"Chicano writers from El Paso are the most progressive, open-minded, far-reaching, and inclusive writers of them all."

Octavio Romano

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Our People Are Not Reading Our Literature, Part I

Our people are not reading our literature, Pt. 1
Survey shows low literature-reading rates overall; Blanks and Hispanics dismal
For the complete entries in this series, click below 
For previous entries in this series:

by Raymundo Eli Rojas

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The fact that our people are not reading our literature, or reading at all, has bothered me for some time. Sure I've used it more than once to quell the Chicano writer with the big ego by telling them that few of our people read his works, but all things serious -- I am disturbed by this.

In Carlos Cumpian's article "Without Passport or Reservation: The Next Move is Ours" (Rattle #12 Volume 5, Number 2 Winter, 1999), he asked if Chicano(a) literature's audience was becoming like jazz, in which most of the audience is White. In a Kansas City jazz magazine, I found the same statement, but from the jazz perspective.

NEA Reading at Risk Survey

Ever since I read the National Endowment of the Arts's Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, I have had an increasingly dismal look at who reads our literature. 

Like most surveys, this one does not focus on Chicano(as), but puts Chicano(a)s, whether we like it or not, into the super-group "Hispanic," so that is the term I use here.

If our writers don't care that our people are not reading our literature, then for whom are we writing?

The survey's introduction says literacy as “the baseline for participation in social life...” and I'd agree somewhat with that statement.

The survey focused on who was reading plays, short stories, novels, and poetry. This is what the NEA defined as “literature.” The respondents were not asked what genres they read, or if they read non-fiction.

Most Common types of literature genres read

The survey showed how the “most common types of literature read”:

  • novels or short stories – 45 % of adults
  • poetry – 12% of adults
  • plays – 4% of adults

Wow, Guillermo Reyes was right when he said nobody pays attention to playwrights. Of course this Reading at Risk measures plays read, not seen. Using these percentages, the survey states that 10% “of the population read only non-literary books.”

Who's writing

7% of adults indicated that they did some creative writing during 2002. Only 1% had a work published. That should make Chicano(a) writers feel better. If you haven't had a work published, you are in the majority.

How many books read in a one year

The survey references another NEA survey, the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (2002). This survey asked “respondants how many books they read in 2002.” The results they received was that most people read about six books. From this, they estimate that “Americans” read about 2.1 billion books in 2002.

Don't get uptight: Reading is more popular than...

Now before we get all depressed about these results, in comparison with “most cultural, sports, and leisure activities,” more people read literature than they did these activities. Furthermore, with 93 million readers, “novels and short stories have a significant audience in the U.S.

Poetry has about 25 million readers. It is just as popular as “performances of jazz, classical music, or non-musical plays.” Now, the question remains if other “cultural activities, sports, and leisure activities” contribute as much to a person as reading does? The survey does not answer this question.

People who read literature were more likely to be active citizens. Twenty-nine (29) percent of all respondants volunteered in their community.

Compared with Europe and Oh Canada

The survey did give some international comparisons. The country they focused upon the most was Canada.

  • 2/3 of Canadians (15 years of age or older) indicated they read a book during the survey year

In comparing this with the “most comparable figure from the U.S. Survey,” the non-academic reading of persons in the U.S., Reading at Risk finds that our reading in the U.S. is 57%, which is lower than the Canadian 67%.

In Europe, looking at 15 European countries, the reading rate was 45%. Compared with the US at 57%. The US reading rates were similar to Luxembourg, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

Countries with higher reading rates include Sweden (72%), Finland (66%), and the UK (63%). Belgium (23%) and Portugal (15%) had lower rates then the US.

Defining was is a “strong reader” in Europe, the European surveys cited a strong reader is a person who read more than 8 books a year.

  • 37% of Europeans were strong readers
  • 52% of those in the UK were strong readers

Recalculating the Reading at Risk to match the European one, the NEA survey found “about 24 % of Americans read eight or more books in 2002.” When compared to countries in Europe, the US would be in the bottom third of the 15 European countries surveyed:

  • About one in five (21%) of people in the US read 1-5 books a year
  • About one in 11 (9%) read 6-11 books
  • Almost one in eight (12%) read 12-49 books
  • Approximately one in 25 (4%) read 50 books or more.


In looking at factors in literary reading, the survey states “any group with a literary reading rate lower than 47 percent can be considered underrepresented among literary readers, and any group with a rate of 47 percent or more can be thought of as overrepresented.”

Gender in reading

In general, the survey found women read more than men. Men were “less than half as likely as women to read literature.”

Race and reading

It become more disturbing when race was factored in. Whites read at much higher rates than do people of color:

  • White Americans have the highest rate (51%)
  • African Americans (37%)
  • Hispanics (26%)
This means that Whites were “twice as likely to read literature” than Hispanics. The survey factored in constants, such as higher overall education among whites, and came out with the same results.

In addition, for White Americans, when you looked a the different age groups, “literary readings” were “fairly evenly distributed by age.”

When you look the age distribution for African Americans, literary reading is “most common among younger age groups (25-34 and 35-44).” The survey did not find a consistent pattern with Hispanics, which had the highest reading rates in age groups 25-34 and 55-64.

When looking at total readers, and taking out the percent distribution of literary readers by ethnicity and race, it shows:

  • 80% of readers are white;
  • 9% are African American;
  • 6% are Hispanic.

“Women have a much higher literary reading rates than men in all ethnic and racial groups,” says the survey. The survey sites how White females have the highest literary rate at 61%.

Factor in Age

When you look at age overall, the age group of college studenets (undergrad) we'd assume are the most likely to read. Of course not every 18-24-year old is in college, but the survey found this group was 15% “less likely than others to read literature.”

It Get More Dismal: Education Levels

The survey indicated that the better the reading rates, the higher educational attainment. For example, “only 14 percent of those with grade school education read novels, short stories, poetry or plays n 2002.”

However, when one looks at those with graduate education, they are five time (74%) “more likely to read literary works.”

In comparison to high school graduates, here are some interesting statistics:

  • those with a grade school education are almost 60 percent less likely to read literature;
  • those with some high school education (but no diploma) are about a third less likely (35%) to read literature
  • those with some college education (but no degree) are about 35 more likely to read literature's
  • those with a college degree are about 75% more likely to read literature; and
  • those with a graduate school degree are 240% more likely to read literature.

When we look outside of this survey at dropout rates for Hispanics, the PEW Center states that 41% of Hispanics ages 20 or older, do not have a high school diploma.

Chop this down a little more and look at foreign-born Hispanics; compare them to native-born Hispanics: 52% of foreign born-Hispanics are high-school drops outs in comparison to 24% native-born.

Of the dropouts, just 1 in 10 Hispanics without a diploma have a GED. Compare with African Americans (2 in 10) and Whites (3 in 10). (US Census Bureau).

Of the native-born Hispanic dropout, 21% have GEDs compared with 5% of foreign-born Hispanic dropouts.

When you look at educational attainment of Hispanics and the above statistics on how likely are individuals to read literature, it gets very scary for our gente.

Chicano Literature: What's our Responsibility?

Although, we are not finished with the look at the Reading at Risk survey, there are several questions we most ask ourselves: How do we get our gente to read more? How do we get our gente to read more of our literature?

With the proliferation of English-only Chicano(a) Literature which we see today, especially in novels, short stories, drama, and biography, what is our duty to New Immigrants, who are mostly monolingual?

Poetry remains one of the last bastions for Spanish (and/or Spanglish) in Chicano(a) literature, but as the Reading at Risk survey indicates, few read poetry over all.

Again, high-school completion plays a large roll in literary levels. How can Chicano(a) writers not only fight dropoutism, but also contribute to Chicano(a) highschool-student retainment?

We are fighting an up-hill(s) battle, as seen with the attacks on ethnic studies in Arizona and the Texas Textbook Massacre. Getting our works into the curriculum is/has been difficult. As it looks presently, it is going to remain difficult.

Who's our audience?

Are we writing for White people? I've seen this statement over and over in scholarly articles and on web. I do not think it is as bad as it sounds. I don't think Chicano(a) Literature would have survived if we weren't writing for White people in some way or another, either for English literature aesthetics, publishers, small presses, university press, and White critics.

We are bound to run into la gabacheria at some time during the writing and publishing process. Even the most harsh critics of the “canons” I think, want an acceptance by the White literary world.

It is our job as Chicano(a) to be part of that world, but not part of it -- in a borderland of literary space. We can write for anyone we wish, and that is the beauty of our literature. We can choose the audience whom are writings are directed and this can change from writing to writing, from poem to poem, and on and on.

What is are responsibility to the monolingual, the New Immigrants, the high school dropout, to a gente that do not read much? Can we write also for the persons with low-literacy rates, for the monolingual at the same time as writing for "master readers"? Or can we write some pieces for others and some pieces directed at our gente who are not reading so much. In doing so, do we increase the literature-reading rates of our gente. It is hoped.

Now it may seem I'm casting the blame on our people and our writers. I don't think the blame goes here though. Anyone familiar with our education system and the racism in the United States knows where the blame should go. My point is not about blaim, but about what is our responsibility.

So my question, aside from dealing with the state, how can writers help get more of our gente to read our literature. I would enjoy your comments.

Now, where are some problems with this survey, which we will look at in Part 2.



Juan Tejeda said...

Interesting stats and questions. Article needs editing. If we as Chican@s/Latin@s don't read our own literature, who will? Anisa Onofre and I just started Aztlan Libre Press in San Antonio. We are dedicated to the promotion, publication and free expression of Xican@ Literature and Art. We just published our first book, Tunaluna, by the renowned veterano Chicano poet, alurista. We've gotten a great response from friends and writers, but we've only sold three books. Unless we read Raza literature and buy our books, independent presses such as ours will not survive and less Raza will be published. A vicious cycle. Read and buy Raza lit.

Raymundo Eli Rojas said...

Thank you Juan. I was asleep at the wheel on this one. Carlos Cumpian Facebook me to correct the spelling of his name and the name of his article. Like Lalo Delgado said, "sometimes my ugly children will show their faces."

I sent a review of Tunaluna to a publication last week. Let's see if they run it. I'm very excited about your press. I just was talking to another publishers yesterday about Aztlan Libre Press.


Anonymous said...

Alright,this is from Cumpian's corner at March Abrazo Press so it's not "Anonymous" anyway there's a bit of a cult of personality when it comes to selling a work of poetry. Poetry is clearly the MOST expensive type of literature word for word on the page if you consider the number of words and number of pages most poetry books offer the reader. That tidbit said, the sale will happen if the audience feels "good" after the reader's presentation. SALES is an art. Poor stage presence kills a sale, it doesn't matter if the poems are delightful, profound, etc. if poorly delivered "no vale". There's a unspoken elite attitude on the part of some poets that "I am NOT here to PROMOTE, I am here to emote ah, you earthlings handle the sales..." Those types later cry that YOU as a publisher are not doing a good job at promoting them, therefore, they cop a DIVA and bad mouth you. It happens with both genders and age groups. It's also difficult to promote a book that leaves the reader asking "Am I stupid, I don't get it." Those poems tend to for the poet's inner circle and normally that leaves out a whole lot of people. Poor cover design, too high a price, bad planning for distribution, all these are factors to slow a book down. The economy has left public libraries with slim funds and it is a FICTION driven book buying public. Students have told me over the course of 14 years that reading is not fun, in part because it requires effort to decode symbols, etc. the mass media spoon feeds their pale imaginations, so illustrated poetry books or CD's might be the approach we could try. It's a very visual culture we swim in. Your thoughts?

Raymundo Eli Rojas said...

Carlos, I'm remineded when Alexander "Sandy" Taylor died, Bobby Byrd (Cinco Puntos Press) wrote this:

"When I explained to him (Sandy) once that it had become almost impossible for Cinco Puntos to publish poetry, he told me not to worry, “Publishing poetry is suicidal!” Then I looked at his list. It had three books of poems on it."

In your article you mention Trino Sanchez book going into many edition. Many publishers only wish their first edition of a poets book would sell out.

I knew Trino well, but never got to ask him "how he did it." Did he share the secret with you?

Anonymous said...

I will try to do justice to how Trino's poetry books have ended up in nearly 6,000 homes and 75% nuestra gente de Aztlan y Great Lakes region. He wrote clear family friendly poems, he used humor and had English&Spanish code switching down to an art. He was serious and compassionate and well versed in American Black culture as well as Mexican, he had a ear for music and he read his poems with verve and pitched it at the right speed, NOT too fast Not too slow, He also moved to some of the largest cities where Chicano culture is known, he made friends and he showed up when provided an opportunity to share his poems. Trino was a real "cultural worker" he did workshops, met everyone as a human being and he loved people, especially the opppressed. He also had the support of his wife and March Abrazo Press willing to help keep his book in print and not act like "oh this book is six years old, time to move on" No, we in the small press can be flexible.
Trino was a Chicano Yogi.