Your Favourites Are Not Objective

Title is stating the obvious, right? You’d think.

First up, go read this post on by Liz Bourke. It’s an old story: a couple of famous white male authors listed their favourite writers. Their lists were entirely white and male. Liz Bourke argues, quite rightly, that this was avoidable, and that people have a responsibility to think about who they’re including or excluding when they make such lists.

Cue the comments, which were flooded with (presumably) white, male readers making the oh-so-predictable response: why should the authors’ identities affect what is their favourite? It sounds reasonable, until you actually apply some thought to the issue.

If I asked you to name your ten favourite authors, could you do so easily, without hesitation? All ten? I couldn’t. Thing is, a lot of authors have very different things that make them good, that are hard to rank directly against one another. I dare say that after the first few names, most people would be stopping to consider whether to include author A at the expense of author B. I myself would probably name author A on one day, and then author B when asked the same question a week later – and both lists would be equally true. “Favourite” is a tricky thing to narrow down, and any list of favourites is going to be, on some level, a deliberately curated selection, not an absolute answer.

So, your list of ten favourites is not actually a list of favourites. But what does this have to do with the diversity of the list? Well, a lack of diversity in your list of favourites can mean a few things. The article above points out that, statistically speaking, a list is unlikely to be entirely white and male by chance alone. If the identity of an author did not factor in at all, lists like that would be far less common. So what are the reasons your favourites are all white men?

1) The books you read are all by white men. This is unlikely to happen by accident – 51% of the population is female – so a bias must exist somewhere. This could be systematic bias in publishing and marketing. It could be that you yourself have a bias – conscious or not – when choosing what to read. And of course it could be because these recommendation lists we’re talking about already disproportionately favour white male authors. (It’s actually all three.) In any case, this suggests you’re not choosing your “favourites” from a representative sample, and you should maybe start to think more about who you’re choosing to read.

2) You like the books you read by white men more. Say this the wrong way and it sounds bad, right? You’re not sexist or racist, it’s just that these books you like happen to be by white men! Think, however, about what this really implies. As I’ve said above, it’s unlikely to happen by chance. There are two explanations: either you’re saying that white men are just better at writing good books, or you’re not reading the right non-white and/or non-male authors. The answer, again, is to pay more attention and try to read more diversely.

3) You enjoy writers of all backgrounds, but you’re choosing to only include white men in your list of recommendations… for some reason. You like author B well enough, but you’re going to put author A on your list. Truth be told, there’s not much between the two, and a list with author B wouldn’t really be less representative of your tastes, but you want to be as close to your absolute top ten favourites as possible. Why should it matter if you then look at the list and realise that decision means your list has no women on it? It’s your favourites, right? Because of points 1 and 2, that’s why. When you could publish a list that included some diversity, without really compromising your tastes, but choose not to, you’re adding to the bias that leads to other people not reading those diverse voices, which continues the cycle of bias in recommendation and reading choices and keeps non-male and non-white writers underrepresented.

Point 3 is why Liz Bourke talks about people having a responsibility to include diversity. The fact that recommendations completely lacking in diversity are so common demonstrates that there’s a widespread bias that goes against the common sense that writers of different backgrounds should all be equally capable of writing good books. This bias is not something that will correct itself, spontaneously, but it something that can only be countered by being more conscious of what we read, and what we recommend others read.

It should be weird to look at the books you’ve been reading and realise they’re all by men. If you write down your favourites and, against all probability, they’re all white men, it should make you wonder what’s been missed out.


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