Literature produced by 'minorities' and women gain universal resonance


Although the book world is making way for more women, it is still predominantly white. Photo: AFP

The publishing industry is often criticised for its lack of diversity. Some defend the sector’s hermetic nature and the resulting lack of diversity in storytelling by citing reader preferences. But this theory is strongly contradicted by a new American study.

Some 89% of fiction titles published in 2018 were written by white authors, according to The New York Times. This lack of diversity was recently highlighted through the #PublishingPaidMe movement.

Many English-speaking writers used this hashtag to reveal the amounts they received as retainers before their literary works were published. And it’s clear that the amount of money received varies greatly depending on the skin colour of the author.

While the book world is making way for more women, it is still predominantly white. Some say that this lack of diversity is intimately linked to the realities of the book market. They argue that readers shy away from literature produced by “minorities” and women, as if these works cannot have universal resonance.

‘No justification for exclusion’

American researchers Dana Weinberg and Adam Kapelner claim, on the contrary, that literature fans are fond of stories with new voices. They asked more than 9,000 people using Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk), the American web giant’s gig-work service, to rate a series of made-up books based on their mocked-up covers and blurbs. The latter contained information about their authors – who were also fictitious – as well as a photo of the supposed writer.

The scientists from Queens College at City University of New York (CUNY) found that the writer’s gender had no impact on the study participants’ interest in their book. They were also particularly enthusiastic about the idea of reading works written by Black authors. In fact, respondents were even willing to pay a little more to do so.

“This seemingly small difference in book price may translate into a substantial difference in profitability over a book’s sales lifecycle,” reads the study, recently published in the PLOS One journal.

For Dana Weinberg, no commercial argument can be used to justify the lack of diversity in the publishing world.

“What our study shows is that there is an interest and an appetite” for books by Black and female authors, she told Quartz magazine. “So there’s really no justification for exclusion.”

A complicated issue

But that doesn’t mean that readers don’t have prejudices (whether conscious or otherwise) against certain writers – especially when they are young. Participants in Dana Weinberg and Adam Kapelner’s study felt that Generation Y writers, the so-called Millennials, were less seasoned than their elders. But this did not discourage them from wanting to buy their books.

The issue is more complicated when it comes to literature written by women. Journalist Mary Ann Sieghart states in her book The Authority Gap that female authors often tend to be taken less seriously than their male counterparts. She found that while women are more likely to read books written by the opposite sex, men are less likely to do so.

Of the 10 bestselling female authors (including Jane Austen, Danielle Steel and Jojo Moyes), only 19% of their readership is male, compared to 81% female. This imbalance is much less pronounced for their male counterparts, with 55% male readers and 45% female readers for the top 10 best-selling authors.

To encourage them to overcome this gender bias, the organisers of the Women’s Prize for Fiction have drawn up a list of 10 must-read novels for men, written by women. This initiative provides a way to broaden readers’ horizons and to let voices that have long been silenced be heard.

Last month, American-Canadian author Ruth Ozeki, based in Massachusetts, won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in London for her fourth novel, The Book Of Form And Emptiness. – AFP

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