Make a note of your favourite writers. Now, read their first names aloud.
Next: scan the book-jackets on your shelf, or the stream of ebooks on your Kindle, and imagine those authors standing right there in the room with you. What do all of these faces share in common? How diverse is this group of friendly strangers?
A couple of years ago these thoughts made me uncomfortable because, aside from the well-known authors such as Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen, nearly all of the names on my shelf were made up of Christophers and Davids, Michaels and Stevens, Johns and Alexanders. My bookshelf revealed that I had joined a gang — I was an unconscious member of the all boys club, and I had been carrying the baton of this poisonous tradition for years without even noticing.
Suddenly my books felt alien and ideologically incestous.
This led me to wonder about the people that aren’t welcome in these clubs, and how they feel about literature — what was their experience whenever they walked into a library or brushed up against a bookcase?
Several years ago, when I first imagined my favourite writers leaping out of my books and into the room, the issue was painfully clear. If I could snap a photo of them this is what they might have looked like:
Of course, at the time I wasn’t trying to be cruel towards marginalised writers (especially women in this instance) but I soon found that the most terrifying strand of prejudice is entirely unconscious. Ignoring more than fifty percent of all the smart, joyous, and kind words that have ever been published required no effort on my part whatsoever; this type of cruelty was, well, easy.
It’s clear that my shelves deserved better of me, but more importantly all of those ‘other’ writers deserved better of me, too. They required me to be more considerate of the voices that don’t always get heard or, even worse, those that are systematically oppressed thanks to underlying cultural norms that have lasted for hundreds of years.
So how do we build communities instead of exclusionary clubs?
My shelves appear to be much healthier now; there isn’t a single point of origin any more, neither is there a dominant race or gender between the writers. I’ve made sure to design a welcoming set of shelves for people of every imaginable background. Yet I’m left wondering how I can see my own prejudices elsewhere; who am I listening to on Twitter? Which voices am I neglecting? Which sort of people should I choose to work with on a daily basis?
Today the authors on my shelves happily bump into one another whilst their incompatible mantras, philosophies and tales of imaginative fiction all compliment each other in one way or another.
However, my shelves certainly aren’t the model that other bookshelves should aspire to because on quiet, cloudy days I’ll sometimes walk amongst them where they groan under the weight of their neighbours. If I happen to stand in just the right spot, I can begin to hear their mumbles filtered through lips of paper:
“Try harder” they mumble in between deep, inky breaths, “try harder…”