The Great Internet Debate Over Not Reading White Men

The Great Internet Debate Over Not Reading White Men

Hello, dear reader, and welcome to The Kerfuffler! I’m your host, fantasy writer, essayist and mad tweeter, Saladin Ahmed. Every other week I’ll be looking at our seemingly endless culture wars playing out online, tracing their fault lines, and wading hip-deep into comment sections so you don’t have to.

My first dispatch comes from the war-torn realm of book publishing.

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. Neil Gaiman, whose novel American Gods appears crossed out in red at the top of Bradford’s piece, told “anyone hoping for outrage” that he thought Bradford’s suggestion was “great”:

Best-selling author John Scalzi tweeted similar support:

Meanwhile, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) responded to criticism of his self-described racist jokes at the National Book Awards ceremony last year. Instead of doubling down, he met the criticism with that rarest of things: a sincere apology, backed by a donation of more than $US100,000 to We Need Diverse Books.

Not all responses have been so generous, of course. The comments on Govinnage’s piece are rife with cries of ‘reverse racism!’ (a thing that, it must be noted, does not actually exist). Those commenting on Bradford’s story went so far as to call her reading challenge “intolerant, censorious, and an obstruction of the free exchange of ideas that is essential to freedom itself.” Bradford was subjected to a slew of remarkably bilious attacks on Twitter and elsewhere. Inevitably the right-wing blogosphere had its say too, with writers like the conservative scifi/fantasy author and GamerGate favourite Larry Correia comparing “SJWs” like Bradford to — wait for it — neo-Nazi skinheads.

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 marginalised writers, let’s talk about why they might want to do so.

One reason is — brace yourselves — politics. There are those of us who care about actively trying to make the world a more equitable place. Books are magical things. But they are also consumer goods, and ethical consumption is not just for coffee and sneakers. While many pixels have been spilled in recent years over questions of diversity and representation in fiction, these discussions rarely consider the question of political economy.

‘Bestselling author’ is, functionally, a job. And nearly every single one of those jobs goes to a white person (quite often a white man). When women still make only 75 cents for every dollar that men make, and 98 per cent of the New York Times bestseller list is composed of white authors, anyone who reads primarily white male authors is contributing, quite directly, to the economic inequalities that pervade our culture. Now, some readers — particularly those of a politically conservative or libertarian sensibility — don’t give a shit about this. Indeed, they may be actively hostile to the very notion of egalitarianism. The market, in their view, is a pure meritocracy. But many other book buyers believe, as I do, that the market itself is racist and sexist in all sorts of unseen ways. Choosing to buy and read books by women and people of colour is one small way to address this.

More selfishly, though, seeking out the voices of women, people of colour, and LGBT folks will lead you to wonderful books you might not have found otherwise. Indeed, there are a great many wonderful books that you are likely to miss unless you are consciously choosing to privilege those voices.

This is not simply because, as one commenter on Scalzi’s response to the debate put it, “humans tend to default” to what they know. It’s because, despite the heroic efforts of many agents, editors, and publicists, publishing’s marketing machine is a long way from treating all authors equally. It is my sincere belief that most readers don’t know just how slanted the publishing industry is toward a narrow sliver of voices. Unless one deliberately seeks out fiction by marginalised writers, the vast, vast majority of books that cross one’s radar via TV, radio, magazines, newspapers, and, yes, the internet, are going to be by white people — and most of those white people are going to be straight men.

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.