What You Read Matters

Recently, someone on Instagram commented on one of my posts about Standard Written English (don’t know what that is? You can read the blog here) and stated that they don’t buy books because of the author, that they don’t pay any attention to who has written the book, their race, gender, sexuality, or even what genre the book is — they just read whatever book appeals to them in the moment.

Their argument was that they have no bias because they aren’t intentionally reading books by white authors.

I know you’re a good person; I know I’m a good person (mostly).

I know that neither of us would intentionally hurt another person.

If you’re an avid reader, it’s reasonable to assume that you are thoughtful, progressive, empathetic, and considered (among many other sterling qualities); you’re one of the good guys!

And you are (!), but here’s where things get a little tricky and sticky.

Want to hear some disturbing facts?

79 percent of the publishing industry is white.

88 percent of the books reviewed by The New York Times are written by white authors.

Consumers engaged with a product up to SEVEN TIMES before they even consider buying it.

While you may not be bias about the types of books that you are reading, the publishing industry is bias about the types of books they’re willing to publish.

The majority of narratives published by the industry belong to white writers.

So, even if you are not intentionally buying books by white authors, statistically speaking, the majority of the books you SEE will be written by white authors.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we do have a natural bias for the familiar.

We read books by white authors in school, we study them in university, we (somewhat) unknowingly fill our bookshelves with these particular narratives because we have been told this is what good literature is.

If this person is learned and reflective, they will likely recognise this fault and start to diversify (hopefully).

This is where the road splits and two things can happen:

  1. The unaware reader gets a job in publishing and continues to advocate for books that fit into the shelf of ‘familiar white narratives.’
  2. The aware reader gets a job in publishing and learns that books written by white authors sell better than books written by black, indigenous, or people of colour.

In a research paper published by Macquire University in March 2017, 63% of Australian readers believe that books by Indigenous authors are important for Australian culture, but only 42% expressed interest in reading these narratives.

Fifty-one percent of Australians read one to ten books a year.

Similarly, according to the Pew Research Center, the average American reads 12 books (in whole or in part) a year. When this statistic was broken down further, it was revealed that Hispanic and black, non-Hispanic people read eight books a year, and white, non-Hispanic people read 13 books a year.

My point? That’s not a lot of books.

Want another scary statistic?

In 2017, Australian publishers (of which there are 4,078) collectively published 23, 832 new books.

23 832 new books in ONE year and the average reader is getting through ten (if I’m being generous). 

Want another one?

The average person will read 2,000 books in their lifetime.

It’s reasonable to assume that most people working in publishing are pretty progressive, but when you look at the data and see who is buying books, it is easy to see why (and how) books are marketed to white people and why white voice are promoted over marginalised narratives.

The problem is complex and systemic, and the challenge of correcting this problem has left authors, publishers, and readers wondering, ‘Where do we start?’

There are a variety of issues that need to be addressed.

  • People in positions of power need to check their bias and publish narratives by BIPOC authors.
  • The industry needs to create more opportunities for black, indigenous, and people of colour, so that publishing is able to diversify from the inside out.
  • How we educate readers and writers about what constitutes ‘good prose’ needs to change.
  • We need to consider who has written the books that we are consuming.
  • We need to buy books by authors whose race, gender, religion, and sexuality, differ from our own.

And all these changes need to be made to an industry that is already in crisis.

People may be reading more than ever, but they aren’t reading books. It’s the sales of a few, very high-profile authors that are keeping this ship afloat.

I don’t want to live in a world without books, and I don’t want to live in a world with only one type of book.

So, what can you do?

Buy books by indigenous Australians (here’s ONE list and ONE publisher).

Buy books by black authors (here’s ONE list)

Buy books by black booksellers (USA).

Include characters who aren’t white in your fiction (here’s a blog about how to do that).

What a long read that does a deep-dive on this topic? Check out this fantastic article by Vice. 

This is a big topic, more than I can possible cover in a 1,000 word blog post, so if you have any recommendations or points you’d like to raise, please leave a comment below.


While you’re here, be sure to join my email newsletter and gain instant access to your FREE downloadable copy of the Seven Ways to Stay Motivated as a Writer. Plus, you’ll receive my weekly newsletter straight to your inbox every Thursday morning. This is where I share links to my latest blog/vlog, updates and other exclusive content that I ONLY share via email.

Does Good Writing Actually Mean White Writing?

There’s a good chance that most of the books you have read are written in Standard Writing English (SWE).

What is SWE?

Basically, SWE is a form of English that is uniform in spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary. It includes the established formal and informal regional differences used in the writing and speech of educated people, and it is accepted wherever English is understood.

You’ll note that one of the key attributes of SWE is that it’s the language of the educated. For this reason, SWE is often referred to as Standard White English, and the biggest criticism of SWE is its contribution to the ongoing oppression of marginal voices.

So, why am I talking about SWE and why should you care?

Because the publishing world is overwhelmingly white. Because the vast majority of books published are written in SWE. Because maybe you’re unknowingly contributing to the problem by only writing white characters and/or only reading books written by white authors. Because it takes an intelligent and contentious writer to create a riveting story that not only reflects our present moment, but also interrogates it.

One of the core questions (there are many more*) that bubbles to the surface whenever discussing SWE is: What is good writing?

The short answer: White.

The long answer: this sh*t is complicated.

The pragmatic answer: clear, concise, emotive, propelling, compelling, invisible.

Good writing feels like a universal standard. We just know it when we see it.

People in positions of power who uses subjectivity as their defence for saying “no” — it’s just not my style — fail to witness their own biases. They do not realise that their judgement is steeped in cultural and social beliefs; a lens that shapes their perspective on what quantifies as “good art”.

Personal “taste” is biases in wolf’s clothing. The publishing (and reading) world’s definition of what is literary, worthy, high-brow, intellectual come from somewhere for all beliefs have a history.

The reason why we assume that good writing is white writing is because most of the books we have read, studied, and see on listicles and shortlists are written in SWE. Now of course, there are exceptions, how could there not be when, according to Google, there is nearly 130 million books in print.

The preference for and publication of SWE is a perpetual cycle.

People in power (white) published stories by people who used the same language as them; writers kept writing in said style so they would get published; writing teachers trained their students how to write in order to meet industry standards (ie: get publish); and teachers across disciplines trained their student how to write in order to meet their industry standards (ie: get a job).

Now, SWE isn’t evil, after all, there are benefits to having a wildly accepted and understood form of writing. Being able to write a book in a language that is comprehendible to a wide audience is an efficient way to share a story.

While a standardised form of writing allows for mass communication, it is not fully inclusive.

However, writers, readers and publishers are more aware than ever about the faults of standardised writing. Debates about appropriation and the demand for greater diversity in fiction continue to appear on the bill of literary festivals, book events, and conferences. Not to mention the volumes of opinion pieces and articles that have been penned on the matter.

The issue here is that appropriation bumps heads with diversity.

White writers continue to write white characters because they fear the criticism that could follow if they wrote non-white character – even though that is what readers want. This fear is not without warrant; many white writers are accused of appropriation. However, this usually only happens if the non-white characters are depicted stereotypically or if the story is somehow exploitive.

This then raises a whole slew of questions, such as: who are books for? What is a universal language? What are writers for? What are novels for? How can you judge the quality of prose without standardisation? How do we want the system to change? How are we asking writers to change?

And again, what is good writing?

A basic answer: you know it when you see it.

But this defence of subjectivity is no good to us other, for how can we trust that our biases will not affect our judgement?

The only conclusion I can arrive to is this: writing is not writing, it is revision.

Writer, readers, and publishers are aware of the limitations of standardised writing and they want to do better. In the same way that a work of fiction can be tweaked, rework, and improved with time and effort; our desire to do better and to expect more of ourselves and the books that line the hallways of our homes will begin the dismantling of an industry that favours the voices of some while silencing others.

What do you think? What are the pros and cons of a standardised writing system? Have you read many novels that would not be considered SWE? I’d love to know, please leave your comments or reflects below.



While you’re here, be sure to join my email newsletter and gain instant access to your FREE downloadable copy of the Seven Ways to Stay Motivated as a Writer. Plus, you’ll receive my weekly newsletter straight to your inbox every Thursday morning. This is where I share links to my latest blog/vlog, updates and other exclusive content that I ONLY share via email.