Politics Foreign Affairs Culture We're Hiring

Should You Read White Male Writers?

SWPLs and others on the Internet want to know

Here’s something new to worry about, if you’re so inclined. 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 to stop reading straight white cisgendered male authors for a year. Sunili Govinnage generated her share of outrage when she reported on her year spent deliberately not reading white authors. And in late 2014, the phenomenally successful #WeNeedDiverseBooks 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. 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. 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).




Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now