In January of 2015, I set myself a reading challenge. Last year my goal was to read 20 books. I read 14. One of those books was The Goldfinch and another was Purity, and those are each of lengths equal to two books, so that basically ups my count to at least 16 (but who’s counting?). In any case, I set the same goal for myself again this year, and maybe I’ll make it, and maybe I won’t, but I do try, even if my reading time these days is mostly relegated to the half an hour before I fall asleep each night.
This year I’m also setting myself another challenge. I’ve decided that I’m not going to read white male writers. Sure, there’s the occasional Saunders story that may pop up in my world, and of course I’m going to continue reading the work of my white male friends in my writing group, but for the most part, I’m taking a break. Every novel, short story collection, or chapbook that I read in 2016 will be written by a woman or person of color. Here’s why.
It’s easy not to read them.
Despite what popular reviews tell you, there are so many talented writers who are not (heterosexual) white men. Zadie Smith is one of my favorite writers (okay, maybe just my favorite, singular). Jennifer Egan is a close second. My favorite book of 2015 was written by a woman, Lauren Groff. I love Jenny Offill, Mary Miller, Chimamanda Adichie, Donna Tartt, Junot Diaz, Renata Adler, Teju Cole, Justin Torres. I’m so excited to explore more work by Mary Gaitskill, Claudia Rankine, Marlon James, Claire Vaye Watkins, Lorrie Moore, Roxane Gay, Emily Gould, Helen Oyeyemi, and Celeste Ng.
Willingly and unwillingly, I’ve been reading them my entire life.
Many memories from my high school experience are patchy (it was over ten years ago!) but I do recall my English classes. In them, we read Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Arthur Miller, William Golding, J.D. Salinger, Alexandre Dumas. I think we talked about Lord of the Flies for six months. We did read Harper Lee, but that felt like a given. Notably, there was no Jane Austen or a Brontë sister, no Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston. We didn’t read James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison, no Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf.
My undergraduate college experience was mercifully different. In it, I was exposed to writers like Gloria Anzaldúa, Joan Didion, Jo Ann Beard, Jean Rhys, bell hooks, John Edgar Wideman, Alice Walker, and poets Bernadette Mayer and Douglas Kearney. Sure, I still read my fair share of David Foster Wallace and David Sedaris, but there was a balance that I was comfortable with.
I went away to graduate school for writing in Oxford, England. My first semester, I took a class called Narrative. It should have been called White Male Narrative. We received the full semester reading list a few weeks before classes began, and there, one right after the other, was J.D. Salinger, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, and John Irving. When a student emailed the professor (who was a lovely British man and a great teacher, just one with an unfortunately narrow perspective) about this, he hastily swapped out two other male novelists for Marilynne Robinson and Kate Atkinson. (If you’re keeping score here, that’s five white males, two white females.)
And there are some white male writers whose books I love. I will happily read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot again and again. I like David Foster Wallace (nonfiction more than fiction, but I did push myself through Infinite Jest). John Irving is brilliant. I think Ben Lerner is frighteningly good. Up until recently, I loved everything Jonathan Franzen ever did. I even get down with some Leo Tolstoy.
But the truth is, I (and we, as a culture) have been so inundated with the white male (heterosexual) perspective that it can be easy to forget that there are so many other brilliant, worthy voices to be heard. We just need to seek them out, since they are so often not provided to us.
The market is already flooded.
This summer, Elisa Gabbert’s writing advice column, The Blunt Instrument, became suddenly very popular with a question from a white male poet. The question was in earnest, a writer who admitted to being aware of his own privilege both within the larger context of life and the publishing world, wanting to know how to move forward as a writer. Should he write from the white male perspective even though the need for this is, in his words, “just not there anymore”? Should he write from the perspective of others, despite his position being one that inherently bars him from fully understanding that perspective?
Gabbert’s advice was simple: keep writing, keep seeking publishing, but do it less. She writes, “Instead of making things even harder for overworked, underpaid editors, let’s improve the ratios in the submission pool by reducing the number of inappropriate, firebombed submissions from men. You – white men – have all the advantages here, so you should work to solve the problem of imbalance, instead of putting all the burden on women, POC, and LGBTQ to fix it themselves.” In this, Gabbert is referring to editors who claim the imbalances in publishing stems from the face that they receive far less submissions from women and POC than they do from white men. Some claim to have received submissions from white men who send another story immediately after being rejected.
The point here is clear. Each year, VIDA puts out their count of popular publishers and journals, and each year, while some publishers get steadily better, the counts stubbornly remain basically the same: more men are being published in major journals than women, and queer folk and POC are being published even less. Publication in major journals does not guarantee a writing career, but it certainly does help. And then there is the problem of when male writers become male novelists they’re reviewed more often.
They’re not in the best position to tell the stories of women, queer folk, and POC.
Jonathan Franzen may have done the worst representation of a white female millennial that I’ve ever read. In , Hubert Selby, Jr. awkwardly writes in the voice of Bobby, who we learn from the back cover is “young and black” (period.) and his mother, from whose voice we read, “it making no difference if it be day or night there just be screaming and yelling and banging up and down the stairs and no man, no mutha fuckin man to help raise those gauddamn kids, no man there more than a nights flop, and if they be there longer they be wantin to dig into her welfare check.” Colum McCann writes as a black female prostitute. Hemingway’s Maria is a sad, voiceless, worshipping plaything.
Jonathan Franzen may have done the worst representation of a white female millennial that I’ve ever read. In The Willow Tree, Hubert Selby, Jr. awkwardly writes in the voice of Bobby, who we learn from the back cover is “young and black” (period.) and his mother, from whose voice we read, “it making no difference if it be day or night there just be screaming and yelling and banging up and down the stairs and no man, no mutha fuckin man to help raise those gauddamn kids, no man there more than a nights flop, and if they be there longer they be wantin to dig into her welfare check.” Colum McCann writes as a black female prostitute. Hemingway’s Maria is a sad, voiceless, worshipping plaything.
And this one, truthfully, gets controversial. We don’t always read fiction to read a perspective from the author. We do read to be taken to different places, with different people. I’m just saying that maybe there are other voices that would be better positioned to share those journeys than the white men who so often get to write them.
Finally, there are so many books out there, and so many authors waiting to be heard. Read as much as you can, actively seeking out new voices and styles and perspectives, not just the ones being reviewed in The Times. I’ll be right along with you for the journey.