Reading Habits and the Status Quo

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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August 29, 2013

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.)

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  1. Merrian

    Thanks for this thoughtful post about being open and seeking change Natalie.

  2. Natalie Luhrs

    @Merrian: Thanks! There was something about the post that had been bothering me since I first read it and it took me a while to figure out what it was.

  3. --E

    we readers keep going back to the same well because it’s easier and familiar

    –>Is she on crack? She must be. Really bad, low-quality crack.
    If that were true, we would all keep reading the same kind of books we read when we were 12, or 15, or 20, etc. There are hundreds of books published today that I might have loved 20 or 30 years ago, but find unreadable today. Not just because the writing has flaws my younger self wasn’t sophisticated enough to notice; but because the story itself is one I’ve read a hundred times and I’m bored with it.

    There’s a reason I’m reading both Cat’s Cradle (Vonnegut) and Consider Phlebas (Banks) right now. Neither is in my “usual” wheelhouse, but that’s because I was bored with 90% of the “usual” stuff and wanted to crack out into something new. One’s a classic and the other is highly regarded, so those seemed a direction to go in.

    It’s true that publishers chase trends, and some editors are very…mercenary…about pursuing them. But editors are also readers, and they get bored, too. The usual approach for picking up a new author is “the same, only different”: which is to say, a book that can be categorized/compared well enough to explain its market position to the sales force, but which has new and different things that will (the editor hopes) elevate it above a forgettable, brainless read.

    Are there some readers who want the same thing again and again? Doubtless. Nothing else would explain the ongoing success of certain authors who keep going back to the same series, even though the books are worse and worse, offering nothing new and interesting. But just as many (if not more) of their readers fall of the ride at some point. A lot of readers can name the last book they read by a formerly favorite author, the point at which they got bored with the series, or with the author’s repetitive approach to all books even if not in a series.

    This is how new authors are able to enter the market. We don’t have to wait for the old authors to die. New authors supplant old authors by being new, by bringing something fresh to the readers, something the readers didn’t even know they wanted until they got a whiff of it.

  4. Natalie Luhrs

    @–E: I don’t even know. I am sure there are readers who do want to read the same story over and over again, but I don’t think that’s the majority of readers. I think there’s a nice little bit of gatekeeping going on here as well–I have more I want to write about that but it didn’t fit in the scope of this piece unless I wanted to write 5,000 words.

  5. Liz Mc2

    I’ve been thinking all day about this and about the comparison between books/music made in the original post, which like you I had some issues with. (And this isn’t very coherent still). I DO think that there’s a difference (including in how our brains process them and what we want from them. For me, radio is background noise in the car); and I think that arguing that readers are creatures of habit and just want the same old thing can be problematic, as you say, and at least seem to be arguing that we can’t hope or push for a more diverse genre. But then I wonder who “we” are in that sentence I just wrote.

    As far as I can tell, Duhigg’s story was about how to make Outkast a hit on *mainstream, top 40 radio.* Would that song have seemed strange on an urban/hip-hop station in Atlanta? Probably not. Selling it to white listeners in the rest of the country was the trick. So. I think “we,” the readership asking for more diversity (and Jane Litte has been one of those people) might be a smaller group than we think in our internet bubble. We are college radio, not Top 40. Romance IS the biggest-selling genre. And I suspect that’s in part because it gets a lot of casual readers who pick up a book now and then, looking for escape and familiarity. (There are probably voracious readers looking for the same). They probably get their romance on a whim from Walmart or Target. And buyers for those stores–as a number of frustrated readers like Jane herself have pointed out–are the ones publishers regard as their customers. They’re like programmers for Clear Channel playlists, say. How do publishers sell diversity to this risk-averse group? Plenty of romance readers DO ask for another book “just like” the one they enjoyed. Copy-cats often sell well. (And from anecdotes I’ve heard, it seems books with non-white protagonists often don’t sell as well or get as much attention).

    I wish that post had developed the implications of the books/music industry parallel more and come up with more ideas about how to create new hits from the unfamiliar. (And I wonder how much frustration was behind the pessimistic interpretation of Duhigg’s story, that we’re basically stuck with the status quo). REM and others went from college radio to major band; “Hey, Ya” became a big hit. Publishers, being like record company execs, have a role to play here. But there are other kinds of tastemaker too, like bloggers, who have some influence.

    Even “we” who want more diversity may find ourselves blogging about the same book everyone else is this week and not grabbing the historical romance set in China. (Partly because the publisher has sold it to us so effectively?). We don’t always do our bit as tastemakers. (At least I don’t). I also think not everything is a giant hit. Some bands are made for college radio. We might have to accept that “different” books have a niche audience.

  6. hestia

    This is extremely anecdotal, of course, but many of the patrons of the library where I work do tend to read the same kind of thing over and over again. Many like cozy mysteries, some harder mystery/thrillers (libraries tend to stock those heavily.) We’ve got a fairly devoted group of western readers (yes, we skew older) some like romances, and I’ve got a couple of patrons who have been mainlining paranormals and urban fantasies for years. Some like typical “book club” fare — I’m not even sure what to call that genre, but the books are definitely similar in many ways.

    And even the ones who cross genres a bit aren’t really going beyond the boundaries of the catch-all “mainstream fiction.” They aren’t trying science fiction, pure fantasy, or anything heavily literary — and certainly not anything experimental. On the occasions when I’ve picked out something different for our book club — and I’m talking about books like “The Giver” and “Wicked,” they have rejected them utterly. So while I have no doubt that while there are many readers who try all sorts of things (and I like to think I am one of them, despite my own sci-fi- leanings), there are also many who, basically, read the same kind of thing again and again. And I think readers who try to diversify are overrepresented online.

    Again, extremely anecdotal, and non-judgemental. Partly because that is my job, but partly because I am wary of saying readers “should” read something in particular. I don’t know what they are dealing with in their lives (although sometimes I do) and those formula thrillers might be the best hour of each day.

    For my taste, I would wish publishers would concentrate on better-written books, and less on poorly-written clones of whatever was just hot. But plenty of people do want those things.

  7. Natalie Luhrs

    @Liz Mc2: You make a really good point about the occasional reader who picks their books up at Wal-Mart or the grocery store; I used to buy all my romances from the grocery store when I was younger. And there’s not a lot of choice there, although I did discover Jennifer Crusie that way. I think the problem of selling more diverse fiction to this audience is really, really interesting. I don’t know if the way to that is via incremental change–that looks too much like tokenism for my personal comfort.

    @hestia: I wish publishers would focus on better-written books, too–but I also think that’s an unfortunate side effect of the major publishers being owned by multinational conglomerates with a profit motive. Between your comment and Liz’s I’m going to have to think a bit more about this, because I think having diversity in our fiction is incredibly important but I also do recognize the value of reading for comfort.

    Personal digression! When I was a young teenager and spent a lot of time at my local library, I read a lot of teen romances–the Sweet Dreams and Silhouette lines in particular–and looking back, I can see the damage those books did to my self-image and self-esteem, in part due to my naivete but also because I never had access to a book with a female character who wasn’t conventionally attractive or who wasn’t thin or who even wore glasses. So to a certain extent when I’m talking about diversity in fiction, I’m thinking about specific ways in which the lack of diversity in the fiction which I consumed uncritically in my past hurt me–and probably caused me to hurt other people, too.

  8. Liz Mc2

    I totally agree people need to be able to recognize themselves in books (as well as reading about people/places who are different): mirrors as well as windows. And too many people can’t find themselves in romance right now, or only see distorted, damaging versions of themselves. And I do get frustrated when authors and others whom I see as having the power to make change throw up their hands and say “we can’t do anything. readers don’t want this.” My own feeling about the genre is that most books aren’t giant best-sellers so I wish fewer seemed aimed right at that often-derivative sweet spot and more did something interesting around the edges that allowed them to find a successful niche. I don’t listen to Top 40! I don’t want to.

    But I also realize I’m talking without data (but then, publishers don’t seem to have much, either). I was disappointed by that post when I first read it. But yesterday I wrote my comment after a day of faculty meetings, after which a colleague turned to me and said, “Remember how years ago whenever we proposed change X and Y would shoot it down with ‘Been there, done that’? Well, I know just how they felt now.” And I knew just what she meant. Change is hard, and people get jaded. I’d rather engage with ideas than speculate on the writer’s motives, but I was reading from a place where I had more sympathy with the “nothing can be done” feeling than I often do. Then I went and bought a Jeannie Lin book and plan to read it this weekend, so I’m not just talking about diversity but doing more about it.

  9. Jessica

    Thanks for this interesting continuation of the discussion at DA. I apologize in advance for the length of this comment, but the topic really intrigues me. I agree with you that we want to think carefully before we leap to the conclusion that readers habits are formed and broken in just the same way that radio listeners’ habits are. I realize his book is about the brain’s tendency to run on habits, per se, but even he recognizes that, with regard to music:

    “The areas that process music, in other words, are designed to seek out patterns and look for familiarity. This makes sense. Music, after all, is complicated. The numerous tones, pitches, overlapping melodies, and competing sounds inside almost any song—or anyone speaking on a busy street, for that matter—are so overwhelming that, without our brain’s ability to focus on some sounds and ignore others, everything would seem like a cacophony of noise.”

    Another big difference is this one:

    “Hit songs are worth a fortune—not only because people buy the song itself, but also because a hit can convince listeners to abandon video games and the Internet for radio. A hit can sell sports cars on television and clothing inside trendy stores. Hit songs are at the root of dozens of spending habits that advertisers, TV stations, bars, dance clubs—even technology firms such as Apple—rely on.”

    Except for the occasional Twilight or Hunger Games movie and related tie-ins, I just don’t think we can make the same argument about books, even best sellers.

    You write that, “To claim that we’re not getting books with that diversity because most readers would rather not be challenged is insulting.” and I that agree, few people, including me, likes to see themselves that way. But Duhigg’s focus is really on the way the brian develops subconscious habits, whether we consciously approve of them or not. The tendency to prefer a “sticky” or familiar pop song is not one we typically consciously endorse and choose. In fact, we may even consciously approve of the new and unfamiliar, especially if we associate doing so, as you do in the post, with our other consciously held values, such as signal boosting the underappreciated artistic products of oppressed minorities, or exposing ourselves to the “other” in order to better understand their experiences and be better allies, etc., yet we continue to go for the same thing for the reasons Duhigg and Litte outline.

    As I write that paragraph, I’m mindful that you and I are white women, and as Liz points out, it’s important to be careful about what I mean by “we”. I specifically mean “people like me” when I write that. To go back to the Outkast song, Duhigg notes that Outkast were huge within the hop hop community prior to breaking big with Hey Ya!. When it comes to music, I can think of many different sized genres and subgenres for every audience. For example, to take up a theme Ridley has been pursuing on Twitter, ignorant listeners like me may view Macklemore as a fresh alternative to a hip hop scene seemingly dominated by misogyny and homophobia — and Macklemore certainly positions himself this way — but that rightfully outrages the many lesser known independent hip hop artists, most of whom are black, who have been making that kind of music all along. That said, I find it very difficult to find enclaves of genre romance that are producing something truly novel. From my point of view, unlike in music, the rise of “indies” has not diversified the genre at all.

    I agree with Liz that in the DA post, despite the title, Jane seemed to me more to be pointing out the problem. It was pessimistic, basically saying no one has an interest in change. But I personally did not see it as a post that encouraged acceptance of the status quo, and as a DA reader for years, who can therefore balance this post against the many other posts on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation over the years, I’m convinced that DA is, on balance, committed to more diversity in the genre.

    What struck me the most about the use of Duhigg in that post was that it came from the section of the book devoted to how companies manipulate consumers. And that was the section of the book that troubled me the most, because after giving example after example of how companies mine information from consumers and use it to predict and manipulate consumer behavior with no regard for any value other than increasing profits, and often with a direct disregard for values like personal privacy, (“How do you take advantage of someone’s habits without letting them know you’re studying every detail of their lives?”… “How does Target convince pregnant women to use diaper coupons without creeping them out?”), Duhigg’s main attitude seems to be “Would you look at what these analytics departments can do?? Gee whiz!!”. It was breathtakingly uncritical.

    Duhigg did not speak to any consumers in that chapter: every interview, data point, and every anecdote, is from the point of view of the corporations who are trying to make a profit. The post was like that chapter, very much written from the point of view of producers and sellers (as I think the post title makes clear). To be fair, like Duhigg, Litte is not focused on the issues you bring up here — a kind of ethical and political diversity – although the use of the word “diversity” can hardly fail to bring that political diversity to mind. But we need to remember that Arista wasn’t trying to get people to listen to Hey Ya! to promote diversity, but because they had determined it would make them money. Although the DA post is addressed to authors as well as publishers, Outkast is nowhere present in Duhigg’s story, which focuses solely on radio stations and record companies. I would have liked to see the DA post explicitly integrate the author’s point of view, especially as the author as a creator who is mindful of both market forces and artistry. And as a reader, the point of view adopted in the post was very far from my own — conscious! — aesthetic and ethical and political interests in reading romance.

    Anyway, this is a lot of perhaps incoherent rambling, but thanks for keeping the discussion going.

    (Edit by Natalie: extraneous quote removed at Jessica’s request.)


  1. Digital dualism, #DiversityinSFF, and imagining differently » Cyborgology - […] and publishers trapped in false dualisms will necessarily suffer from poverty of the imagination. Stories will become stale and…


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