The statistics are in! Thanks to the VIDA Count, there's fresh proof that we live in a world of crappy exclusion in the books department. While I was happy to come across an article in the Irish Times about a retired High Court judge urging lawyers and judges to read great works of literature, I was made profoundly less happy by recent reports on gender and racial bias in publishing. And then I figured it all out: what the judge and the reports suggest to me is a need for empathy, and a need for more people to desire an experience of empathy.
The judge, Bryan McMahon, said that "[l]awyers should be acquainted with great literature and should learn from it. It deals with envy, jealousy, greed, love, mercy, power politics, justice, social order, punishment ... Judging also involves the soft side of the brain, dealing with compassion, understanding, imagining the extent of one’s decision.” Literature has the capacity to peel us away from the world we think we know and take us into an entirely new experience with a changed perspective. This is useful not just as an escape or to serve as some kind of refreshment; books complicate and deepen our understanding of the human experience.
So what happens when almost all of the books that are promoted and discussed in major outlets derive from a largely homogenous pool? Does this limit our access to the great variety of human experience? Could this mean—because of stuff like profitability and basic self-interest—that publishers and reviewers mostly promote the human experience that reflects theirs?
I don’t wish to come off as a big poopy diaper, but in light of the statistics showing that high-visibility literature is mostly male and most definitely white, I think it’s valuable to note that publishing is often a gross machine and often doesn’t reflect very good taste or wise choices. But as much as the nasty, naughty publishing machine is a total idiot with no gumption or integrity, I’d also like to suggest that there could be a fair amount of readers (yeah, the white ones with the money) that don’t much like that which is unfamiliar to them. Readers can just as guiltily say that they want to read a book “they can relate to.” Somehow fifteen dollars has become too precious an amount to spend on something so unnecessary as literature, but 99 cents to download some "guaranteed" blockbuster is a great modern thing.
Think of how the majority of book buyers find books these days. Amazon tells you what other people liked based on what you like. How could this possibly lead to a diverse reading experience?
To top it off, the attachment to indulgence and self-interest is rampant to the point of perversion in this country. I don’t have all my statistics in on this, but I’m fairly certain. And when the self is held as the utmost importance, how could anything of quality be read at all? Does no one want to take a risk or try something new? Maybe readers would enjoy different books if publishers and reviewers spent a little more time pushing different good books and not just the guaranteed sellers for an already established (and at this point, hopefully bored) audience.