Don’t worry, this isn’t another retrospective on how much this year sucked (though it did). I’m actually here to take a look at the books I read over the past year and look at some of the demographics of their authors and main characters.
Yes, I am voluntarily doing stats.
Nothing complicated, just some percentages. Maybe a pie chart. But I figure these sorts of conversations (I’ll elaborate in just a moment) are best had with actual numbers attached.
“I only read good books”
This idea has been in my head for a while; every so often someone brings up diversity in reading habits and the internet explodes with the same arguments. “I don’t care if the author is male or female or black or white or purple, if it’s a good book I’ll read it”. (Never mind that the majority of the time this approach results in a reading list full of white men). Right around the time that I started working, r/fantasy provided me with another such conversation, with all the predictable attendant criticisms.
I feel very strongly that if one wants to cultivate a diversity of perspectives in their reading list, one has to deliberately counteract the systematic bias that is present in the publishing industry. But while I talk the talk, do I walk the walk? I have long made a deliberate effort to seek out female authors, but how successful was I really? And what about other measures of diversity, like race or identity/orientation?
In brief: I made a spreadsheet of all the books I read in 2016 and looked at the demographics of the authors and the main characters. How many women? How many men? How many nonwhite authors or characters? And so on. If you’re interested in the details, there will be another post breaking down my methods (and my methodological problems), and another discussing interpretations, implications and next steps for 2017. For now, I’ll just present the basic results and a pretty chart or two…
General Descriptive Statistics
Let’s start with the basics. Between 1/1/2016 and 12/29/2016 I read 110 works of writing. This excludes 2 anthologies (having 20+ authors makes them a headache for stats) and one academic book collecting multiple articles (same issue). It includes all the short fiction I read online which had a separate entry on Goodreads (which is most of it). The books ranged in length, with the shortest listed at 8 pages and the longest at 630 (average length 284 pages, total pages read in excess of 30,000).
[see here for a different, more visually appealing presentation of this data]
As I pulled the basic data from Goodreads, where I review all the books I read, I can also talk about ratings. The books included in this data set had an average review score across all users of 3.98; my average review score was slightly lower at 3.82 (I suppose I’m slightly more critical than the average reviewer). However my most frequent review score was a “4”, so I’d say that I generally choose books that I enjoy. I suspect that the average score is brought down by the Hugo nominees from last year, and I will discuss that more in another post.
The oldest book I read last year was originally published in 1906 — a reprint of one of E. Nesbit’s books. Most of the books I read were published in 2015. (Unsurprising; I tend to be about a year behind as I get most of my books from the library).
Demographics of Authors
The first thing I was interested in was the demographics of the authors I was reading, as those are generally what diversity arguments center around. I was particularly invested in the gender breakdown, though I also looked at race and whether the author identified as LGBTQ+ (there are certain methodological problems with those last two which I will discuss in more detail in another post).
Of the 110 books I read last year, 85 were written by women and 25 were written by men. However, once I account for series books written by the same author, I am left with 76 individual authors, of whom 51 are female (67%) and 24 are male (33%).
Considering that many people are failing to even achieve parity in author genders, and I can’t even count the number of all-male “Best of” lists I’ve seen, I’m very happy with that gender breakdown.
On other axes of diversity I don’t do so well. Of the books I read, 9 books were by nonwhite authors, and each of those books was by a different person. 33 books were by LGBT+ authors, but this number is skewed by the fact that one of my favorite authors, who is extremely prolific, identifies as bisexual. When that is taken into account, I am left with 9 LGBT+ authors. Only one author was both nonwhite and LGBT+ (Keri Hulme, who is part Maori and asexual).
Looking at gender and race together, it becomes even more apparent that my reading list is heavily biased toward white authors. White women make up the majority of my dataset, at 59.2%, followed by white men at 28.9%. Nonwhite authors make up under 12% of the authors I read. However, my deliberate bias toward female authors means that I actually read more nonwhite women than nonwhite men; generally those at the intersections of multiple disadvantaged categories receive the least attention.
Demographics of Protagonists
Another book-related topic where diversity often comes up is with regards to representation in characters. That is, whether the spectrum of characters in fiction accurately reflects the diversity of the humanity they reflect. So I ran some similar calculations on the demographics of the protagonists (main characters) of the books I read. Because I did not collect this information as I went and was relying on memory, I elected to only examine protagonists, despite the fact that many books had diverse representation in secondary characters. Also, it’s valuable to examine what kinds of people do (and don’t) get to be heroes…
I should note that unlike with author demographics, I allowed for the possibility of multiple protagonists. In cases with three or fewer equally weighted characters (this was a subjective assessment, but generally correlates to whether they get a dedicated POV in the work or not), I specified the genders of each. In cases with true ensemble casts, I listed the gender as “mixed” if it included multiple genders. “Nonwhite” and “LGBTQ+” were once again binary categories, marked as “yes” if any of the protagonists met the relevant criteria.
So. That said, what do the numbers look like?
Of the 110 books I read, 75 had at least one female protagonist, 31 had at least one male protagonist, 10 had mixed ensemble casts, and 5 fall into the “other” category. These 5 books include 1 nonfiction book (so there is no protagonist), three novels with AIs as protagonists (which I listed as “agender”, though I will discuss the specifics in more detail in the methodology post), and one protagonist in an SF/cyberpunk novella who was AFAB but wishes to undergo surgery to become neuter/androgynous (who I listed as nonbinary).
A couple of additional details to note: 20 of those 110 books featured only male protagonists. Of those, 11 were by male authors. Thus books by male authors featuring (exclusively) male protagonists make up only 10% of my reading.
By contrast, I read 64 books with exclusively female protagonists, of which 55 were written by female authors — a full 50% of my reading.
The chart below shows how protagonist gender breaks down by author gender. It excludes all “mixed” or “other” books. The first column shows the number of books written by male authors which feature at least one male protagonist; the second column shows books written by male authors featuring at least one female protagonist; and so on. These categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive (a book could have a female and a male protagonist and thus be counted in more than one column) but it still demonstrates a clear and obvious preference for women written by women — female-authored books featuring female protagonists.
27 books (24.6%) featured nonwhite protagonists, and 12 (10.9%) featured LGBTQ+ protagonists. Nonwhite characters were (nonexhaustively, and from memory) Latinx, Native American, black, Indian, Maori, and various types of unspecified but clearly nonwhite races and/or ethnicities (for example in secondary-world fantasies or far-future SF). LGBTQ+ characters were asexual, lesbian, and bisexual. (Side note: Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire has trans and pansexual secondary characters in addition to its asexual female protagonist).
To summarize: my reading preferences demonstrate a strong bias toward female-authored books, particularly those featuring female protagonists. Books by nonwhite authors and books featuring nonwhite protagonists made up a small percentage of my reading choices. Books by LGBTQ+ authors made up a larger percentage, primarily due to the influence of one favorite, prolific author. Once that was accounted for, the percentage dropped. I also read few books featuring LGBTQ+ protagonists.
As I mentioned, I’ll discuss my selection criteria in more detail in the next post, both in choosing books to read and in classification for this project (which will both highlight some of the limitations of a “study” like this one, and potentially explain some of the results). It might be tedious, though, so if you’re more interested in the implications of my results and the big-picture issues at play skip ahead to Part III.