The new year is barely four days old and it is still that time of the year in which people think about their New Year’s resolution. (Hopefully) Many readers might say to themselves that in 2020 they really need to read “more diversely”. I am not a fan of the term itself – though this would warrant a blog post of its own – but basically it is a shorthand for reading more books by historically marginalized authors, especially BIPoC authors. Some might go so far and vow to not read white men at all. If you are out here on the Internet stating either of these things you might experience a backlash and an avalanche of always quite similar “counter-arguments”. It is fascinating – though seeing the overall political climate unsurprising – to see how big of an affront personal reading decisions can cause. (And that is what I am speaking of in this post: personal reading goals not even changes in curricula etc, though most of the points I make here apply for that discussion too. Also, I mostly speak to a European and North American context in this post but again due to histories of colonialism, imperialism and the ways, for example, the global book market is structured many ideas might be applicable in different contexts as well.)
Last year I read 184 books. The vast majority of these were written or featured contributions by people who are no men (83% women, 10% non-binary people). Roughly 17% of the books were authored by or included texts by trans authors of all genders, including trans men. I read 55% of books by BiPoC authors (meaning 101 books) and 50% of books by (‘out’) LGBTQ+ authors. The books were written in or translated from Arabic, Bosnian, English, French, German, Greenlandic, Korean, Nepali, Spanish, Swedish, Tamil, Thai, and Vietnamese. And while there are regions, genres, languages, themes, approaches I want to focus on more in the future, in general, I found 2019 to be a fruitful reading year. And that despite having read no books solely written or edited by white men – or more precisely (because I do use the term white men as a shortened form for non-otherwise-marginalized white men) white straight cis men.
I made the decision to shift my reading (and energy in general) away from white men years ago. I have uttered the sentence “Ah well, I don’t read white men.” more often than I could care to remember – and yes, sometimes I say it solely to cause irritation and to unsettle assumptions about whose literature is worthy to debate in the first place. As a result, I was involved in many heated discussions and I feel like I have heard most arguments against cutting out white men literature from one’s reading diet. In the following, I try to dissect the most common points which I came across.
This is discrimination. If we take a very simple, dictionary definition of discrimination meaning seeing the difference between things or treating different things differently, yes sure. But that is usually not what people (and let’s be honest, more often than not white men) mean here: they imply some kind of reverse racism and sexism. This of course just ignores power structures and the small fact of white men not being structurally marginalized in this world. So no, this is not discrimination in that sense. (And this is also the explanation why Well okay, then I can also vow to not read any Black authors. is not the exact same thing. You find some more thoughts relating to that on the last point.)
White men write good books too. A lot of parameters of how we define or experience ‘good’ were developed through discourse around/ in literature by white men and are thus also skewered towards their literature. So already the way we approach books and categorize them as good or bad is never a neutral, objective activity. It is made easier to value a book by a white man and to see its story as one of universal appeal – though, a closer and more critical examination would lay open its limited approach and scope too. But in the end, I don’t even dispute that there are good books written by white men. I have read books by white men in the past which I thoroughly enjoyed, which were thought-provoking or fun or aesthetically interesting. But people who want to discuss how good books by white men are often subtly (or not so subtly) imply that the other books (by the Other) I read might not be as good. This implication is connected to the above-mentioned parameters for ‘good books’ and other general biases. For me, it’s not about the question if white men can write good books (some might), but about the question if I should favour good books by white men above good books by literally anybody else. The latter is also an economic question: whose authors’ works do I want to support through my money and attention?
You miss out. There is the realization most readers – no matter how voracious – make at some point: You cannot read all the books, not even all the books you are slightly interested in. You will always have to make a selection and you will always miss something or actually a lot. My decision to not read white men is also a decision to focus on the wonderful books by all different kinds of women, by LGBTQ writers of all genders, by BIPoC writers etc. It is not so much about who I do not read but who I do read. To just generically cut out white (straight cis) men opens up space and time to look into books by all these other groups. (And still, I am left with the overwhelming dread to not being able to read all the books I find fascinating contentwise, style-wise, etc.)
But how will you know what white men think about?/ Aren’t you living in a bubble? The “bubble argument” has become pretty persuasive in the last decade and is mostly hurled against those who want to curate spaces (be it physical ones or just a Twitter timeline) which are less prone to racism, hetero_cis_sexism, ableism etc. It is noteworthy that we discuss way less the bubbles rich people live in – or urge people to get out of their “conservative bubble” and engage more with “other thoughts”. While I do think it is important to sometimes re-adjust one’s assumptions about the set-up of the world (obviously), I don’t believe most leftist, feminist, queer, BIPoC (…) people have the actual luxury to live – and thus read – in a closed-off bubble. How do I know what white men think? Because they tell me over and over no matter that I never asked for it. I went to school and read predominantly white men’s texts (the only book by a woman I remember having read in its entirety in school – and we read a lot – is Die Judenbuche (The Jew’s Beech) by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1842); even in one year of secondary school in South Africa I only remember having read Shakespeare). I go on the Internet and I am confronted with white men’s opinions. I open a newspaper and … You get the gist. I am sure we do not have to fear that white men’s voices are not heard. Reading books by historically marginalized authors thus is not so much living in a bubble – it is way more finally bursting a white-straight-cis-male narrative and aesthetics bubble.
Note: The header photo just shows my last book haul. It was not specifically put together for this post but shows one of many possibilities of what one might pick up when not looking for books by white men.