Reading Habits and the Status Quo


Mimi and Eunice, Status Quo
Mimi and Eunice, Status Quo

Earlier this month, Jane Litte had a post at Dear Author about reading habits and what publishers and writers can do to change them that sort of stuck with me and not for particularly good reasons. I’ve been thinking about it a lot because while she doesn’t necessarily say anything that’s objectionable on the surface, the subtext is saying some things that really bother me, especially in light of some of the other conversations I’ve been involved in over the past few months.

In this post, Litte basically summarizes the arguments made by Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit around Top 40 radio and then applies them to genre publishing. I am not entirely sure this is an apt comparison, as these are two different industries with different business models and distribution networks.

On the surface, Top 40 radio and Harlequin category titles may share a certain…extruded quality, but I note that collecting data about radio listening patterns and book reading patterns are not the same thing. Someone listening to the radio is listening right then; someone who buys a book may never actually read it. With ebooks we are getting ever closer to being able to collect that kind of data on reading habits, but we aren’t there yet.

According to the summary in Litte’s post, the idea behind Top 40 radio is that songs intended to be hits are promoted in such a way that they are placed between songs that people are already familiar with–and that with repetition that has been coordinated between the major labels and radio stations, these songs will become familiar and popular in their own right. They’re introduced into the pattern and since humans are pattern-matching and habit-forming creatures, once they’re in the pattern we like it.

I would suggest that this works because radio is different from the way they read and additionally: like most broadcast media in the US, the content exists primarily as a vehicle for advertisements. In other words: Radio stations are beholden to their advertisers–this is why contacting advertisers is an effective strategy for protest against offensive or problematic content on radio (or television). Publishers are beholden to two different groups: writers and readers.

This is the thesis on which Litte rests her fairly shaky argument: that there’s very little to be done to shape the tastes of the reading public except in incremental ways–except, you know, publishers really don’t know what the next big thing is going to be and that’s one of the reasons we actually end up with a glut of books that are all the same. It has nothing to do with readers and pretty much everything to do with publishers–and writers–trying to mine that vein for more gold (and usually coming up empty). Publishing chases trends, it doesn’t make them.

I wouldn’t claim, as Litte does, that readers are “happy” to read the same kind of book over and over again:

Even when those other books never quite live up to the original, we readers keep going back to the same well because it’s easier and familiar. “Listeners are happy to sit through a song they might say they dislike, as long as it seems like something they’ve heard before.” This isn’t a function of just romance readers. We are just the most prolific of readers but there are readers who love Westerns, cozy mysteries, thrillers, a science fiction books. To the regular science fiction reader, SFF stories are the familiar and Jane Austen is the unfamiliar.

There’s a lot to unpack in this paragraph. I’m going to work my way backwards through it because the first thing that jumps out at me is that Litte doesn’t seem to know much about readers outside of romance–speculative fiction and mystery readers are often just as voracious as romance readers and they are often very well-versed in genres outside their favorite (with the possible exception of romance–although I am doing my very best to change that; I talked about romance in all my panels at Readercon!).

As for the opening of that paragraph, that “we readers keep going back to the same well because it’s easier and familiar”? Essentially that is a rationalization for upholding the status quo.

There is a group of readers–myself included–who want more diversity in our romance–and other genre–novels. We want to see characters that represent the full range of human diversity in our fiction.

To claim that we’re not getting books with that diversity because most readers would rather not be challenged is insulting. When I talk to my fellow romance readers, I get the sense that this is absolutely not the case. Obviously, sometimes one wants to read something comforting and familiar, but for me, that’s usually when I reread books or read the latest novel by a favorite author. When I am not reading for comfort, I am looking to be challenged.

And I don’t mean that I consider the presence of characters whose backgrounds and life experiences are different from to be a challenge–not at all. Humanity is diverse by nature and to not have that fully represented in our art is a failure of imagination.

Support for the familiar and the status quo leads to all sorts of nastiness if left unchecked. Western readers come from a culture that has institutionalized all kinds of oppressions. Do we really want to be supporting institutionalized oppression in our literature?

I don’t think so. Because I have seen what happens when that is openly supported by major voices in another genre–and I don’t think anyone would disagree with me that Dear Author is a major voice in the romance community.

A few days ago, Jim C. Hines posted a picture from Flickr to his Twitter account:

One of the public responses to Hines’s tweet was this one:

There were other responses made in private, which Hines summarizes in this post from earlier this week.  I think this part is extremely pertinent to the romance community:

If you’re not the one being made to feel unwelcome, you may not realize it’s happening at all. But if you only recognize two states of existence, Blatant Racism/Sexism vs. Everything’s Just Fine And Dandy, with nothing in between, then you’re not listening to the voices of a lot of people you’re claiming are welcome in our community. And your refusal to listen is perpetuating the problem.

Let me be extremely clear: by claiming that readers are only interested in familiar and easy reads, prominent romance bloggers are using their platforms to advocate for the continued marginalization and silencing of diverse voices in the romance community because rising to the challenge is uncomfortable and potentially damaging to the close relationships they have with their advertisers. Instead of advocating for stories that open the genre to more voices and experiences, they have chosen to throw in with civility and the status quo.

Jonathan McCalmont of Ruthless Culture talks about this in significantly more detail in his post from yesterday, The Price of Institutional Racism, where he breaks down exactly the ways the systemic racism (and sexism) in science fiction fandom has hurt the genre by ensuring that persons of color and women are not only feel uncomfortable in fannish spaces but know that they are not welcome as well.

I don’t want to have this same discussion about romance that we’ve been having about science fiction because we decided that we would rather be comfortable than challenged.

(Many thanks to Liz McCausland for reading an incredibly rough draft and helping me to find my focus.)