The Trouble with Reading Challenges
With Asian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month coming to an end and Pride around the corner here in the US, it seems like an appropriate time to talk about some of the trouble with diversity-focused reading challenges and readathons.
Don't get me wrong, I love a good readathon, and I love seeing readers and creators come together as a community. Whether they're large, month-long readathons that clearly have a ton of great preparation behind them, a year-long reading challenge that's pretty hands-off beyond a template and a hashtag, or a more impromptu readathon, they can be such a fantastic way to find new bookish content creators, make new friends within the book community, and get introduced to books that might not have come across our radar otherwise.
As great as the intentions are for diversity-focused reading challenges, there are two main issues I see year after year, month after month. Ultimately, I don't think these problems take away from the benefit of the challenges as a whole, and I'm definitely not discouraging people from participating in them! But I think we can enjoy and uplift something, while still acknowledging the flaws.
The first is probably pretty obvious: only reading books by and about marginalized identities during reading challenges, readathons, or heritage months. As with most things, mileage varies here, and it's not cut and dry.
For people reading a few books a month, this isn't necessarily a bad way to plan out their reading for the year. It could actually be a really great way to focus on a different type of diversity each month. But for people reading over ten, fifteen, twenty books a month ... maybe only reading books by Asians, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders in May, books by Black authors in February, books by Latinx authors in September, etc. is something worth assessing.
Again, I'm always going to concede that only reading a couple of diverse books during the 'relevant' heritage month is better than not reading them at all. But progress isn't something that should be stagnant, and marginalized authors, readers, and creators matter all year, every year.
This is especially noticeable in months where some sort of "fun" reading challenge, like Mer-May or FaRoFeb, gets far more attention. And, even worse, when the only push to really talk about and recommend books about a marginalized group happens in response to a tragedy in that community.
The second is an issue of erasure. Between intersectionality and the ways heritage months try to lump groups together, it's really easy to fall into a trap of erasing entire cultures and experiences if the only time we read books from different identities is during some limited-duration readathon where we tend to see the same books recommended over and over for each prompt. We can look at examples of this occurring right now.
Asians, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders are a huge demographic with drastically different experiences in this country and globally, as well as having a wide range of completely different cultures. Yet every year, we have to have the same conversations when book lists feature only East Asians. And, honestly, I do think we're seeing some progress here and getting more recommendations for South and Southeast Asians, but West and Central Asians are still largely omitted. And perhaps most obviously, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are so often left out of the conversation entirely. This isn't a book community specific issue, just as it isn't specific to AANHPI Heritage Month.
With Pride book lists already starting to make their way on the timeline, this is our moment to consciously make space for trans and nonbinary stories, for queer BIPOC stories, for queer disabled stories, for queer Jewish and Muslim stories. To think twice about book lists that don't have a single transfemme author.* And to remind ourselves that when Pride ends June 30th, those books that we put on our tbr with the best intentions and never got to continue to exist.
*Just a reminder that no one owes it to any of us to come out or to disclose their identity. Read books about LGBTQ+ characters and experiences, but if an author is not publicly out on their social media/author website/author bio, don't push them to identify themselves. A queer author does not need to be out for a book to be queer, and discussions of who is "queer enough" only hurt the LGBTQ+ community. That being said, there are plenty of out trans and nonbinary authors, and if a book list doesn't include a single book by an out transfemme author, I do think it's worth thinking twice.
Anyway, I always feel like these are a little rambly. It's hard to talk into the void, and it's hard to have nuanced discussions on the internet. I guess I'm here pouring these words onto the page because they're the type of discussions I wish we could have in the bookish community instead of arguing for the fourth time in as many months over how many books people read and whether short books should count toward the Goodreads challenge. And I don't really have a call to action here; the closest I have to a solution is my tried and true reminder to just become more conscious of why you're reading diversely and how you're choosing your books, rather than relying on readathons, and to follow bookish content creators who post diverse recommendations year round, not only when a hashtag is trending.