Last week my friend Lydia retweeted a mention of “that widely discussed no-white-male writer challenge”, and I said “Er, what?”, and she linked me to this XOJane article by KT Bradford:
This was both pleasing and surprising, because I’ve already been doing this in 2015 – I decided to do something like it last November, and here’s what I wrote then (on Booklikes – I like Booklikes a lot for keeping track of my reading, and it’s not-popular enough that I feel comfortable sticking unfinished and quick thoughts up):
I’m tossing around the idea of aiming to not read any books written by white men in 2015, and the more I think about it, the more the reasons I’m coming up with for not doing so aren’t good enough to not do it.
Reason 1: A lot of non-fiction on topics I like is written by white men, esp. early modern European history.
Answer 1: This is exactly why I should do it. If I want to read non-fiction about those topics I’ll seek out books by women and people of colour, which is good.
(Reason 1b: I also thought “oh, but non-fiction on topics I like by non-white-men may be more difficult to find and expensive”, but then realised…
Answer 1b: …that’s probably unexamined bias and not even true, and if it is true, is even more of a reason to consciously seek them out.)
Reason 2: I have a pile of books by various authors on my immediate to-read list (of 10-12 books), some of whom are white men.
Answer 2: A year is a good motivational period of reading/not reading things so I should definitely stick to that, and I have two months to clear all the white guy books I really desperately want to read. This will also prompt me to figure out which white guy books I really desperately want to read, and if I can’t get to it in two months I probably didn’t actually really desperately want to read it.
Reason 3: This really really amazing book has come out about all your favourite things and OH NO it’s written by a white guy!
Answer 3: If it’s that amazing it will still be amazing in 2016 and I’ll read it then.
What makes an author ‘white’ and ‘male’ are obviously not uncomplicated, but since it’s for my own decision-making I feel okay defining it as ‘someone who looks like a dudebro’ ie not excluding American Latino men, or people whose gender identities include maleness but are not only male.
I’m not looking for book recs (at least, not more than I always am!), it’s more a commitment to myself that when I go “hmm, I want to read that book!” and that book is written by a white guy, I will not read that book and instead read another book.
My version is less inclusive than Bradford’s, which adds the axis of LGBT+ writers – ie, she can read books by a white gay man, or a white trans man, but I can’t. When I was thinking about this last year, I had a different idea of what kinds of perspectives I was looking for – just to clarify that this is not about any group being more or less marginalised than another, it’s about what I, specifically, thought I was missing and wanted to get more of in my reading diet.
I’ve seen other people, both friends and in the media, challenging themselves to spend a year reading only books by women, or only by people of colour, and it made sense to me to do a general ‘not white men’ challenge. My methodology for exclusion is something like, ‘if this person were sitting in the UK House of Commons or the US House of Representatives, with a tidy haircut and wearing a suit, would they blend in? If you saw a picture of a Tory cabinet including this person, would most of the other people in the photo look like them?’. I don’t want to be too fussy about what counts as ‘white’, like a lawyer working out the niceties of the one-drop rule – I just want to read more books by people who don’t look like Jonathan Franzen.
I’m also not excluding books that are in part by white men, as long as they aren’t mostly by white men, so:
- Books by not-white-men translated by white men (eg The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon translated by Ivan Morris) = in
- Books by white men translated by not-white-men (eg Les Miserables translated by Julie Rose) = out
- Anthologies including white men (eg…um, someone please let me know if you find one where they are contributors but not the majority) = in, but
- Anthologies where more than half the contributions are from white men (eg Living with Shakespeare) = out.
(Isn’t that disappointing? I looked at the list of contributors of Living with Shakespeare and thought ‘oh, that’s loads of women, and, er, some people of colour, surely that’ll make it’, but then I counted, and nope: 22 white men, 18 everybody else. It was a perfect illustration of how easy it is to think ‘yes, I have a varied reading list!’ when that isn’t true – my brain flagged up the ‘diverse’ authors but not the fifty bajillion white guys.)
So after I decided this in November, I spent the last two months of 2014, a bit ironically, reading only books by white men, as I triaged my to-read list and whizzed through the ones I didn’t want to put off until 2016. I have to admit it was probably the slowest I’ve ever got through books. None of them were bad – one of them is a strong contender for my favourite book of the year – but mainlining seven books by white guys was surprisingly difficult, and a bit alienating. Obviously a sample size of seven books isn’t too representative, but even though I was genuinely keen to read them (again, these were the ones that I decided I definitely wanted to read right now), it became a bit of a slog. (I’ve listed and discussed the seven books at the end of this post.)
Having gone sharply from All White Guys into No White Guys, I’ve found two good things about the latter that are pretty obvious in retrospect but were still surprising. The first is getting to read about women who think and act like actual people. Just one of the books I read in November-December seemed to appreciate that women had inner lives, and weren’t just there to put dinner on the table or radiantly represent an ideal. This might change as I read more books by men who aren’t white – I’ve mostly been reading women so far.
The second is discovering new places, lives and stories that I didn’t know before. My favourite so far has been Samhita Arni’s The Missing Queen. The structure is familiar: a noir mystery, it opens with an Intrepid Young Reporter asking Questions She Shouldn’t of The Wrong People, and unrolls from there with danger, goons, a cigarette-smoking femme fatale, a mysterious mastermind, double-crosses that aren’t double-crosses, twists and turns exactly where there should be. What made The Missing Queen such an exciting read for me is that it’s also a retelling and interrogation of the Hindu epic poem the Ramayana, and aside from the noir structure, the setting and cultural context were almost totally new to me. I did have a very sketchy knowledge of the Ramayana from a World Literature class in college, but Arni is writing for and about a culture where it’s The Story, as familiar to Hindu Indians as Adam and Eve eating fruit is to Western Europeans. I’d forgotten how great it is to get to know new worlds in books like that, and I’m excited about finding more this year.
Appendix: Books read November-December 2014
News from Nowhere is a 19th-century utopian novel by noted socialist, craftsman, arts patron and wallpaper designer William Morris. I got it after seeing Gaskell’s North and South described as ‘Pride and Prejudice for socialists’, which is not quite true – though it was excellent, I discovered I just cannot accept as a romantic hero a boss who calls in scabs to strikebreak. But it did make me wonder if anyone had written Pride and Prejudice for socialists (he’s a member of Militant Tendency! she’s a grassroots anti-poverty campaigner! they meet at a SOAS Palestine fundraiser!) and googling ‘socialist romance novel’ turned up News from Nowhere. It’s a romance in the sense of Thomas Malory, not Jennifer Crusie, and is really like nothing more than the southern English lefty version of Ayn Rand: it’s extremely earnest, extremely dull and the entire middle section is a character explaining how the author’s preferred utopian social and economic model works. Morris’s Explainer Man claimed that sexism had been abolished because childcaring was valued, then spent a lot of time cooing about how great socialism is because women were happy and a happy woman is a beautiful woman and the men were happy too because they got to look at all the beautiful women. Without the end-of-year deadline I might have pressed through, but instead I gave up around 30 pages in (not into the book, into the big ideological speech).
Here is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History was very enjoyable, history + travel + thinking about Big Questions (the main one is ‘what makes something a historical event?’). Andrew Carroll’s stories were sometimes about women, sometimes about people of colour, mostly about white men. He wrote about a lot of scientific advances, and I noticed how often the pattern reoccurred of a male scientist ‘discovering’ something, oh and by the way his wife/girlfriend has been setting up the experiments and collating and analysing data and doing all the housework and cooking and possibly working outside the home to pay for rent and food. But good job, male scientist!!
How to Live on 24 Hours a Day was among my favourite books of 2014. It’s hardly a book, more of a long pamphlet in the same form as ‘How to Live on £X a Year’ guides that were popular in the 1900s when Arnold Bennett wrote this. It’s lively, readable and a bit of a shake-up, offering advice for post-Industrial Revolution white-collar workers who feel their lives are slipping away in commute-work-commute-dinner-sleep. That is, it’s aimed at people who have office jobs with lunch breaks, and do not have to prepare their own dinner or look after children, ie at the time, men. Though this also applies to commuting childless me, every so often Bennett would go, ‘and just think about how quickly you finish work when you’re taking a pretty girl to the theatre that evening!’, which, meh.
The Sense of Style had an excellent gist, which was to cut the faffy bullshit and write what you mean. It’s not aimed at creative writers, but people who are trying to communicate information. Also really appreciated that Pinker’s pronouns assume writers and readers will include women. Liked this a lot.
Reviewing Shakespeare unfortunately wasn’t really about reviewing Shakespeare but an analysis of how male professional critics through the history of London journalism have wanted to supplant male actors playing Macbeth. This isn’t totally uninteresting because theatre gossip is always fun, but I was hoping to read something I could apply to reviewing in practice. George Bernard Shaw’s sexual jealousy of Henry Irving is interesting, but not very relevant. Reviewing Shakespeare also had one of the most baffling passages of my end-of-year rush, which made me very glad I was going to read something written by a woman soon: “[Elaine] Dundy makes no mention of [Vivien] Leigh’s attempted seduction of [Dundy’s husband, Kenneth] Tynan, or of what Tynan described as the women’s subsequent sleepy embrace, which is odd, given her pains elsewhere to stress her glamorous intimacy with Leigh.” Yes, how odd that she wouldn’t constantly be bringing up the time a movie star tried to sleep with her husband while she was in the same room! Especially since she’s such a social climber, am I right? Who can explain such unfathomable psychology, I guess we’ll never know.
City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire: Gosh there were a lot of battles, doges and treaties. The writing was quite visual, and I found I couldn’t get a grip on the narrative, though some of this might have been my rush. Not a lot of characterisation, it felt like a series of incidents involving soldiers, politicians and the Pope strung together with action-adventure writing. Dropped it a third of the way in to get to:
Covering Shakespeare was funny and fun and I wish I’d got to it earlier. David Weston is a career NT/RSC actor and wrote the genuinely hilarious Covering McKellen, about a year travelling around the world with the RSC as Ian McKellen’s understudy in King Lear. Each chapter is a different Shakespeare play and his memories of acting in or seeing it, usually including his younger self awkwardly trying to befriend famous actors, who politely shoot him down. I was desperately reading this right up until we left for our New Year’s Eve party, and I’m very much looking forward to picking it up again in 2016.