I love a good recommendation list.
Finding fandom was great for a lot of reasons, most of them related to how much it opened up the wider literary world to me. But one of the biggest was that fans love making lists about their favorite things. I have a lot of emotions rooted in recommendation lists, because for so long I just didn't have access to quality lists made by like-minded fans. My list life was barren. Most of my recommendations came from the book section at Wal-Mart, bemused librarians who kept giving me nothing but teen romances, and relatives who still thought The Hardy Boys was current literature and wouldn't I love to come over and read their collection? No one can deny that for a young woman that's a dark reality. Online fandom provided me with such a huge variety of lists. Bonus: when I researched the books contained within, they never smelled like old shoes or mothballs.
It doesn't matter what we're fannish about; we can find a way to make a list about it. Recommendation lists were how I made my first tentative steps into the wider world of fanfic. I would find someone's personal website where they had compiled recommendations for their favorites and trawl through them. When I moved to fandom on Livejournal, the recommendation lists exploded, although now it's a little harder to find dedicated recs with the amount of commentary fans used to add. Because the lists are good, definitely, but I'm also invested in what the writer is saying about the stories they read: what they loved, how the work spoke to them, and how it made them feel.
Even though there are fandoms where fanwork recommendation habits are changing, the book community, publishing industry, and the machine that we're all a part of put together lists like clockwork every year. It does feel like it gets earlier and earlier, often due to the fact most pro venues are already likely neck deep in books coming out in March of the next year, but it's predictable. For me it's a goldmine. I can't pretend not to be that person on October 31, just waiting for the first lists to pop up, or for Largehearted Boy to begin his continuing quest to compile every best-of list for books that exists on the Internet. It's always been an exciting time because I learn about books I would never know about otherwise! It's (forgive me) the most wonderful time of the year.
Or, at least it was until I started breaking them down along gender and racial lines. Once that type of critique started, my enthusiasm dimmed quite a bit. Because, so often, best-of lists, favorite lists, rec lists were heavily skewed to white male authors in so many genres and markets. Things have improved as marginalized readers get more vocal about things they love, tossing their beloved books onto the ever-growing pile of end-of-year lists, but the problem hasn't gone away. I know plenty of authors who don't expect to make any lists, mainstream or otherwise, because they write in genres where marginalized voices simply get drowned out by the status quo.
I stand around on my Internet soapbox a lot, yapping about representation of women writers. Probably enough that I've been widely muted, blocked, or otherwise silenced through various social tools for being so obnoxious about it, but I really feel like it's important to consider the implications of homogeneity in what we're presenting as the best of our personal reading year. It's especially important if we're not individuals but working for larger entities with a wide reach. It's a bit of a selfish desire, too. When I look at lists I want to see a variety of voices. Because for so long I was being recommended the same things over and over by Culture, that nebulous blob that slurps up the loudest and most visible and spits them back out at us (spoiler: I mean white dudes). It's a best-of list. Really, what are the odds that the best books of the year are all by white people? Or dudes? How is it we keep pulling the white dude combo pack every year? Something's busted at the factory level. Eventually, I stopped buying it, especially from mainstream venues.
The trouble with homogenous recommendation lists is that building that type of list requires the creator to pull from books they've read that year. If they're like I used to be, that means their to-read list is sometimes made up of one specific group, often white men (I have this problem with white women). Or it means they're just more likely to pick up a book by a white man due to how common they are in some genres. If the books they're choosing are put on their radar or to-read list via marketing and publicity, same problem. The end-of-year lists missing marginalized groups should be a spinning, flashing, honking klaxon at this point because it's a self-perpetuating cycle. If mainstream 2014 recommendation lists promoted and boosted up books by white men, who did people read in those first few months of 2015? Who are they more likely to read as the next Meritocracy Parade begins its journey through the first and second quarters of the year? Oh, sure, somewhere in there some clueless dude will write a YA novel and then say something asinine about the category and the larger community will go, "You know women made this field successful, right?" and there will be a focus on women for a while. Maybe there will also be a debate about race, disability, or the inevitable focus on Western culture that'll result in recs being thrown and given more publicity than normal. And yet, the Cultural Katamari rolls on, and because the most celebrated, most notable, most reviewed, most discussed books are by white men, they're the ones left the most visible to people outside book communities. It's a pretty horrible cycle, but worst of all, it's boring.
The cycle only starts breaking down when the critique sets in and the hard work begins. I'm not innocent of this at all. I, too, had to face head on that the reason my recommendation lists rounding up my 2015 reading were so boring was because I wasn't reading very widely, had trapped myself in a cultural rut, and gotten lazy. I mouth off a whole lot but, you know, I'm not innocent. I have my own float in the Meritocracy Parade. The theme is Annoyed White Feminists Awkwardly Realize They're Part of the Problem.
But the thing I can be proud of is that I finally see it when it happens. When my lists come up all dudes or all white authors or all white women or some other troubling mixture of erasing the variety in the world, I can see it. And seeing it means I can fix it.
There's going to be a deluge of recommendation lists and best-of lists the next few months. I'm not alone in loving a good list—they're popular for a reason and important—but it's good to be aware of the story they're telling us about the state of whatever genres we read in. It's important to not turn up January 1 with a slew of the same voices lined up to read without thinking about what it means if they're from the same perspective.
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