Not a Year in Books

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Your Humble Blogger hasn’t been doing Book Reports lately, which is pretty much my loss—now, when I’d kind of enjoy writing up my Year in Books, I haven’t the faintest idea what I’ve read. I mean, yes, The Power would be on the top of the list anyway, but there were other things I read and enjoyed. A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and its sequel, I read those and enjoyed them. I think I read The Fifth Season in 2017. I definitely read Provenance; I enjoyed that, too. I read this year’s Penric stories. There were others that I enjoyed but didn’t write about, but they have dropped from my memory, alas. This was really the point of blogging all the books I read, wasn’t it? Ah, well.

If I can’t write about specifics, I can write about a pattern I became aware of this year. It started quite some time ago, when some prominent people in the specfic community wrote that they were not going to read anything by white male writers in the following year. Just take a year and consciously choose books to read based on the sex and race of the authors. I was sympathetic to those people in the controversy that sparked, as of course they weren’t saying that there weren’t plenty of good stories by white male writers, but given finite book-reading time, there was plenty of reason to believe they could fill it all with good stuff by other writers, too. Well, and I thought I’m certainly not going to do that but I was perfectly happy that somebody else might do it, and frankly since I wasn’t regularly reading those people’s blogs anyway for reviews and recommendations, it wasn’t a big deal to me and I forgot about it anyway.

Which, bye-the-bye, accounts for both the vagueness and the inaccuracy of my recollection of the original event. Perhaps some of y’all Gentle Readers remember it more clearly, and what actually happened wasn’t anything like my story of what happened. It wouldn’t surprise me at all. It’s really only relevant because my recollection, true or false, is what stuck a bit of a meme in my head to notice whether the books I picked up at the library or bookstore were by white men or not. I’m not saying I was totally oblivious before, but I only sometimes think about the writers of the stuff I read. Not always. And while I judge books by their covers, particularly in the library, it’s not generally by the author (unless I know the author’s work already).

Well, it turns out that, when I paid attention to that sort of thing over a few years, that some patterns emerged. There were certain Sources of Reader Irritation that were much more common in books written by white men than in books written by other authors. Not All Books, of course, and not all Sources of Reader Irritation, but certain things that have grown to annoy me about plot pacing, characterization and settings were more common in that set of books. The thing that seemed (to me) to correlate most highly was a kind of foolish fantasy that a single determined person could make everything okay, even when the problems in the carefully depicted world were deeply structural and the ending very clearly failed to address any of the structural problems. It’s a sort of Chosen One thing, which has always irritated me, frankly, but embedded in a world that is constructed to not fit well at all with a single savior.

Another thing that irritated me in a bunch of books was a main character who I didn’t like, and who didn’t seem to have any redeeming qualities. Whether the protagonist was male or female (or not) they had a kind of gruesome mid-seventies unpleasantness, selfish and self-absorbed. This character quality lasted through most of the book, well past the set-up, and often an important aspect of the book was that the reader figured out an important plot point that the point-of-view character did not, because of that self-absorption. I would heave a sigh and drum my fingers against the spine of the book, so it not only irritated me but my Best Reader, who had a perfectly good book of her own, often enough.

Anyway, this year, as I went through the twelvemonth picking books to read, I found myself avoiding books by white men, just because I was trying to avoid those particular sources of Reader Irritation. I mean, here, browsing for books I didn’t know much about other than what was on the cover—I absolutely picked up the new John Scalzi, and a newish Garth Nix, and I read Stiletto because I had enjoyed Rook. And I re-read Bleak House and Macbeth and Busman’s Honeymoon. And indeed, I did pick up a few books by white men I hadn’t previously read over the course of the year, and even finished reading at least a few of them. But none, I mean, none at all of my favorite books over the course of the year were by white guys—and at one point I was very tempted to tweet that having picked up a book by a white guy and found it unreadable, I wasn’t going to try that again in a hurry.

Which would have been a joke! Mostly.

I mean, as a white man myself, I am aware that we are different one to another, we white men, and that makes literature interesting and fun. It would be ridiculous to say that if you didn’t enjoy a book by a white guy, or a woman, or a black man, or a North African non-binary writer, that you wouldn’t enjoy a different book by someone else in a similar demographic. Who would do that? That’s just silly.

Still and all, when I was in the science-fiction section (as the sign designated it) of my local chain bookstore last month, looking to pick up a travel book for this week, I absolutely shook my head at how they were just filling the shelves with white-guy books these days, weren’t they.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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