K T Bradford stopped reading books by cisgender, heterosexual white men. She wrote an article suggesting that other people should consider a year’s break from cisgender, heterosexual white men.
(I am going to drop “heterosexual, cisgender” from now on, because I’m not satisfied that LGBT writers are actually underrepresented given our percentage in the population.)
Rod Dreher’s American Conservative article substantially seems to miss the point. Most writers are not successful, this is true. However, the writers that are successful are disproportionately white and male. Bradford cites the dismal statistics: of 124 authors that hit the New York Times bestseller list in 2013, how many were people of color?
No one seems to have done similar statistics for the NYT adult bestseller list and gender, but they did for YA (famously female-dominated) and it is a quarter female.
Now, it is true– as both essayists point out– that white men write very good books. However, presumably women and people of color also write very good books. Either one must claim that white men write much better books than women or people of color, or in addition to the selection pressure for good books there’s the selection pressure for a white male author. In that case, by the old “twice as good to go half as far” principle, the average female author or author of color is better than a white man of equivalent popularity.
It’s also true that white men can reflect a wide range of human experiences. However, imagine if 99% of the writers on the New York Times bestseller list had, at some point, lived in Florida. Floridians have access to all the experiences that non-Floridians have; Floridian authors are as diverse as non-Floridian authors, ranging from Carl Hiaasen to John Grogan to Stephen King. (White man, white man, white man. That was actually accidental.) And certainly there’s not any inherent Floridian-ness about Floridians that seeps through their writing. However, you might feel that there are perhaps, in aggregate, some human experiences that are being underrecognized in this hypothetical, like “seasons” and “not having ever been on a fishing boat.”
Daubney remarks that a boycott of gay or Jewish or black authors would start riots. That is true. But it seems to me that– judging from the fact that not a single black author made the 2013 bestseller list– we are already doing a national boycott of black authors. It seems a bit in poor taste to further encourage it. It matters less if the marginalized group is already overrepresented: a similar challenge to, say, not watch any musicals written by a gay or Jewish person seems fun and inoffensive.
Interestingly, both of the essayists critiquing Bradford included passages about their own taste in literature. Daubney writes:
If Ms Tempest et al want to buy books by transgender authors, let them crack on, as long as they’re aware that many of the rest of us don’t share their tastes.
I am somewhat puzzled about what Mr. Daubney’s objection to transgender writers is (uncharitably: “sometimes they portray trans characters as people and that makes me sad and uncomfortable, where are my man in a dress jokes? How can I live without my man in a dress jokes?”). But given that he has publicly stated his distaste for trans writers, he surely can’t object to Bradford publicly stating her distaste for white male authors. And as for the challenge… she didn’t say anyone was a horrible white supremacist misogynist for not taking the challenge. She didn’t say anything negative about people’s reading choices at all. She simply suggested that reading fewer white men is an option that might enrich your life and that you should try it out for a year– as Mr. Daubney appears to be implying not reading transgender authors is. Perhaps Mr. Daubney is offended on behalf of readers that they cannot figure out how to boycott white men on their own? That seems a bit silly.
In Dreher’s article, he positively quotes a reader who, among other points, comments negatively about books by “a polyamorous 2-spirit non-racially-identifying author.” As if not reading books by white men limits you to reading books by Tumblr denizens! You can pick up Chinese classics like Journey to the West or Story of the Stone, Japanese classics like Tale of Genji, or Indian classics like the Ramayana. You can read science fiction by authors like Octavia Butler, Ursula K Le Guin, or Ted Chiang. You can read literally any mangaka. If you add the “LGBT” category, you get to appreciate older authors such as Plato or Catullus and newer writers like Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, or Walt Whitman.
There are female authors and authors of color for every literary taste!
But, really, every test requires a control group. So really we should do two challenges: three months of reading only white male authors; three months of reading only authors that are not white men. If the latter is easier (which it should be, given that white men are a minority of the English-speaking population), then you clearly have no problems and can wear your My Reading Choices Are Neither Racist Nor Sexist badge with pride. On the other hand, if the former is easier, then maybe you are part of the problem with underrepresentation of women and people of color.