Last week Aidan wrote a post stating, quite simply, that he had decided to take the Goodreads Challenge to read a certain number of books this year. He also wrote that he was going to consciously strive for “an equal split of gender” in his reading. There was no judgment of others’ reading habits in the post, just a pledge on his part to find more female authors and diversify the range of novels he was reading. And while some commenters applauded Aidan’s idea, others found it problematic, if not implicitly damning of their own method of choosing novels to read. A spirited discussion ensued and as I followed it I wondered about my own reading patterns and habits in relation to balance and diversity.

I read a pretty narrow range of fantastic fiction, mostly space opera and epic fantasy, when I started reading fantastika intentionally. I had a soft spot for sword-and sorcery and for dystopian writing, for planetary romance and, briefly, military SF. Early in my mature reading life (early 1980s) I was fortunate to be pointed to authors from more diverse backgrounds – authors such as Delany and Disch and Russ – but they were a few different voices in a much wider realm of heroic fantasies and crackerjack adventures. It took some conscious thought to branch out further into the much wider field of fantastika. It was exciting and comfortable to keep reading the literary descendents of Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury, but I soon felt like a magpie looking for more shiny things that could line my nest. And that was not what I was looking for out of literature.

So, I intentionally started reading more broadly, moving past the subgenres that I loved and looking for work that compelled me to ask questions. I found Octavia Butler, Somtow Sucharitkul/ S. P. Somtow, and others, partly as a result of intentionally searching for new authors and voices, and partly from talking to other fans of fantastic literature who pointed out and recommended writing that was out of the ordinary. This was further encouraged by a growing realization that if I did not take the time and energy to seek out new work I would keep reading in a rather circular rut of story types and not develop as a writer nor as a skilled reader. For me, this meant not just looking for something that was considered part of the canon or a “good read” but that had stimulated a passionate response in other readers. And that meant specifically seeking out (in genre moreso than “mainstream” fiction) writers who were not male or who had a similar Anglo/Irish/American background to my own.

It meant looking at literature with a curious intentionality, purposefully considering that an author’s background and experiences influenced what they wrote and might result in something refreshing and profound. Novels are not mirrors of aspects of an author’s life or ideas, but they are enlivened and quirked by what an author puts into them, through language and structure and ideas of how the world does/might/could work. Seeking and engaging diversity – whether of gender, sexual orientation, race, or any other designation – is neither about PC social engineering nor is it about submitting to some erosion of quality in the name of balance. It is about respect for the literature being produced and about taking the actual variety that is offered in the literary field seriously. If I maintained that “just good stories” were all I was looking for in fiction I would never venture far from the commercial center of SF and fantasy. None of the fantastic genres have some natural core of good stories, and even if they did for me “good stories” are not enough. If a reader wants to be challenged, astonished, or unsettled, they have to venture far and wide to find those elements in fantastic literature.

Naturalization of the process by which we look for stories is an act of arrogance. It presumes that a reader has a privileged position from which they can easily see the field of literature laid out before them. Stories do not come in plain brown wrappers like some generic commodity (well, not yet at least). Sometimes we find stories by accident, but most of the time someone has put one before us. The field of literature is not some Edenic grove of wonders; it is a tangled forest with some clear paths. Walking along those paths we are offered many treats, but the best stuff of often found by cutting through the thorny underbrush, by making one’s own path through the endless woods and making new paths, new invitations to explore. That is part of loving literature, for me, and the constant search for stories is inseparable from the process of reading them

The funny thing is that, in the constant pursuit of diversity, I find myself encountering such literature across the spectrum of identities and positions. Looking for diversity is a multi-faceted endeavor; the trick is the long term is not to create perfect balances in numbers, but to find out what literature is capable of and to experience the range of possibilities for stories. That also means looking across time and societies, understanding that the sea of stories is deep and full of all sorts of life. For me this means trying writing that sometimes does not work for me or that I am unprepared to engage. This means taking chances not just in terms of whether I will “like” a book or not, but whether or not I am ready to read it. I am quite happy that I frequently am pointed to or encounter writing that surprises me not just happily but painfully. Reading diversely is not just about finding stories that resonate, but also ones that upend you, that make you feel bad, that even wound you.

And I am much happier as a writer and reader that this is what I get for the trouble of looking for the new and hidden, for the marginalized and lunatic edges of literature.

Written by John H. Stevens

John H. Stevens

John H. Stevens is a writer, bookseller, fantastika geek, and bibliophile who is in his fourth decade of being an SF fan. When not doing something bookish or writerly he is raising a disarmingly precocious toddler. He is working on a novel and several short stories.

  • Jason January 21, 2013 at 6:28 am

    Great article from a fantasy reader, i could really relate to how a reader feels when reading fantasy book. Even now i still could remember the first time i read a book from the Dragonlance series. It’s just awesome.

  • kamo January 21, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    Well put. I like how you manage to use the standard euphemism, ‘a spirited discussion,’ which as we all know really means your traditional behind the bike sheds, torn uniform, baying crowd, visit to matron, letter to parents schoolboy punch-up. By that standard at least the discussion was actually unusually civilized and constructive.

    Aside from that I just nodded along as I read this, though I’m intrigued by the phrase ‘a skilled reader.’ I can see how reading diversely can improve you as a writer, but as a reader what exactly is there to ‘improve?’ Why is it goal explicitly worth aiming for (as opposed to learning, enjoyment, or the host of other more usual reasons to read)? I have my suspicions,obviously, but I’d be interested to know what you (or anyone else) understand by being ‘a skilled reader.’

  • Locusmortis January 22, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    Kamo, “skilled reader” is a term typically used when someone wants to put themselves up as being better than the mass of ordinary book-reading plebs out there.

  • John H. Stevens January 22, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    “Skilled reader” actually has several different uses; it has specific definitions in education, scientific studies of reading, and in literature. In this case I was referring to the fact that reading widely gave me more lexical and semantic experience that improved my reading comprehension and ability to engage and enjoy what I read to a larger degree than before. Sorry if that doesn’t jibe with your presumptions, Locusmortis.

  • Elizabeth Campbell January 22, 2013 at 9:40 pm

    Which Somtow do you recommend to start with? What else do you recommend? Have read much of Butler–Kindred absolutely killed me, made me a different person.

  • K. January 23, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    Excellent post John. In life as in literature, if you wish to grow and change – be challenged, astonished, or unsettled as you put it – you must step out of your comfort zone with intention. Without this deliberate expansion of your horizon you end up stuck on the hamster wheel, perhaps doing a lot of running but not really getting very far. I look forward to reading your future posts and getting some ‘next reads’ from you.

  • John Wiswell February 19, 2013 at 8:21 pm

    I immediately grasped what you meant by “skilled reader.” I can see how someone might read it as derogatory or elitist, but your usage makes sense and the skill set is of high value, particularly as a reviewer or maven for reading habits.

    It’s easier now than ever before for me to find new great works, thanks particularly to Twitter and the publishing networks I’ve contacted. The result is that I tend to find many female authors (and authors of various ethnicities/nationalities/races) simply by reputation and recommendation. But before that I remember consciously trying to nudge myself out of the American/Brit-zone that my school system had put me in. The broader the reading, the more satisfaction I’ve felt.