The problem with bookshops

One of the most jarring things about being a marginalised geek is just how often non-marginalised geeks complain about things which are not an issue at all – but then will freak out at the first sign of accessibility. These moments happen weekly. For example, I recently was on a writers’ social media group and some guy was complaining that he can’t shop for speculative fiction books anymore because nearly all of them are in a tense he doesn’t like. It took me a few seconds of staring at the screen to be able to work out whether the post was a joke – and sadly, it wasn’t. It was seriously, and extremely pissed off. 

I understand that it can be a struggle to find a good speculative fiction book in a store, but of all the priorities to have, asking bookshops to stock more products which contain a certain tense should be right at the bottom. The angry-tense guy then decried this as why he doesn’t read speculative fiction now, and it was just a reminder that while lovers of speculative fiction may happily take on the label of geek, it doesn’t really bond us to anything outside of the fact we all like elaborate stories filled with robots and dragons. 

It’s funny as there is a small but loud minority of gamers and geeks who want that label to express more than an interest. They want it to be used to say that they are marginalised. They argue that gamers and geeks aren’t respected and are marginalised, but tense-man showed that it just simply isn’t the case. When your biggest upset is that shops don’t stock products that match your taste, then it is suggestive that there are few (if any) significant barriers to your own access to geek spaces. Marginalised people have far bigger concerns.

The problem with bookshops isn’t about the style of writing they stock. The bigger problem is accessibility and how marginalised people are ostracised from these spaces. Many bookshops don’t have lifts, or have their spaces crammed full to the roof so that they can be impossible for people who are visually impaired or for wheelchair users to navigate. Books are rarely provided in large print, if at all. Science-fiction and fantasy sections are stuffed full of Tolkien and HP Lovecraft, authors every speculative fiction fan knows, but there are rarely authors who are women (particularly women of colour), disabled authors and/or queer authors. The last bookshop I was in had Jordan Peterson books everywhere, despite how he rails against feminism and social justice. It’s hardly putting out a welcome mat to customers. Even how the book categories are divided can reflect wider barriers for marginalised geeks. Speculative fiction is also still treated with a snobbery which means that many of the best titles are put on bestseller stands, international shelves, fiction shelves or even literary. This gatekeeping and snobbery of what qualifies as ‘true’ science-fiction adversely hurts marginalised writers who are seen as not ‘real’ geeks but just creators who use devices and certain themes. This discourages marginalised speculative fiction creators. Yet, marginalised writers have a place in speculative fiction. They have always been the leading and defining voices of fantasy and scifi. 

Bookshops are also poor substitutes for libraries. Libraries often are far more accessible because they are designed to be community spaces – and that’s perfect for book lovers and writers. The best thing about books is getting to share stories. Writers too need to interact and engage with the world to develop their understanding of people to write realistic characters. This means libraries tend to be more accessible and want to engage people in new ways, although they are far from perfect. They can provide large print. They host events. They want to bring people together. You can order in books to your taste (tense-guy, ask a librarian and they’ll get you a book to your taste for free!) and you can ask for help and guidance if you don’t even know what your taste is. And best of all is that it’s free. Books should be accessible. Authors need to be able to live but that’s why we need a basic income. Books shouldn’t just be reserved for those who can afford them. 

Comic-book stores became the joke of marginalised geeks. They were always the places which should have been ours but were often intimidating and inaccessible, despite how often comics focused upon narratives of social justice. But are bookshops really any better? Bookshops need to fundamentally change in their structure and style to become accessible for geeks. If only present tense narratives were the biggest problem scifi sections had. 

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