Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Navigating The Maze

Having trouble finding your favorite LGBTQ+ authors in the local bookstore? The problem might not be the floor plan.  ♦ 
Close your eyes. Imagine for a moment your favorite bookstore. You’ve been there dozens of times and can recreate every last sensation of being there—you recall the smell of coffee, or maybe you can hear the gentle classical piano ballad that always plays on the store’s radio. Whatever the sensation, you know it well and it brings you comfort. Now, imagine walking to your favorite section. Perhaps you like to browse through the romance or mystery sections, or instead you prefer sci-fi comics, historical novels, or the classics. You know exactly how to get to that very section. You know the path there almost as intrinsically as you know the path back home.
   Now, imagine again. You walk that familiar path to your favorite section, your home away from home, only to find that your favorite section is missing. First, there’s confusion. The manager just decided to move the shelves around, right? So you systematically scan each aisle, searching for your favorite section. You make your way around the store two, maybe three times, the familiar rows of shelves becoming more and more like the imposing walls of a dark maze every minute. But ultimately there can be only one answer: your favorite section with all your old and soon-to-be favorite books is gone. Then, for the first time in what feels like forever, you walk out of the bookstore, dejected and empty-handed.
   Unfortunately, this is a familiar fate for those readers who find themselves relegated to being part of a so-called “niche” audience.
   The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “niche” as “a specialized market.” In terms of book buying, a “niche” audience would therefore be a specialized market for a particular book-buying group, often based on genre or a particular interest. However, these niche audiences are often ignored in favor of the more popular genres that bring in revenue. For example, perhaps you are a part of that niche audience that enjoys reading plays and poetry. Then, like me, you probably know that lonely, dusty shelf at the local Barnes & Noble better than you know the back of your own hand.
   Shelf size aside, imagine with me one last time: what if your favorite section was never at that bookstore in the first place? Perhaps your local big name bookseller never felt the need to carry fantasy novels, biographies, or Shakespeare. They must have looked at that genre, believed the audience was too small to bring in revenue, and decided not to risk the investment. Because of this, even though this bookstore is like a second home to you, you are forced to look elsewhere.
    Sounds like a book-lover’s nightmare, doesn’t it? That's how it feels if you count yourself part of one the many niche audiences out there. Especially if, like me and countless others, you fall into the "niche" audience of the LGBTQ+ community.
   Now, I want to be clear here: the issue I’m talking about is not whether or not LGBTQ+ books and authors exist. Because they do. In fact, as of writing this article, lists 36,048 results under the shelf “lgbt.” It’s certainly not the largest shelf on the site, but it’s still quite impressive. There are also countless authors who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community or who are historical figures widely believed to be. These writers include everyone from Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, and James Baldwin to Audre Lorde, David Levithan, Alison Bechdel, and Janet Mock. These writers have not only transformed LGBTQ+ literature but also the entire fabric of literary and cultural history. A lack of books to read is not really the problem. The problem is that mainstream brick-and-mortar booksellers do not carry them in large enough quantities or varieties to make them accessible to all.
   For instance, if you want to read a LGBTQ+ novel, you could go to the bookstore and wander through its maze, hoping to find a book or two amongst the countless others, buy it, and then cross your fingers that it’s actually worthwhile. Even if you do find something, you still have to play a nasty game of literary Russian roulette to see whether the book will be enjoyable and well-written or boring. Worse, it might feature gross, outdated tropes such as the classic and harmful “Bury Your Gays” trope. Additionally, should you already know what book you want to buy, there’s no guarantee that the store will carry it just as there is the guarantee that the store will carry copies of Time magazine and the latest Stephen King novel. The seeming only alternative to this long and uncertain process is to go online where you can look up a book, make sure it’s actually good for once, and then make a few clicks over on Amazon (which of course doesn’t bode well for brick-and-mortar booksellers).
   It’s not all doom and gloom for the reader, however. There are some alternatives. One ray of hope is that there are a variety of different local/indie bookstores that sell exclusively LGBTQ+ books. The American Library Association even has an interactive map featuring many of the ones within the United States and Canada. You will notice, however, that the number of pins on that map is very, very small, still making these stores and their books largely inaccessible. Another alternative comes from the advent of e-books. Many modern writers both in and out of the LGBTQ+ community are moving to self-publishing, often in the form of e-books, shortening the path between the writer, the seller, and the reader thus increasing accessibility. There’s even a website dedicated entirely to LGBTQ+ e-books.
   While great for the reader, these options still are bad news for big-name bookstores. By inadvertently turning away a section of their customers, they are losing potential business. And with the internet age already threatening to put bookstores out of business, it doesn’t make sense for them to not to focus more on selling LGBTQ+ books and books for other niche audiences. But if anyone proposed the idea to them, they would probably reply that they do sell books for LGBTQ+ readers and other niche audiences. And then they would point to that lonely shelf of poetry and scramble to find the closest copy of The Importance of Being Earnest of any of the other couple dozen LGBTQ+ works out of the hundreds of books in the store.
   Regardless of whether or not big-name booksellers change their stance or whether you get your books there or online, there still remains a negative impact on the consumer. Growing up, bookstores were like a second home to me. They were a place of wonder where I was safe to be myself surrounded by all my favorite stories and characters. But having a part of who I am dubbed as niche and unimportant enough to warrant even a singular shelf in a big-name bookstore tells me and innumerable others that our stories don’t matter. That they aren’t worth being told. When you are a member of a minority (whether it be in gender, sexuality, race, or a combination thereof) finding a story about someone like you, with an identity and values matching yours, can be an endless search. Not unlike being lost in a maze. But now that we know that this lacking representation negatively impacts both the booksellers and the readers, perhaps the solution to the problem, the path out of the maze, is closer than we think.
  • About the Author
    Lauren Miles is a first-year Creative Writing major at Miami University. She would love to travel through space, but since safe and reliable intergalactic Star Trek-esque travel is not yet available, she’s quite happy to write about the stars instead.

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