Year in Review

Keeping Account: What I Recommended in 2020

Before I started this blog, the vast majority of my book discussion came on Reddit. And r/Fantasy has really been a wonderful place for book discussion and recommendations, but like many such communities, it always has to fight feedback loops. A handful of hyper-popular dudes get recommended to new readers, new readers focus their reading on said handful, new readers begin to recommend said handful. Rinse. Repeat. At the beginning of the year, Krista D. Ball posted an essay about the books recommended in 2019, which concluded that the sub overwhelmingly recommended men, and that the few recommendations there were for less-popular books tended to get ignored, while the popular books sparked discussion.

Some of this is to be expected. The most popular books are popular for a reason, and it makes sense that the books with the biggest following spark the most discussion. But at the same time, the reason I started talking books online is because I wanted to expand my repertoire beyond Robert Jordan (who is still one of my favorites!) and George R.R. Martin. So, wanting to be a part of the solution, I started keeping track of my own recommendations. Now this tracking isn’t perfect–sometimes it can be a little hard to draw a line between a recommendation and book discussion, and sometimes I probably just forgot to add a recommendation to my tracking spreadsheet. But it should be good enough to get a sense of how I’m doing, and where I may need to do better. So here’s some analysis of what I recommended most.

The Popular Books

I made 585 recommendations of 72 books by 59 different authors on r/Fantasy this year, and only 19 of those were for books in the sub’s 2019 Top Novels. Of those 19, 13 were instances of recommending my favorite fantasy epic, The Wheel of Time. Hey, it might not fit for everything, but sometimes it sounds like just what the requester wants! To get a better proxy for popular books–especially more recent ones that might not have gotten as much momentum in a 2019 poll–I added in nominations for the last five years of Hugo Awards. And about 22% of my recommendations, led by The Broken Earth Trilogy and The Books of the Raksura, were for books that were either in the sub’s top ten or had a recent Hugo nomination to its name.

On the other hand, 66% of my recommendations were for books without a recent Hugo nomination that also did not show up in the sub’s top 100. This included some of my most common recommendations, The Lighthouse Duet (53 recs), The Killing Moon (36), The Steerswoman (34), Inda (34), and The Sword of Kaigen (31).

Personally, I feel pretty good about having stayed away from just recommending the same popular books every time. It has taken a little digging, but I have found r/Fantasy to be a wonderful resource for finding books that hadn’t previously been on my radar, and I’ve been excited to share those newfound gems with others. And sometimes I felt a little bit bad about spamming Carol Berg recommendations, but 53 times in a year is only once a week, which probably isn’t clogging up the sub too badly.

Race and Gender

Just 123 of my 585 recommendations this year were for books written by men (yes, part of that is because I didn’t discover The Long Price Quartet until a couple months ago), and I made more recommendations for books written by black women than I did for books written by white men. So that means I can just pat myself on the back and not take a more critical look, right? Not if I want to actually learn anything I can’t!

I did indeed read and recommend a lot of books by women in 2020, but by reading and recommendation list was still predominantly white. By count of recommendations, 70% of the books I recommended this year were by white authors, and even that number is tamped down somewhat by having recommended N.K. Jemisin more than 70 times–having one minority author that you really like isn’t the same as having a diverse reading list. If you look at books I recommended more than twice this year, my list of unique authors is whittled down to 31, 74% of which are white. I’m not sure there’s good data on publishing numbers by race, but by the 2010 census, the population of the United States–my home country and the place where a significant chunk of the books I read are published–is just 62% non-Hispanic white, so my recommendations are still skewed compared to the general population. And I think that’s something worth addressing, for much the same reasons that I started reading more women. It’s better for the genre when diverse voices are represented, and diversifying my reading is a good way to find some real gems that had not been on my radar.

Another thing I noticed when breaking down by race and gender is that there’s just one book by a man of color (compared to seven by women of color) that I recommended more than three times this year: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle. (Which, by the way, is fantastic.) I’m not sure how much of that is on my own idiosyncrasies and how much is on the way diversity is marketed, but that appears to be a pretty significant gap in my reading and recommending. If I were recommending men of color at the same rate as women of color, it would more than reverse the racial skew of my recommendation list. And given that discrimination tends to affect men and women in different ways gestures at carceral state created around a central narrative of fear of black men, that seems like an important perspective that I’m missing.

Takeaways

  • I’ve found a lot of real under-the-radar gems, and I am excited to recommend them to others looking for their own hidden gems.
  • I’ve made it a point to read more women in the last couple years, and I’ve found a lot of new favorite books that way. That has been reflected in my recommendations. If there’s anyone else looking at their shelf and noticing that it’s mostly guys, I highly recommend being intentional about branching out. There are women writing some amazing books.
  • My recommendations still don’t have a lot in the way of racial diversity, driven in large part by the dearth of men of color on my reading list. As I put together reading goals for 2021, I’m going to be intentional about rectifying that.

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