Depending on which editorial you read about the "White, Straight, Cis Male Authors Challenge" you'll find people focusing on different things. Sometimes it's seen as a great way to get more women and minority author exposure. Some people see it as a means for "voting with your wallet", so it's more of a way to get publishers to notice these writers. It's also a great way to change yourself as a reader. So where do I stand this far into the year?
The first thing I did when starting this was to look at my "to read" list and instantly start making cuts. When I read I tend to try and balance 3 types of material at all times. Imagine a food pyramid but mine has a foundation of fiction, a middle of nonfiction, and a peak of comics. So when I started on the challenge I went into each group and began paring down what was already lined up.
It turns out that easiest way to check if an author qualifies for reading was by name, and that also meant gender. Which meant that my reading for the first half of the year ended up being all women. Taking the author theme and focusing on a subset actually made for a very interesting experience. Trends started to show up in my reading that hadn't been there with my passively chosen male based reading in the past. There's a trend toward more specific characters, and stories that often focus more on said character than plot. You could read this as happening because women think more this way, or that perhaps the publishing world is skewed toward publishing men, and women need to refine their voices all the more when submitting. Books like Pretty Deadly, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, have this almost meditative tone while exploring the myth of its world. Even Mavel's new Ms. Marvel, by G. Willow Wilson, attempts to be a more character driven book than most superhero titles. This is something that isn't quite working for Wilson and Marvel, and by volume two the tone becomes a bit uneven, generic, and a bit less charming than the very early issues.
Something interesting is that even the books that didn't work for me have still been interesting. I would consider A Darker Shade of Magic (V.E. Schwab) and The Shining Girls (Lauren Beukes) to be failures, but novel failures, pun intended. Both of these books excel on a single point, to the exclusion of everything else. In The Shining Girls the strength is in the internal arc of Kirby Mazrachi, one of the two main characters. Her emotional arc is great. There's motivation that leads to both good and bad character aspects. The fallout from her nearly being killed as a child and what it does to her is deep, and enough to drive the story. The breakdown is that the two genres at play work against each other. The time travel and mystery aspects destroy any suspense that each genre would have brought on its own. Since the mystery tells you how things start and the time travel tells you how they end, all that's left is to meet in the middle, which isn't a very effective story structure. A Darker Shade of Magic suffers from a similar issue of focus, but with character being abandoned and world-building being championed. This book takes place across 4 different versions of London, each with varying degrees of magic remaining in the world. The way that politics are balanced as a result of this makes for a compelling setting, but one that I would want to revisit at the hand of another author. The two main characters in Darker Shade are underdeveloped, and a bit generic wish fulfillment. There's Kell, who is a chiseled, silent, brooding hero, willing to suffer in order to save people. And there's Delilah, a plucky street urching type, with impeccable fashion and athletic ability. Her main character flaw is basically being homeless, and if they were Dungeons and Dragons characters, both of them would be broken.
On the opposite side of this is a set of two surprising reads. Both of them have been marketed as literary science fiction, but are actually speculative fiction as there's very little (if any) extrapolated science. Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel) is a book that jumps between pre, post, and concurrent-apocalyptic. It follows a travelling theater troupe in the aftermath of a global catastrophe, airport refugees as the breakdown of society is happening, and a number of other people in the world that we still know. As a huge fan of science fiction, I was ready to skim the present and focus on the sections in the future. Instead, I found myself drawn into the earlier timed sections because the characters were so well developed. It was fascinating to read about these small seeds of character and plot, and watch how they grow as the story jumped forward. This book was great at piecing together all of these disparate elements and weaving them into a solid story. It was like watching the author draw an image from the outside in, with details just building off of details. The term "gestalt" was intended for construction like this. The paired novel to this is the secret gem, The Girl in the Road (Monica Byrne), is similarly structured. There are tow narratives that eventually converge, with a very rewarding emotional payoff. This one is slightly more deserving of the term "science fiction" than Station Eleven, but is much more of an introspective travel narrative than an analysis of technology. It's the future, but not an unrecognizable one, and a company in Mumbai has created a solar paneled floating cable (a series of buoys) that runs from Mumbai to Ethiopia, across the Arabian sea. One narrative follows Meena as she travels across it to escape something following her. The other thread follows Mariama as she joins up on a trucking convey across Saharan Africa. What works so well in this book, between these two women's stories, is that there are huge themes, but they're focused using both the characters as lenses. Identity, family, inherited sin, society as a system of oppression rather than civilization, creating one's fate and future, those are all explored. But they're not left as these amorphous issues floating far off in an abstract sky. They are concrete, day to day factors for both Meena and Mariama's stories. There's also a waxing body of knowledge, about how aware each of them are about these things, which is mirrored by the connected reveal for the reader. It all works terribly well.