heard once that 70 percent of readers are women. The speaker — an agent — was using the statistic to support his premise that we needed to publish less chick lit and more male books to entice men back to reading. To make reading manly again. So much for satisfying market demand. But before we write off what do women want — maybe we should consider that what women want are books. And we write books….

So when 50 Shades made such a splash I read it. Not my cup of tea, but it lead me into some genres that I hadn’t explored — subcategories of romance, including erotica, including SF romance and SF erotica. As to be expected, there was the good, the bad and the ugly. And some just hilarious. Who knew that there was a whole subcategory of cyborg romance? And it isn’t all bad either.

It finally made me break into urban fantasy. And my prejudices fell with the writing of Illona Andrews and Patricia Briggs. Good stories. Good world building.

Equally, I read men’s adventure books. Even those right wingers who justify torture. So Brad Thor is not going to be on my top ten list, but it’s a genre that to reach male readers so I read them. I have a series, Mac Davis, that heads in that direction, so I read there. And I discovered Barry Eisler and his John Rain series — who’s not a right-winger at all.

So if you want to sell books you should at least know what your audience is reading. And increasingly your audience is female. (And the idiot agent? Never heard of him again….)

So read broadly. Read deeply. Reed what your audience reads.