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Should You Read White Male Writers?

Here’s something new to worry about, if you’re so inclined [1]. From “The Kerfuffler,” a new culture-war blog from within the Gawker empire:

The internet has been abuzz recently with debates over reading lists and reading habits. Writer K. Tempest Bradford caused a bit of a stir when she challenged readers  [2]to stop reading straight white cisgendered male authors for a year. Sunili Govinnage generated her share of outrage when she reported on her year [3] spent deliberately not reading white authors. And in late 2014, the phenomenally successful #WeNeedDiverseBooks [4] campaign took Tumblr and Twitter by storm, sparking a conversation about which books get published and read, and which don’t, and what these choices are doing to children’s literature.

Many of the responses generated by these articles and initiatives have been supportive — even from those white male authors ‘targeted’ for exclusion.

Of course. Dhimmis. More:

So…is this a zero-sum game? Are the calls to exclude straight white male authors from reading lists the latest example of politically correct thought policing gone mad? Must one spend an entire year ignoring great books by white men in order to be a ‘good ally?’

Your Kerfuffler, dear reader, is a free spirit by nature. I’m profoundly suspicious of proscription, particularly when it comes to reading. Stories can change the way we see the world, but it is not their job to do so. Books can save lives, but they are not medicine. And attempts to administer them as such tend to be both unwelcome and unsuccessful. So rather than talk about why book buyers should privilege marginalized writers, let’s talk about why they might want to do so.

This being a Gawker site, you can easily imagine how the Kerfuffler sees things. One more bit:

Now certainly, one could spend one’s life reading only books by straight white men, and never run out of wonderful material. But this is akin to spending a lifetime’s worth of vacations visiting only Disneyland. Whether or not one agrees with ‘the SJWs’ that it’s ethically contemptible, it is, in a word, boring.

Right, because all Straight White Men are exactly the same. We all see the world in the same way. Our books are interchangeable. And we know that Social Justice Warriors are correct that the most important thing about a work of art is the racial, sexual, or gender identity of the artist.

Reading as moral self-congratulation. It is hard to believe that this is a serious conversation in 2015, but here we are. The Kerfuffler rightly points out that it is very, very, very hard to get any attention to books outside of a narrow sliver of famous authors. What is disingenuous about his piece is that this fact affects all writers. You would scarcely believe the money and effort going into promoting my upcoming Dante book.  [5]Maybe it will pay off, but chances are it will not. The competition is unbelievably stiff.

And even if a book does get a lot of media attention, that guarantees nothing. My 2006 book Crunchy Cons got a lot of favorable press and Internet discussion. There were good reviews in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, a front page Washington Post Style section feature, and an All Things Considered essay from me, related to the book. And yet the book never made back its modest advance, and almost certainly never will. The publicist for my last book told me that it used to be the case that if you got an author on Good Morning America or the Today show, that would result in a huge sales boost, but not any more. Any publicity is better than no publicity, obviously, but the market has changed so much that nothing guarantees sales.

As someone who is a writer of books and who, as a journalist, has been on the receiving end of pitches from book publicists, I can tell you there is no conspiracy to favor straight white male authors in promotional campaigns. It’s just that media fragmentation and the collapse of newspapers has dramatically reduced the common spaces in which book reviews, and features about books, can appear. When I was an editor at the Dallas Morning News, each day’s mail would bring a pile of books sent to me unsolicited by publishers, hoping for some kind of coverage in my section (the Sunday commentary section). There was so little space for any of that. Back then, the News still had a books section, though it had been steadily shrinking. There were two rooms in which review copies of new books were stored. I’d say there were a couple thousand books on the shelves and in bins at any given moment — and the editors of the section routinely got rid of them to make room for new arrivals. The first time I saw those rooms I immediately felt sorry for all those hopeful writers, whose books would never even get looked at by editors, because there were far, far, far too many of them.

My own new book is now or soon will be landing on the desks of producers and editors around the country. It makes me wince to think about how in most cases, these media decision makers will not give it a second glance, not because they’re bad people, but because they are overwhelmed by new books competing for their attention. I know this because I was once in their shoes. It makes me wince even harder to recognize that even if I turn out to be one of the lucky ones who draws favorable notice from radio, TV, print, or online media, it probably won’t make much of a difference in sales. This is not pessimism; this is realism. People don’t believe me when I tell them that the overwhelming majority of all books published lose money for the publishers.  [6]But it’s true.

So, if you are one of the people willing to spend money on books, I say God bless you, no matter whose books you buy. Every writer who is not Stephen King or Danielle Steele or in that category is in the 99 percent. I hope you’ll buy good books, and I hope you will buy my books. But I’m glad you are buying books.

The (female) reader who sent me that Kerfuffler item writes:

I’m looking forward to your Dante work, and I’m also about to finish Death Comes for the Deconstructionist. And though I’m sitting here with good things read and good things yet to read, I’m saddened, because the people who most need to read books like these are currently having debates like this.

I love many female, non-white authors (I’d love to see you review an Iris Murdoch book; they’re all Plato & The Great Beauty!) . But I tend to shy away from much of what is published these days because I find the vision of life so shallow. Whether it’s a polyamorous 2-spirit non-racially-identifying author, or a 33-year old “new, brilliant young Dave Eggers” from Brooklyn, I’m really not interested. They all assume the same commercialized, deconstructionist, emotivist p.o.v. A few members of my peer group may read a lot, but if it’s all different shades of the same voice, what does it matter? There’s a heck of a lot more difference between Dostoyevsky and Twain than Dave Eggers and Paul Auster, but when they’re all lumped together because everyone’s obsessed with conversations about intersectionality … well, ironically then the voice we’re left with is just a droning, de-sexualized robotic tone reminding us to question power (except the power of deconstructionism).

 

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62 Comments To "Should You Read White Male Writers?"

#1 Comment By vato_loco_frisco On March 16, 2015 @ 9:18 pm

Oh lord, not another version of the Western Canon debate. Well, I do enjoy reading Latin American authors like Cortazar and Vargas Llosa, so I guess I pass muster. But wait! These guys are/were ethnically white. Back to the drawing board…

#2 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On March 16, 2015 @ 9:20 pm

This somehow reminds me of Janis Joplin announcing “I would like to sing a song of great social and political importance.” Only she had the good taste not to take herself seriously.

#3 Comment By Ben H On March 16, 2015 @ 9:27 pm

People aren’t getting the joke, obviously. Sigh. Look, settled science has proven over and over again that most ‘great’ literary figures were either gay (Shakespeare, Homer, Virgil for starters) or trans (the Gawain Poet, Sir Walter Scott). Many leading Genderf**k researchers believe a surprising number of great figures from history were Genderf**k as well including many of the Arthurian writers and at least one Bronte.

#4 Comment By Egypt Steve On March 16, 2015 @ 10:34 pm

Here is a fragment of a lost work by a great white male writer.

Socrates: My dear Androleukos! How wonderful to see you again!

Androleukos: Indeed, O Socrates, I have missed our conversations. When last we met, we were discussing the pleasures of reading. I am eager to hear you give your views on this matter in detail.

S: Then, by Zeus, you shall hear them! But first I must ask you: Is reading a good thing? Does it produce benefit and pleasure for people?

A: Indeed it does, O Socrates, as you know only too well.

S: Well, then, O Androleukos, is the pleasure and benefit of reading increased if we have more books to read — that is, may we say “the more the merrier”?

A: Indeed, O Sokrates, this is inevitably the case.

S: Well, then, O Androleukos, how can we go about increasing the number of books available to read?

A: Perhaps, O Socrates, we may provide tax breaks to incentivize writers?

S: Possibly, O Androleukos, possibly. But is it possibly, as you see it, that one method might be to re-investigate books that were written in ages past, but which, for some reasons, were overlooked by those who formed our received literary canons, and have therefore languished unread?

A: Indeed, O Socrates, it may indeed by true.

S: I see you follow me, O Androleukos. Now let us take a step or two farther. What reasons, do you suppose, account for high interest in this book, but dismissal of that book? Is it always and everywhere a question of quality and worth?

A: I do not know, O Socrates; perhaps not, as I believe you may imply.

S: You do indeed take my meaning, O Androleukos. Does it seem reasonable to you that, given the fact that we live in a patriarchal slave state, and that we Greeks congenitally, if understandably, have nothing but contempt for barbarians, that some works of worth may have been overlooked by our worthy literature philosophers?

A: Indeed it is so, O Socrates; I myself have a devil of a time finding works by Sappho in the Agora, which I read only for their most excellent meter, not at all for their hot girl-on-girl action.

S: So let us suppose, O Androleukos, that we wished to investigate this question further. To know whether there exist works which have merit but which are not widely known or read, would we not have to begin a systematic program of reading non-canonical works?

A: Inevitably.

S: And in doing so, would we not, perforce, encounter much more dross than silver?

A: Indeed, by Zeus, it would be so.

S: And would not many conservatives and fuddy-duddies say “nay” to our efforts, and tell us we were wasting our time, and urge us to return to Homer?

A: Perforce.

S: But if we were to listen to them, would we not risk harm to ourselves?

A: I do not follow, O Socrates.

S: Did we not agree, O Androleukos, that reading is a benefit to us, and that more reading creates more benefit?

A: indeed.

S: And is not harm the opposite of benefit?

A: Yes, by Zeus.

S: We are agreed, then, I take it: we should explore books that have been written by non-Greek males; to do otherwise puts our very souls at risk.

A: I am convinced, O Socrates. And now let us enjoy another round of your most excellent wine!

#5 Comment By Susan D On March 16, 2015 @ 11:34 pm

Hell, it wasn’t that long ago that women were agitating to be admitted to colleges and univeristies because they wanted to study works by Dead White Men. Because of their efforts, I was able to study them readily (in one of those much-decried Liberal Arts Programs, of course). And in the course of that I encountered the works of women, too-fine artists, poets, great novelists, political thinkers, scientists.

I also tried taking a couple of gender/feminist studies classes and ending up dropping them because they were so narrow and pedantic and, well, self-pitying. So I will cheerfully continue to read the authors I love, and who love humanity, warts and all.
By the way, I’ve checked my privilege. It’s doing quite well, thank you.

#6 Comment By Michael Guarino On March 17, 2015 @ 12:46 am

From Bradford’s xojane article:

Because every time I tried to get through a magazine, I would come across stories that I didn’t enjoy or that I actively hated or that offended me so much I rage-quit the issue. Go through enough of that, and you start to resist the idea of reading at all.

Then I thought: What if I only read stories by a certain type of author? Instead of reading everything, I would only look at stories by women or people of color or LGBT writers. Essentially: no straight, cis, white males.

Cutting that one demographic out of my reading list greatly improved my enjoyment of reading short stories. That’s not to say I didn’t come across bad stories or offensive stuff in stories or other things that turned me off. I did. But I came across this stuff far less than I did previously.

This is not a noble quest to push out of your comfort zone or support under-appreciated writers. No, she petulantly does not want to read stuff she does not agree with. I think David J. White was dead on.

It is also kind of funny that she put Umberto Eco on her suggested reading list. Italians, particularly Piedmontese, are not white? (Eco was straight from what I can tell.)

#7 Comment By sdb On March 17, 2015 @ 4:52 am

@erin
I have not. Thanks for the recommendation.

#8 Comment By Bart W On March 17, 2015 @ 7:02 am

This is great for me then. I read a book by Middle Eastern men pretty much everyday. But for some reason I get the feeling this does not count

#9 Comment By EPG On March 17, 2015 @ 7:42 am

From time to time, I check out the blog, Brain Pickings, by Maria Popova. I read her because she writes about books in ways that often makes me want to read the book she brings to her readers attention. She often appears to be a creature of the cultural left, but she is not afraid to recommend white male writers, many of whom are dead. Some time ago, she posted this list of books. According to Ms. Popova, it is a list composed by Joan Didion of her favorite books:

1. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
2. Victory, by Joseph Conrad
3. Guerillas, by V.S. Naipul
4. Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell
5. Wonderland, Joyce Carol Oates
6. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
7. The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford
8. 100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
9. Crime and Punishment, F. Dostoyevsky
10. Appointment in Sammarra, John O’Hara
11. The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer
12. The Novels of Henry James (it seems like all of them)
13. Speedboat, Renata Adler
14. Go Tell in on the Mountain, James Baldwin
15. Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin
16. Berlin Stories, Christopher Isherwood
17. Collected Poems, Robert Lowell
18. Collected Poems, W.H. Auden
19. Collected Poems, Wallace Stevens

Now, if two leftish ladies can promulgate a list of notable books so heavy on white males (I admit some of them are not heterosexual, but then some are), perhaps today’s quasi-academic twits can relax, and maybe read some of these themselves.

#10 Comment By stef On March 17, 2015 @ 10:30 am

@Engineer Scotty: Of course Harry Potter should be included. Great call.

I’ll add: Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.

Most of Beatrix Potter’s most engaging animal characters are masculine (Peter Rabbit, Tom Kitten.)

I wouldn’t touch Edward Cullen without a full moon-suit and decontamination unit for back-up, but a lot of women found him to be an engaging male character. Or don’t romantic interests “count” either?

I’d say the problem is more how we look at genre vs. literature, than any prejudice about how men are supposedly more “universal” and women are more “immanent.”

When you add it up, perhaps women writers, especially in the past, have done a far better job of presenting *both* engaging and “alive” male and female characters. Many male writers, on the other hand, have been simply interested in “the coquette” or “the adulteress” or “the benighted virgin.”

It makes sense that women would write more rounded male characters. The bottom rail gets a way better view of the top rail than the other way around.

#11 Comment By Rick67 On March 17, 2015 @ 10:46 am

delegar,

Short version = What Larry Correia said. Dialed down a notch with less four letter words.

Longer version = You challenge people to read the essay. Fair enough. So if we do and *still* disagree then what? It makes no difference as Bradford herself demonstrated on Twitter when she complained people read it but didn’t *understand* it. That is possible. Maybe some people read [insert name such as Rod Dreher] and do not *understand*.

I think we do understand. You know I actually half agree and sympathize with Bradford. But then all my adult life I have read literature (including SF/F) by other than cisgender white heterosexual males. That is the first reason I find Bradford’s challenge a bit… insulting and presumptuous. My vocation has largely to do with working with people from different nations, cultures, and backgrounds than my own. I happen to like difference. I enjoy experiencing things that are different. Including art. We should try different things. Even if at first we’re not sure how much we like them.

There are those who suspect that this movement within SF/F is not really about what it claims to be. That this is about *ideology* particularly Marxist varieties. Some in the SF/F community quickly produced a list of authors who are not cisgender white heterosexual males – who are politically conservative or libertarian. Many (not all) of whom are opposed to this ideological politicization of SF/F.

I think it is also about (and these might not be quite the right words) envy and hatred. Completely? No. But enough. Envy of writers who are finally able to sort of make a living at it. (We will come back to that point.) And hatred of… well that part might be more difficult to explain. I find John C Wright persuasive on this point.

I think it is great delegar and others write, try to publish, produce magazines, and so on. Correia consistently praises and encourages this. Because that is (apparently about) the only way for writers eventually to achieve a level of quality that people actually want to pay for and read their work. (Correia also explains *very* well why certain demographic groups are more represented in sales and reviews.) The concern about this ideological politicization of SF/F is that it might (sometimes) represent a kind of shortcut. “Read me! Because I am a [insert demographic checklist]! Not because I have gone through all the work and struggle other writers have done, not because people like my work enough to pay for it.” The result is a *measurable* decline in the field (in terms of sales, arguably in the quality of the work receiving awards). The issue has become less about quality (or the integrity of the field) and more about checking off demographic boxes.

There is also the problem of not treating people like individuals. We should read *this* lesbian woman of color’s work – even though she has had a rather privileged and comfortable upper middle class life in America. We should not read *that* heterosexual white male’s work – even though he spent much of his life in a Soviet gulag or knee deep in cow excrement growing up on a dairy farm.

So in one sense – sure. I genuinely wish delegar, Bradford et alteri well in their literary endeavors. Read whatever you want. That is their privilege.

In another sense – spare us.

#12 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On March 17, 2015 @ 9:49 pm

Many leading Genderf**k researchers believe a surprising number of great figures from history were Genderf**k as well including many of the Arthurian writers and at least one Bronte.

Of course they could be wrong.