My Second Blogiversary and #TBR20 with a Twist

Today, The Writes of Woman is two years old. Like all anniversaries, it’s made me reflect on what’s gone well over the last two years and what I’d like to do next with the blog.

Before I get to that though, I’d like to say a huge thank you to all of you who’ve read, commented on and shared blog posts. The number of hits on the site quadrupled in 2014, which is huge, and I’m grateful to you all for taking the time to visit.

In 2014, I read 136 books, 97% of which were by women. It wasn’t my intention to only read books by women when I began the blog but they certainly dominated my reading last year!

When I began the blog, I wrote about my reasons for doing so. One of them was that every weekend the writer Linda Grant would tweet the number of reviews of books by women in the broadsheets. It was always significantly fewer than those reviewed that were written by men. I didn’t state it at the time, but I always intended that this blog should be for all women writers.

Over Christmas and the New Year, as people were writing about their year in reading, the writer Nikesh Shukla commented:

While it was nice to see how #readwomen2014 made people reflect on how many books by women they read last year, I did notice that no one was analysing how many books by non-white authors they read. They probably didn’t dare. 

I calculated mine – an appalling 10%.

I then started to wonder about other groups. I’d focused on women in translation, surely that would be better: 11%. LGBTQIA? 6%.

It was then that I started to consider why I was excluding these groups of people. I wasn’t doing it intentionally, I’ve always considered my feminism to be inclusive – I’m a working class woman (yes, you could argue that my education puts me in the middle class category but as Caitlin Moran and Barbara Ellen have argued, I don’t see why the middle class should claim me just because I’m university educated), why would I want to exclude anyone else?

Then I decided to look at the books I read and see how many would be considered working class literature: 25%. And there were my unconscious biases writ large.

Three things happened in quick succession: the first was Nikesh Shukla’s comment; the second was that one of the consequences of losing my last bit of regular paid work was that I realised I couldn’t afford to spend money on books until June, and the third was that Celeste Ng wrote an article for Salon about ‘our female Asian American writer blind spot’.

Losing my book budget meant that I began to consider doing #TBR20. If you haven’t come across this idea, have a read of the post by Eva Stalker which kicked it off. The idea is that you read twenty books from your to be read pile before buying any more. It’s enough to bring a book buying addict out in hives. In that post, Eva confesses that her book buying is a result of existential angst:

Like all anxieties it had mortality at its root. Aside from the instant gratification of buying something new, what I bought had a certain intent. I was buying what I wanted to have read. I was always looking for the next thing, the next great thing that would mean everything.  

A conversation about this on Twitter led me to consider why I buy so many books.

I know how many books I own, I catalogue them, but I’ve refused to work out how many are unread for several years now. Last week, I made an educated estimate based on a sample of one bookcase; at the speed I read last year, it would take me approximately twenty-three years to read all the unread books in the house. That’s insane.

So why do I own so many books? Because I grew up in a working class family and was – still am – the only person in my family to have attended university. At school, where I was in the top set for all subjects that were set by ability, I was continually told that when I applied for university, I would be competing against people who were better educated than me. How do you educate yourself? The only way I knew was to read. So I began to buy (and read some of them, at least) books that were nominated for prizes; books that appeared on university reading lists; books that were recommended by writers in interviews; books that were written about in the likes of the LRB and the TLS. And I still do. I have double width bookcases stacked full of them.

I thought that books would make me more intelligent. And they have, to a point.

But how can I consider myself well read or well-educated if I’m practically ignoring the experiences, thoughts and ideas of the majority of the world’s population?

Then I saw Celeste Ng’s article. In it, she talks about doing an event to promote her novel Everything I Never Told You at an American university.

I asked the professor hosting me how he’d found me.  He admitted he’d needed an Asian American woman fiction writer to balance his speaker lineup. “There aren’t a lot of you out there,” he said, with evident embarrassment.      

Ng goes on to prove that there are a lot of female Asian American writers with a huge list of names at the bottom of the article.

As I read through the list, I realised how many books I owned by the writers named there. Combined with Roxane Gay’s writers of colour list published on The Rumpus in 2012, I was interested to see how many unread books I had in the house written by women of colour: 85. It’s a fraction of the total of unread books I own, but it’s far from insignificant.

So, three things came together, the conclusion of which is this: I’m taking part in #TBR20 but with a twist; the books I read – and review – will be ones written by women of colour. You can see my choices in the photographs below.

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I included review copies I was sent last year in the unread books by women of colour tally. I thought I’d been sent fewer books by women of colour than white women and I had, but it was also apparent that when there were several books due to be published around the same time, I’d chosen to read those by white women over those by women of colour. I’ve already checked the paperback publication dates for these books and they will take precedent over anything else.

I’ve also added two menu tabs to the blog – one for women of colour and one for LGBTQIA women. These menus, like the women in translation one that I added last year, are there to highlight, not segregate; all of the authors also appear on the fiction/non-fiction menus, as appropriate. They are also there to remind me to address my bias and that once I’ve finished my #TBR20 pile, there needs to be another for LGBTQIA women and then another for women in translation until I reach a stage where my unconscious bias is to choose to read books by all women.

2015 then will be about making this blog, and my reading, diverse and inclusive. I will continue to read and review books by white, heterosexual cis women but I will do so alongside those by women of colour, those who identify as LGBTQIA and those by women whose work has been translated into English. Here’s to reading books by all women writers.

0 thoughts on “My Second Blogiversary and #TBR20 with a Twist

    • Thanks Helen. I can’t believe I haven’t read it. It was assigned reading on my first year undergrad and I was one of those people who read everything. However, I think I knew I was going to miss the tutorial for it so I never got further than the first few pages. It means it’s been in my possession for the best part of 20 years – unread. The shame.

  1. What a wonderful way of thinking about things – well done, Naomi! I am not nearly as well organised as that, but once I get through more of the books on my shelves, I might become a bit more ‘intentional’ about my reading, rather than relying on the haphazard.

    • Thanks Marina. I think compiling the ‘In the Media’ posts helped focus too; there were so many writers cropping up I’d never heard of before and it made my start wondering why.

  2. Plenty of great titles there, Aminatta Forna is a fabulous writer, loved Memory of Love and The Hired Man, and enjoyed Adhaf Soueif’s novels The Map of Love and In The Eye of the Sun, Can’t wait to read your reviews Naomi, what a great idea to use the challenge to bring these titles and authors to the surface. It’s amazing what we discover when articles like those you read prompt us to look at our subconscious influences. Thanks for the links to the lists too.

  3. Happy blogiversary, Naomi! Every so often there’s a feature in The Bookseller about lack of diversity in the trade. It usually concentrates on ethnicity – in fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen a reference to class – but nothing much seems to change. As far as I can tell, it’s still a solidly white middle class province which is bound to result in a degree of bias in what’s published, conscious or otherwise.

    Good luck with you alternative #TBR20 – I have to confess after so many years in the trade that I have a seemingly incurable need for the new. Bit of a greedy magpie!

    • Thanks, Susan. Yes, I saw the last Bookseller piece and there’s definitely an issue in the industry – I’m looking at it as part of my PhD work too, why are so many carnival books lacking diversity? You’d expect them to be full of it due to the nature of the carnival itself – but I wanted to skew it to a reader’s point of view too.

      I love new, shiny things too – I really can’t afford to buy any at the moment, but there’s still some very exciting review copies on my review pile and they’ll still get some attention.

  4. Happy blogoversary! I always like your blog. I’m sure those books you pick will broaden your literary horizon even more. Good luck with your #TBR20 project! 🙂

  5. Lots of good reqding coming up for you by the looks of things! Ive just finished The Map of Love which I really enjoyed, flitting back and forth between the early and late 1900s in Egypt. Beloved and Half Blood Blues are also brilliant – and I really want to read Boy, Snow, Bird as I’ve heard great things. I’m doing a self-imposed book-buying ban as well and seem to unwittingly be doing a #TBR20 myself! There are always great books lurking on the shelves which I end up neglecting in preference of shiby new ones…

  6. Happy anniversary. I am relatively new to your blog but have enjoyed what I have rwad so far. Really looking forward to your tbr challenge. I have read a few on your list and can highly recommend Andrea Levy, Esi Edugyun and Monica Ali

  7. Congrats on your blogging success! Such a thought-provoking post. (I, too, am the only person in my working class family to go to uni, and also own enough books for a miniature lending library…) I’ve always thought of myself as culturally eclectic, but reading this post has made me see ways that I’m actually quite narrow. A great reminder of what I might be missing out on. Thank you.

  8. Inspiring idea! And you have some great reads ahead of you there! Brick Lane, Map ofLove, Their eyes Watching God, and Beloved… I’m jealous of you reading these for the first time!
    I think I need to have a look through my shelves and be honest with myself too.

  9. Happy anniversary, Naomi! Great post and very thought-provoking. Looking back at my own reading over the past couple of years, I’ve included a fair spread of women in translation, but there are always gaps to address. Your post offers some timely food for thought. Best of luck with your #TBR20 challenge – I’ll add my voice to the chorus of support for Andrea Levy’s Small Island.

  10. Happy blogoversary! What a great idea! I’ve only read Brick Lane and Small Island from your tbr pile and loved them both. Your plan has made me reconsider my own tbr pile to be far broader and push me to learn more about other cultures and lifestyles.

  11. Happy birthday to your blog, Naomi! Cocktails all around! It’s really admirable what you’ve accomplished in a couple of years. I so admire your continuing mission which you’ve articulated here so beautifully. Although I’ve always read many books by women, through following your blog and thoughts on twitter it has made me more mindful about what I read and helped me to think more complexly about the identity politics involved. Each writer is an individual voice first and foremost, but the way in which writers are marginalized and classified in our culture based on gender, race, sexuality, nationality, etc change the way their writing is presented and consumed – inevitably leading to some writers being not as widely known as they should be simply because of these factors of their identity. So thanks for helping to make people more aware and redress the balance with your perceptive reviews.

    Looking at your pile, ZZ Packer’s stories are so good and enjoyable to read. Love Hurston, Morrison and Ali as well. Good luck with your reading challenge; I look forward to reading about the results!

    • Thanks Eric, I really appreciate your support. I completely agree with your comment about writers being individual voices but some being marginalised, I’m hoping that things are beginning to change.

      I’ve had ZZ Packer’s collection for ages, since I read something about her being an interesting/vibrant new voice, so I’m very keen to read it at last!

  12. Hi Naomi,
    You raise some important points about diversity in publishing. As someone with a disability and with working class roots, I rarely find a book for adults with a disabled protagonist, and a lot of books without any characters with a disability. It gets even worse when looking for disabled authors.
    So, I think you’re right to focus in on women writers of colour, and I think it would be a good exercise for everyone to look a bit more at diversity and think about why we may have authors who are so unrepresentative of the population.
    Congratulations on your blog anniversary – long may it continue!

    • Thanks Ruth. I was thinking about you when I wrote the post. I did look up disabled writers and there are so few, I was astonished. The only book I can recall reading recently with disabled characters in it was Alina Bronsky’s Just Call Me Superhero (tr. Tim Mohr), which was excellent.

      Yes, I agree, I think we do need more diverse published writers. I think everyone in the industry has a role to play here.

  13. My goodness, is this ever a wonderful idea. Thank you for being so open and honest about your unconscious biases–it’s great to know that bloggers are out there who can face these without being self-defensive. Your resolution is fantastic!

    • Thanks Elle. I can’t see the point in being self-defensive, I would’ve been mortified if someone had called me out on it, I’d rather take ownership of the problem and do something about it. I think having set up a blog with an agenda and people having embraced that agenda, I need to recognise the responsibility of the content and it’s really important for it to be diverse rather than simply reflecting myself, what’s the point of that?

  14. Congratulations on your second anniversary! Ever since I discovered this blog I’ve found a true, loyal, witty and very intelligent companion to my feminist binge-reading. And I love it 🙂

    Your #TBR20 idea is just fantastic. In my degree, at least a third of the subjects were related to postcolonialism, so that issues of gender and race played a key part. We studied Nigerian, Jamaican, Aboriginal and Hindi literature, among others, and most of the works were also written by women. It was such a wonderful experience, that Mr.B&R was quite sure I would eventually do a PhD in postcolonial studies. I even wrote a series of posts about reading these ‘Others’, because I met a blogger who, to educate herself, decided to read The Canon, meaning that she basically read white, middle-class, mostly Anglo-American, 19th century writers. So, being as I am, I nudged her to – pretty please – make her reading more diverse. I don’t think it worked. Anyway, here are the posts, some of which include suggested readings.

    https://booksandreviews.wordpress.com/category/postcolonial/

    As for the LGTB community, I’m afraid it’s still something we all need to work on. Maybe for your #TBR20 2016? 🙂

    • Thanks, Elena, I really appreciate all your support.

      Oh, don’t get me started on the canon, it needs some significant adjustment so it’s truly representative of both the world and literature. I did study some postcolonial literature at university – I was lucky enough to do a course where you had to do core units in certain areas, so I’ve read some Achebe, Walcott, Said, Roy, Rushdie, Soyinka and so on. There are a few on your posts I hadn’t come across before though, so I will take a look at those.

      I’ll be reading more from the LGBTQIA community this year too – I’m aiming for two, possibly three lots of #TBR20 books and my PhD work is partly looking at the transgender community, so there’ll be plenty of crossover there too.

      • I can’t wait to hear about your LGTB recommendations, because I know there are some really important lesbian detectives in recent crime fiction, but somehow they’ve stayed out of my radar (I wonder why!).

        And we should get each other started on the canon and bring it down for once and for all… This discussion that I had with that blogger was interesting, to say the least. As if the only way to educate yourself is from the past! However, while discussing it all I realised that my thing is contemporary literature, because I know no greater joy than to see the creative process of a writer who is alive, someone who is writing a novel while I’m living my life.

  15. Oh some great books in that pile. I loved Small Island and I’m sure I really liked The Map of Love, Brick Lane is excellent and I love Kamila Shamsie. I read A God in every Stone last year and really enjoyed it. I can’t remember Beloved very well but look forward to your thoughts on it.

    • Thanks Ali. You’re the first to comment on the Shamsie. Several people have said that Beloved is shocking so I’ll have to prepare myself for that one, I think.

  16. Happy Blogiversary Naomi!…great reading as always,love to check out your reviews. Discovered Korean author Kyung – Sook Shin and love her writing, hoping to find more in translation.

  17. Happy Blogiversary, and best of luck with your TBR#20. My knowledge of women writers has certainly expanded thanks to your reviews. While I have read a few books included in your pile, I am aware that my knowledge of “female minority writers” is limited, so I’m looking forward to reading about many new-to-me authors on your blog.

  18. Fantastic post, Naomi! And thanks so much for including my #TBR20 blog. Love your twist on the project. From your pile I’ve read Small Island, which I really enjoyed, and the Hurston, which I got on less well with but I’m still glad I read it. I also read a Hurston short story recently – ‘Sweat’ – as part of the Heath anthology in my TBR20.

    I hadn’t read Ng’s piece (& really fancy reading her novel). What a dismal situation she describes. So glad she has written about it. It’s so frustrating to me as a reader because, as you say, how widely read can we be if we aren’t getting to all the great voices out there? The gatekeeper systems aren’t working as well as they should. It’s disappointing that Asian-American writers have to fight for space to tell the stories they want to tell – or to even be acknowledged as existing.

    I also think we need to watch out for writers being pigeon holed into only telling particular stories because of their background/origins too. That’s relevant to several discussions, including your discussions of class. One of the more insidious effects of all this. There’s also the way people react to increased visibility of writers from a variety of backgrounds: e.g. the writer being negatively & personally characterised as ‘angry’ when often what is really the case is ‘articulate and confident but speaking from a different viewpoint and/or with a different accent and vocabulary than the establishment’.

    I love how you describe the relationship between your book buying and education. It so fascinating to trace behaviours back like that to see where they come from and ask whether they still fit in your life.

    • Hi Eva, Sorry for the late reply, I wanted to respond when I was at my laptop as I have a habit of losing longer comments on the phone app!

      I completely agree with your comments about writers being pigeon holed. Have you seen the Shukla Test, as created by Nikesh Shukla?http://www.nikesh-shukla.com/blog/2013/1/23/the-shukla-test He created it for race but you could do the similar for class and of course, Bechdel’s Test already exists for gender. The problems exist at so many levels, I think, and needs a collective effort for a permanent shift to happen.

      Thanks for your kind comments and for creating #TBR20, it’s a great project.

      • No worries, that happens to me on the phone app too! I had not seen the Shukla test, thanks for that. Love what you say about a collective effort being what’s required.

        Thanks again for mentioning #TBR20. So glad it’s working for you.

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  20. Read your post when it appeared just before I went to work and was impressed by how thoughtful it was (luckily had the journey to think about it!). I think consciously aiming for diversity is important as we all subconsciously fall into habits in everything we do. A number of my favourite writers have come from unexpected places! I was also please to see you mention class as an aspect of diversity – so often forgotten, and particularly tricky given the way, as you point out, education is frequently claimed as a signifier of being middle class.
    Thanks for keeping me thinking!

  21. Sorry I’m a bit late getting to this Naomi, fair play to you, this is a fantastic idea and is making me think about my reading choices too. I really agree with Eva’s point that I was buying the books I wanted to have read, but at the end of the day, space and money were my main reasons for my book buying ban. I really look forward to reading about what you read – I can add my vote for Beloved, a stunning book, and I read Black Water Rising last year and would like to hear what you think. Best of luck with your project x

    • Thanks Cathy, your comment about Black Water Rising had me intrigued so I started it as book number 2. Lots going on so far but I’m enjoying it.

  22. Congratulations on your blogoversary Naomi and a very thought-provoking post. A couple of years ago now I went through most of the physical books I own to read them, but my problem now is all the books I bought for my Kindle that are sitting there unread. So, this year, I’ve started on them – starting with three Sarah Hall’s in a row! I read nowhere near as many books as you last year – a couple were by women of colour and a couple were LGBT. Quite a few were by other bloggers 🙂

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  24. I love love love the idea of a TBR20, and in fact it’s inspired me to set up one or two of my own, though I let myself have an extra week just to finish making a couple of purchases. I’m also fascinated by the idea of deliberately picking a group that’s under-represented in your reading, and would be ashamed to look into this myself because I fear that my reading is horribly restricted. But then I look at your selection and I see several books on there that I’ve started and just not been able to get going with, which probably reflects just how trained I am to some particular styles and voices.
    Thank you as always for expanding my horizons.

    • Thanks, Helen. Eva was really on to something with this, I think! I’m interested to see what’s on your pile once you’ve compiled it.

      Being attuned to certain styles and voices is an interesting one. I wrote about it a little on my review of The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. Basically when I was doing my MA, my prose tutor said that there’s no such thing as not being able to get into a book, you need to adjust your own breathing/pace to that of the writer you’re reading. It certainly worked for me with that novel and I think blogging has opened me up to reading books in styles and with voices I probably wouldn’t have bothered with before. I’ve made some great discoveries too.

  25. Listening to Bookblethers ep1 today reminded me of this post & how I’ve been considering my own reading habits since Eva launched #TBR20. Since June I’ve been free to read whatever took my fancy after 8 years of predominantly reading to some study agenda; in that time I accumulated a mammoth TBR library; but then, and in the last 6 months, rather than choosing for any authorial trait the vast majority were purely on the promised story.

    Before that I favoured two genres for escapism – anything that made me laugh & thrillers – and inspirational true stories; the latter were more often internationally diverse. Yet, I’ve read very little international fiction…

    Inspired by your twist to #TBR20 I think my second round will include books like Brick Lane, Small Island, Sputnik Sweetheart, Brixton Beach, Interpreter of Maladies & The Joy Luck Club that lurk waiting patiently.

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