Over the last few years, I’ve been trying to diversify my reading, both for the good of myself (I don’t want to miss great books outside the set that the recommendation algorithms are throwing at me) and the genre (speculative fiction gets better as it includes more perspectives). But after a couple great reading years, I’ve begun to wonder what it looks like to succeed. In five years, I’ve gone from not reading any women writing adult fantasy (okay, except for Lois McMaster Bujold) to reading about 60% women. The genre awards have flipped even harder, with the Hugo Awards being absolutely dominated by women since Puppygate. So when do we get to pat ourselves on the back and declare the job done?
Upon reflection, I think that’s the wrong question. The goals of an inclusive genre and a diverse bookshelf aren’t places to hit a threshold and declare success. Instead, they’re about cultivating healthy habits—they’re less like completing Bingo and more like relearning how to sit and read without stopping every five minutes to pick up your phone.
A Matter of Habits
There’s nothing wrong with not being a reader. There’s nothing wrong with unwinding on the couch with funny videos on TikTok. There’s nothing wrong with setting a book down to browse Reddit or answer a text.
But if you’ve just recalled how much you loved to read as a kid, and you excitedly buy a stack of fantasy novels, and you pick one up, and then you spend an hour getting through five pages because you’re constantly distracted by social media notifications? That is a problem, because it’s preventing you from gaining that enjoyment you’ve sought from reading. And it’s a problem that won’t go away until you cultivate attentiveness. For some, that’s as simple as finding a book with a quick hook. For others, it may be a battle of willpower. For yet others, it might mean leaving your phone in another room to remove distractions from the situation. People develop that attentiveness differently. But once you gain that ability to really focus on a story, it unlocks so much of the enjoyment of reading.
But developing that attentiveness isn’t about hitting a threshold. You don’t read for an hour uninterrupted and declare success. It’s about cultivating a habit of focusing on what you’re reading. Now once you’ve gotten used to focusing for long stretches, it may get easier, and you may have to be less intentional about marking off that time. But success is an ongoing practice, not a threshold.
It’s much the same with diversifying your reading. It’s not mandatory, and there’s no magic number. If you only have the capacity to read one book a year, and it’s the latest release from Brandon Sanderson, that’s fine. And if you have a little bit more reading time and are looking to read more broadly, that doesn’t mean you have to give up on the white American men on your TBR–there are plenty who are writing fantastic books. It’s just a matter of developing reading habits that frequently point you in other directions. Like with cultivating attentiveness, this will look different for different people. For some, it may be joining book clubs with diverse focus. For others, it may be completing reading challenges; I had a lot of fun doing an all-women themed Bingo card in 2020. For yet others, it may just be a matter of participating in social media spaces that spend a lot of time hyping diverse books. Personally, I found reading challenges helpful as I was starting, but with the combination of Hugo reading and book discussion on Reddit and Twitter littering my TBR with intriguing books by female authors, I don’t necessarily feel like another all-women Bingo card will make much difference. Reading fantasy by women has stopped being a challenge and started being a habit.
Metrics Are Guide, Not Goal
I’ve just argued that diversifying your reading isn’t the sort of goal amenable to easy success metrics. But that doesn’t mean that tracking your reading doesn’t help. If you spend six months picking up whatever book strikes your fancy and then analyze the list of books you’ve just read, you’ve generated a pretty good snapshot into your current reading habits. Perhaps those habits are just as you would like them to be, and perhaps you’d like to make some adjustments. Tracking your reading can help give a clear-eyed view of where you are.
Personally, I do set reading goals at the beginning of the year, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them as the year progresses. Rather, the goals function as a tool to help me assess whether or not my reading-in-the-moment matches up with my reflective opinions about what I would like to read. If I’m not happy with where I am, I start seeking out book recommendations for any categories in which I fall short. Fleshing out the TBR is half the battle! I also try not to be too specific. I don’t really care whether I read 70% women or 40% women in a given year. But if that number drops to 20%, or it remains under 50% for years in a row, then I start asking questions about how I’m picking my books.
Again, tracking is not a mandatory step along the route to diversifying your reading. It’s just a tool that I’ve found useful along the way. Your mileage may vary, probably in concert with your feelings on charts and graphs.
The Many Axes of Diversification
I’ve led here with a discussion on reading more women, because it’s the instance that prompted the initial question—it’s a goal I’ve had for a few years, and one where I’d made enough progress so as to reasonably ask myself if I’d successfully accomplished it.
But there are lots of different axes on which to diversify reading, and lumping them all under the umbrella of “diversity” has a tendency to leave certain groups stuck on the margins. As an American who has been reasonably online for the last few years, it’s impossible not to see discussion of racism in so many parts of life, with publishing being no exception. And so I track race along with gender, and I try not to fall into the habit of an overwhelmingly white TBR.
Perhaps less visible to American book-lovers is the dominance of the US in publishing. Attempts to diversify one’s reading list by race or gender can so easily still result in a TBR of nearly all Americans, with the occasional Brit or Canadian for good measure. And unlike gender, Hugo reading doesn’t help a bit—an American woman has taken home the prize for Best Novel every year since the controversial 2015 edition, and the other print fiction categories don’t look much different.
r/Fantasy has recognized this trend to some extent, with Bingo squares demanding non-US authors in 2019 and 2020, plus a Translated SFF square in 2021, but if you’re not intentionally looking outside the US, it’s easy to get stuck in the US. And even when branching out, it’s far too easy to never look past the UK and Canada. Speculative fiction in translation is still fighting for visibility, as are English-language works coming out of places like India, Africa, and the Caribbean. There’s the occasional book that will hit the right combination of quality, timing, and luck to penetrate the American consciousness, but in general, trying to read beyond the few countries that dominate English-language publishing requires intentionally searching for reviewers that read and recommend on a world scale.
I could go on. Religion, ability, sexuality, and socioeconomic status have all served as barriers to speculative authors, and any one would be an entirely reasonable place to focus expanding one’s reading. Reading self-published or indie-published books is another way to discover quality works that have not been filtered through traditional genre gatekeepers. There are lots of places to diversify, and realistically, no individual reader is going to be able to focus on every single marginalized category.
But again, it’s helpful to remember that you don’t need a laser focus or hard goals in order to make a habit of reading more broadly. Finding a reviewer who reads a lot of books that had previously been off your radar can make as much of a difference in reading habits as setting annual reading goals. And if you find yourself liking a lot of books off-the-beaten path, perhaps you can be that reviewer for someone else.
There are lots of ways to be a reader. And if you find yourself stuck in an endless cycle of reading books from very similar perspectives, there are lots of ways to branch out. But making changes to the way you read isn’t about hitting a goal and moving on—it’s about creating habits that will stick with you over time. That may be taking on reading challenges, tracking your reads and regularly searching for recommendations for books outside your normal, finding new review sources and venues for discussion, or some combination of strategies. For me, it’s been all of the above at various points within the last couple years. And it’s delivered me some absolutely fantastic books. Happy reading.