Does (White) Privilege Need to Be Presented on The Page When it Comes to Contemporary Literature?

Jennifer Baker
May 14, 2017 · 8 min read

A friend handed me the new memoir The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy saying she thought I might like it. I had highly suggested Melissa Febos’ new memoirs Abandon Me thinking the same. I’d heard vague things about Levy’s book, more so due to the author’s status in the literature arena (she works at The New Yorker and before that New York magazine). Since she’s a writer for The New Yorker I figured I may dig it. I looked through the first chapter or so and then skimmed forward to get to the nitty gritty. Beyond my editorial comment of length, focus, and this being more material for a couple long-form essays than a full memoir, what turned me off immediately was the level of privilege present throughout.

The New Republic review by Charlotte Shane entitled “Ariel Levy’s Infuriating Memoir of Privilege and Entitlement” pretty much capped off my feelings very well, for the most part.

She doesn’t speak from inside one-size-fits-all feminine ambition but rather garden-variety white entitlement.

Yes, the white privilege irked me, a lot, but so did the cis-gender privilege from a woman who identifies as queer. She misgendered an ex who had transitioned to male. She made assumptions about their life and twisted whatever their mental state was with their gender, which may or may not be true in certain instances but I don’t necessarily need this narrator to take on those labels. I think Charlotte does a good job of noting that the white and socioeconomic privilege is a problem to read in that, it distances many of the readers. In seeing this book in print as is perhaps no one thought to mention this issue to Levy in the production phase, nor did they see it, neither did they care.

In a White, straight, cis, abled dominated industry, that is albeit “liberal” in many ways, publishing, as we know it, still has a long way to go in terms of true uniformity of recognizing privilege as well as being inclusive. These seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum depending on whom you speak to. Going back to books and films that I enjoyed, even music, when revisiting the work there are things I notice, aspects of character, points of plot, issues in dialogue and voice that stand out to me because I know more now and I aim to look for issues (i.e., problematic content) because I’m being paid to. Not only is this my life as an editor but as a writer and it is colored by my being a woman of color. My observations are heightened to moments of conflict such as a man in my work place continually telling me to smile during a business meeting, or noticing how PoC co-workers may be terse in response to fellow PoCs but completely saccharine to white counterparts. It’s a point where we refuse to pronounce people by their right name let alone preferred gender pronoun (PGP) because it’s “so confusing” or too “inconvenient.” To notice these things is to take us a step further towards equality, to ignore or dismiss or remain ignorant keeps us in stasis if not reverting us back to what those before us saw not only behind-the-scenes but in their face because it was perfectly legal.

With that in mind, is it fair for us to take this new lens and look at the past in literature as well as the present and future of it expecting the authors and thereby narrators expound on the issues presented but also being aware of privilege? Hell yes. I read Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff soon after it was nominated for a National Book Award. I went in prepared to be let down by the fact that this was going to be a harangue of sorts in novel form about affluent, white, beautiful people with issues attributed specifically to them and not much else. Groff surprised me. For one, she admitted and showed the privilege of the white male character Lotto and also the struggles of his wife Mathilde who remade her life after not having much to begin with, especially in the way of love. They weren’t perfect in terms of looks or personalities but they had that je ne sais quo that garnered them a fan club and they could play a really good game. Within the first chapter Groff prefaced that this couple, in particularly Lotto, were white and privileged, and she didn’t hesitate to immerse readers in their life with strong writing but also by reminding me as reader that to be invested in this particular couple she had to run the gamut and also have people review their biases. Whether or not that meant things ended well you’d have to read. And while it isn’t a white privilege manifesto she did the favor, if not the necessity, of pointing out something that others were reading thereby bringing me further into this world instead of pushing me away from it. It ended up being one of my favorite reads of 2016.

One of the bigger struggles I’ve had with a linked story anthology I’ve been writing for longer than I care to say — definitely more than 5, 6, 7 years at this point — is one of the main characters: a white, well-off financially, good-looking, and intelligent man who is a doctor from a family of doctors. He is my polar opposite in any way that could be checked off on a Census survey. He is also someone people don’t seem to like. Not because he isn’t pleasant but because they cannot relate, or choose not to for reasons I respect, because he is everything that we are not. He has it all, so why, on a fundamental level, would his Black, working class wife (whom others better enjoy reading about, in that we see her struggles) be in love with him? I realized that to at least have some empathy for the most privileged of characters I needed him to reconcile with his privilege, not wholly because that’d be too easy and convenient, but in a way that lead others to see some sort of change with him. Also, I made him too perfect on the exterior that even if he did have somewhat of a broken interior it wasn’t enough of a balance in the fiction world. To make this guy who has a Black wife not necessarily teach him but show him and encourage him to notice that he has to grow up himself which, I’d hope, may not necessarily make him more likeable but readers would give him the benefit of the doubt with sticking with him for the bulk if not the entire story. Let’s be clear, this character is not the “bad guy,” but he’s representative of a larger issue many call out, and have always called out, and we need to face it, be it in media or in life.

I recall reading Eat, Pray, Love soon after it released due to hype. At the time, this was almost a decade ago, I could not quite articulate why I had issues with it. One of the biggest things that hit me was that the narrator, Elizabeth Gilbert, got paid to take her journey for enlightenment to get over her divorce and a relationship with a younger man. I just couldn’t connect as a young Black woman in a bad marriage working her butt off to make more money and move up the ladder in publishing. It definitely wasn’t the book for me at the time, but would it ever be? This is not a knock against Gilbert, it’s a knock against the industry that continues to celebrate these unremarkable (Shane’s words for Levy’s books) stories that are solidly written but seem so out-of-reach and out-of-touch for a good portion of people who will never have these opportunities. If this is what gets pushed through why do we not see more stories from other marginalized groups that are also “unremarkable” in their plot points and skillful in voice? It’s what also infuriates me about those white, straight, abled, and often male travelers who get to be the face of international exploration. They gain momentum on Instagram and Twitter, are interviewed on CBS This Morning for the fact that they decided to go see the world and how “the other half lives.” They receive praise, corporate ad deals, and currency for this when many of us will never have this opportunity to just go. Add to that many won’t feel safe enough to sojourn to various nations without being worried about our physical well-being as women, as transgender, as people of color/Natives, as Muslims, and so on. In fact it heralds back to the colonization of the United States that to travel and act as if you’re discovering something is valued whereas those who had been speaking on this do not have this access.

In Roxane Gay’s brief review of Levy’s book on Goodreads she gave it a favorable rating while also noting the issue of privilege and how it’s ignored. She said it wasn’t necessarily a requirement of the text itself, but how can it be so ignored when it’s so evident (I’m summarizing here). How can Levy’s cisgendered, socioeconomic (though that does waver in the book based on circumstances), and white privilege not manifest in a memoir of all genres in any way?

I’m sure Levy’s book is going to do well because of her status in the literary world and her privilege of her position — how she got the job even touches upon the nepotism and networking not available to others in the publishing industry. What concerns me is how often the issues for transgender representation aren’t mentioned (not even in Shane’s review) for this particular book and also that those who blurbed it, all white people, one white male, praise it for it’s depth and ability to change when the author doesn’t truly seem to be impacted by the latter is worrisome.

On Twitter, an editor for an imprint at a Big 5 publisher noted that when she receives material about/by white people their race is never mentioned, but when it’s a PoC it’s always mentioned (I retweeted this from my podcast account). This says more about the state of persisting the “majority norm” than the state of progress. Because we’re continuing to be averse to the critical reading, not solely criticism for the sake of it and certainly not criticism of people, to look at what is on record for those of future accord. What will we discuss when we look back at these memoirs of white privilege, of cis privilege and think on when we — the industry most prominently — desire to know more of marginalized pain and not much else? Where we have to constantly reflect on our state as marginalized whereas our white/cis/abled/Christian counterparts don’t have to? It’s not unfair for both sides to be reflective and it can only benefit all of us to bring us closer to the page.

Jennifer Baker

Written by

Writer/Editor; creator, Minorities in Publishing podcast; editor of EVERYDAY PEOPLE (2018, Atria Books); 2017 NYSCA/NYFA Fellow. Website:

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