I’ve been putting this post off for a while now and by a while I mean since January 2014.

I meant to write about it, but I didn’t. I meant to get around to it, when I had more time to think about to talk it out a bit with myself like I usually do, but I didn’t. The year passed and then about a month ago something starts floating around the internets.

Readers, Challenge oneself to go a whole year without reading anything written by cis-straight-white men.

My first reaction was —GO A WHOLE YEAR WITHOUT VONNEGUT! That’s insane!

The post got passed around and got a bunch of people up in a huff. I won’t delve any further on that front, but it reminded me of the conversation that got me started on this a year ago and my desire to try and work those thoughts out on paper.

I’ve been putting this piece off mostly because I don’t know how to talk about it. At least not on the internet, not with strangers, not without sounding like a total asshole. So I hope you’ll excuse anything I say out of ignorance. So I’m just going to be honest and vulnerable and ramble for a bit. Unlike my other cultural/political rants I put up here I ‘m not trying to make a point

It started at a going away party for a friend. The friend introduced me to someone

—You two will love each other. She’s a writer as well

And we did get along quite swimmingly. Of course, we got into the typical what are you reading who are your favorites bullshit.

She told me hers I told her mine and then she said

—ah, of course, all of the old white men

Instinctively, took a bit of an offence. I wanted to cleverly refute the implication, but then I got home and looked at my bookshelf. The list I gave that night probably wouldn’t surprise many of you, writers like Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, Hunter S Thompson (I should note, however obviously, that this blog is called Bloggings of a Dirty Old Man not only in order to set a certain tone, but is also a reference to Charles Bukowski.).

This is my reading list for 2015

Among the 35 books on that list the ones that aren’t written by white men can be counted on one hand. A total of five if you include Murakami, but I don’t because he’s basically a Japanese white man.

I’m of several minds about the matter.

First, my defense

The novel itself is a western invention (Yes, I know, but before you start on the whole Pillow Book line, let me stop you, I’m not going to go down that path this round. There’s enough to address on the table already.), it’s beginning usually accredited to Cervantes. For ages women were kept out of that sphere, and pretty much all other matters of import, so for a good long stretch of publication history, women publishing novels just didn’t happen often. In America, people of color and women were not allowed to vote or even learn to read (and other stuff which I will now grossly simplify as patriarchypatriarcypatriarchy).So when talking about the whole cannon of fiction novels, there is just an overwhelming number favor for white men.

Next, proximity. We tend to read and enjoy more of what feels familiar to us, (same goes for music, movies etc) I take an authors that I like and see what they read, and so on. Or I wait until a mathematical quotient of recommendations are met (see paragraph two here)

In short I don’t really ever seek out new works. I already have a huge stack of things to read, so I don’t need to. Anything else that ends up in my hands comes to me through one of these methods.

So I’m not the racist, sexist one, right? It’s all those other people telling me what to read. It’s my schools’ fault for not teaching a more diverse cannon.

I’ll get to more of this later, but as a writers, it’s total bullshit to try and put myself in such a passive role when it comes to what I read. The shot of it is, it’s the patriarchy’s fault as a whole, because Society popularized those books. In the words of John Green “I am a white man in a society that tends to reward maleness and whiteness”

I didn’t read Gatsby or Huck Finn or Dickens because I chose to fill my head with the words of only white men. I did it because that is what was provided to me as a child and as I grew I sought out other work that felt familiar.

But now I am grown and I’m a professional writer. Which makes me a professional reader. That excuse is no longer valid

Jay Smooth, I feel has a fairly good take on this in what he calls learning the craft of being good

Like Jay, I often feel that MRA/redpill gut reaction of stop making me feel ashamed for being a white male and liking art by other white men, especially because the truth is, when it comes to non-fiction media I follow plenty of not white men. I want to defend myself in a similar argument to but I have black friends so it’s cool.

My RSS/twitter/youtube subscriptions includes a Dan savage, Bret Easton Ellis, Hannah hart, Laci green, Jay smooth, Meg Turney, Stoya, Laurie Penny, what’s her face from black girl dangerous, Molly Crabapple, Coke Talk, Holly Pervocacy, and more (admittedly mostly more white women), just to mansplain a little.

Somehow though, when it comes to writers of fiction, that number drops substantially, racking my brain for this post, the only black authors I know I’ve even read are Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, August Wilson and only one of them was a novelist. There may be more, but not that I can think of in the hour it’s taken me to write this so far.

The woman at the party quickly listed off a number of people I don’t remember cause it was over a year ago and said I should make sure to read all of them. She told me I needed to work on seeking out more diverse authors because it was the right thing to do, it’s make me a better person. With that she put me on the defensive again as she was suggesting I was doing something wrong, by reading what I liked.

More importantly than my own ego however, what concerned me about this line of thought comes back to the title of this post, Pigeonholing.

Bret Easton Ellis, a writer of whom I am a fan, didn’t come out as gay until well into his career. Partially, perhaps because he feared it would hurt his ability to sell books, but according to him, most of the reason he didn’t come out was because he didn’t want his work filed under Gay literature. He didn’t want to be known as a leading queer author. He wanted to be known as a great American author.

I agree with Ellis. I don’t think anyone would categorize American Psycho as gay literature. I don’t think Rules of Attraction is the best candidate for a queer studies curriculum. So does Ellis’s work meet the criteria of the tumbler Social Justice Warrior challenge?

Would his books count before he came out? Does his coming out retroactively make them count, or does his work only count if it was published after he came out publicly?

I think Ellis’s is a totally fair choice and his prerogative as an artist. It makes me ask, when we seek out diversity for its own sake, are we not simultaneously restricting those artists by categorizing them by a single attribute?

(I know there are other authors, black authors, women authors, who have felt the same way, but I use Ellis as an example because He’s the most mainstream and could pass as a white man.)

All the not white men authors I’ve read I read for the same reason I read anything. So if I do go out of my way to get more diverse authors on my list for the year, what does it cost me? I can only read so much in my time here on earth, so what books that I want to read, or authors I love, do I have to give up to be ‘a good person’ or at least, a better person (This of course is the kind of logic that got Edward Norton’s Character started in American History X.) Yet at the same time one of the reasons I think literature is important is that it teaches us empathy.

When you read you see the world from the point of view of someone different from yourself. You realize that everyone else in the world is their own set of biases and emotions and opinions and other complexities. For those however many thousand words you become someone else and my hope is that when we come out the other side we see other people with a little more depth.

Back to my conversation with the woman at the party.

—How about Invisible Man? That’s one of my favorite books.

—Did you read that for school?

—Yeah.

—Exactly, doesn’t count

I read Invisible Man in high school and I loved it. It’s one of my favorite novels. I loved the writing, the storytelling, but what I remember most is the Narrator, his anger and discontent, his struggle to accept himself and his background, all while trying to play by the rules of a modern cosmopolitan racist society.

One of the reasons it was important to me was it was the first time I’d ever read a novel by a black person. I had studied speeches, poetry, learned about the civil rights movement in history. I had black friends, even the man that served as my surrogate father was black, but for me, it took a novel to begin to understand what it meant to be black in America.

This is why we first teach children about the Holocaust with Night and Number the Stars instead of just showing them black and whites of crematoriums. As an adult, the account that has meant the most to me was Maus. Fiction, or comic books, or theatre, or poetry or whatever, plays and important role in our cultural dialogue.

Invisible Man changed me in a fundamental way and helped me grow as a person (Later, when I went on to study theatre at university August Wilson became a favorite playwright of mine, again because a teacher assigned Fences to us.).

I don’t know what else my English teacher had on the curriculum beforehand. I don’t know if he picked it because he liked it or because he thought or was told he had to have a black author on the syllabus, but I certainly benefited from it.

This discussion also seems strange to me because I will often yell about how Hollywood doesn’t make movies with women or people of color as superheroes. I’m genuinely excited about the new Ms Marvel and Thor. I did bought the trade paperbacks when they came out even though I’ve never read either title before, when I could have bought the next DMZ or House of Mystery instead.

I don’t know what it is about fiction specifically that makes me go

—…eh, I got other shit to read.

And I don’t know why of all things I get defensive about my reading habits and my list. But I do.

Like Jay Smooth, I try to practice being good.

This comes back to why I put off writing about this for so long. I don’t want to think about it. Because, like everyone else, I want to see myself as the good guy. I don’t want to acknowledge any biases or shortcomings especially when those failings are steeped in institutional racism and misogyny that, for however much “I didn’t do it”, is furthered by my own tacit complicity in a system that advantages me.

We should self-evaluate. And we should acknowledge when we have weaknesses. It’s the foundation of my belief in science. It’s the only way we can change the world for the better. As a writer, this specifically should be something I should think about it.

For now I’ll leave with this.

On my list for this year I have the following non-white men books:

Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula K Le Guin

The Handmaidens Tale – Margaret Atwood

Bel Canto – Anne Pratchet

Beloved – Toni Morrison

I don’t think I’ll make the whole35 for the year now that writing and reading things is a full time job for me, but these four will get a little boost in priority.

For next year, I’m not going to go the whole hog with the challenge (I’m not going to go a whole year without something by Vonnegut, Gaiman, Thompson or Bukowski when I’ve still so much left to read), but I’d like to make sure at least half of what goes on the list are by women or people of color (it beats the roughly ten percent mark from this year). Here’s what I’m putting on so far, feel free to add your suggestions in the comments or message me.

Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K Le Guin

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Eagan

The Color Purple – Alice Walker

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman (if I like Mockingbird) – Harper Lee

Things Fall Apart –Chinua Achebe

The motherfucking Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

Native Son – Richard Wright

The Dispossessed (if I like Left Hand of Darkness) – Ursula K Le Guin

Go Tell it on the Mountain – James Baldwin

Interview with a Vampire – Anne Rice

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Comments
  1. […] doing surprisingly well with my book commitment for the year. I started with my old white man, If this isn’t Nice, What Is?  By Vonnegut, followed by a woman […]

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