A White, Male, Straight, Cis author considers not reading White, Male, Straight, Cis authors for a year
When I became mature enough in my reading life to discover it a thing worth pondering and evaluating I ultimately pondered if I was well-read. I was in my early twenties and had read my fair share of books across many genres, including many books considered classics, so I figured that since this put me above many other readers that this in fact make me well-read, and so I went about on my reading life thinking such.
In my mid-to-late twenties when I became serious about becoming a writer I reevaluated my reading, and finding many blank spaces in my reading resume that I considered a serious writer should have filled I moved myself down the continuum from solidly well-read to moderately well-read, and set about filling in the potholes. I read everything I owned by Shakespeare (complete works), Dickens, Orwell, Kafka; I read contemporary books recommended by writers and serious readers; I balanced Milan Kundera’s “The Art of the Novel” with Stephen King’s “On Writing”; and when a new J. K. Rowling, Thomas Harris, or Dean Koontz book came out I would snap them up as a treat. I began to feel like I was inching back up the reading continuum toward being solidly well-read.
This feeling of right growth continued until I went to a party at a writer friend’s place, and engaged in doing what all writers do when they visit another writer’s space: talk about their library. He had a number of books by an author that I knew only as a film director, and when I asked after the books he began to describe them to me. He had not only sought out and acquired them, but had read them all.
I went home and considered my library. On the bookshelves inside the house and in the garage and in my classroom, in the bin under my bed and storage boxes and random drawers I suspect I have a thousand or so books. I started a database on my computer to catalog them, but started was as far as I got; my computer informs me that the last time I modified the database file it was April 19th 2007.
Regardless of its widely scattered physical disbursement, it is an eclectic collection of genres. Among them are authors I had heard of, many I hadn’t before picking them up to take an easy chance on at a library sale, and other authors who I consider my favorites. In this collection of favorites are many of their works which I have not read: I have two books by Kesey, four by Steinbeck. I began to see well-read as having read as-close-to-all as possible of a particular author, subject, or genre, and as a consequence removed “well” from the self-assessment of my reading state.
But instead of this discounting my life of reading, it simply prompted me to reclassify it, and by reviewing the wide range of authors and genres I had read, I began to consider myself “widely-read”. This felt good, right, affirming. Enough that when I wanted a section of my first novel to involve reading I had my character espouse this idea.
“Okay, widely read. Say, your reading is already scattered, like, for instance with book club leftovers. Clubs usually select currently popular or common classics; rarely do they cover the oeuvre of a single writer or subject. So your reading is shallow, but with a wide acreage. No, shallow sounds too negative. Um… okay, how about instead I say that your reading creates a map, it shows the landscape as it exists — like one of those adventure videogame overhead maps that starts out all in black, and then reveals itself as you explore those areas, so that when you stop and look at it all at once, certain areas acquire a prominence and invite further exploration.” [from the novel Alexander Murphy’s Home for Wayward Celebrities]
Time continued; I wrote, started a teaching career; my family grew — essentially life conspired to reduce my book budget and reading time. Thrift stores and library sales had burgeoned my scattered collection so that I had a decade’s worth of books to read, so I resolved not to buy any new books until I had read all the books I owned. Sure I cheated and liberated several first editions from “The Friends of the Library” sale shelves, bought a couple books the first time I visited Powell’s, and as I began to friend authors on social media I bought or was gifted review copies of their works, but I felt that in reading the extent of my library I was transitioning from widely-read to well-read. As I went to full-time teaching my reading dipped; when I finally gave up on the new music on the radio I supplemented physical books with library audiobooks — first ripping CDs to play on my phone before discovering my library’s app to digitally checkout books — and I listened to John Grisham, Patrick O’Brien, Neil Gaiman, Stephan King, George R. R. Martin.
Then it is late in the winter of 2015, and scrolling through Facebook I see someone has posted a link to an article titled, “I Challenge You to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year”. There was a picture of the author holding a copy of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods with a red circle/slash over it. I loved that book; I consider books I love to be read by others, so the picture shocked me. I felt defensive and protective about Neil — he’s wonderful. I had read interviews and his blog, and never caught the slightest sense of sexism, bigotry, or anything of the like. Certainly there were plenty of authors out there whose obvious prejudices and poor ideas of how the world should be made a good argument for not reading their writings.
So it was only after feeling that my boy Neil was being wrongfully disparaged that I applied this article title to myself, thinking, “Oh no! I’m a white, straight, (I needed an Urban Dictionary search to also discover that I am also a) cis author. This is going to affect my readership! But this faded quickly when I admitted that no one reads my books anyway, so I have no readership to affect, and so I clicked through and read the article.
What did the article, and its author K. T. Bradford tell me? Well, essentially that women, people of color, and LGBT writers were underrepresented in publishing, and they had a unique perspective to offer through their writing — so, you know, nothing that I didn’t already know. I don’t discriminate; I’ve been known to give Margaret Atwood books as gifts; I’ve read everything by David Sedaris; I teach Langston Hughes poems, Martin Luther King Jr. speeches, Sandra Cisneros stories; except for audiobooks, I choose my reading books in a very equitable manner (more on that soon); I was widely-read. I clicked out of the article and went about my social media scroll.
But then a few months passed, and I hadn’t forgotten the article’s challenge for me to forgo reading other authors like myself. Every time I saw an ironic or humorous post about “mansplaining” or “misandry”, my mind would return to the serious challenge, but I couldn’t articulate why. Finally a question emerged that seemed to answer my unrest: just how diverse had my reading life been?
Since vowing to read the books I owned before buying any more, I still struggled with the age-old choice of ‘which one to read next?’ My solution was almost too geeky to mention: I had a pair of ten-sided gaming dice from college — for non-nerds this means one die is numbered 0–9, and the other is in 10s, 0–90 (on my dice the zeros are little skulls, cause, you know, I’m a badass) — so I made a numbered grid and filled it with a hundred authors from my collection. Say I rolled 74 — I would read everything I owned by whatever author was listed in that box, erase their name and write in another, leaving a tally mark in the bottom-left corner for curiosity’s sake in case I rolled the same number twice. The randomness and equity of this system appealed to me, I stopped having to deal with the anxiety of choosing my next read, and, again, felt that I was slowly transitioning from widely-read to well-read.
At the end of the school year I found myself with nothing to grade and nothing to plan (there was plenty of filing to do, but that could be put off to the teacher workday after finals), so I went through my “Read Book” database, sorting authors by gender, nationality and race. The results were startling: of the 667 books I had read up to that point 571 of them had been written by 196 male authors, while only 96 of them had been written by 48 female authors. 629 of the books were written by 224 white authors, nine books by nine Black authors, six books by six Latino authors, ten books by six Asian authors. Not only could I no longer claim to be widely-read, but I was shamefully narrowly-read!
Then I got intensely busy with end of the school-year stuff and forgot about all this for a while. Summer vacation came, I read two books given to me by author friends and their publishers to review, a book given to me by my son, a book from another author friend that I bought because she was offering autographed copies at a bargain, a book that I was considering teaching the following school year, a book that I had begun reading the previous Christmas on a cruise ship that my wife had absconded with — followed soon thereafter by its sequel. The current school-year began and my reading shifted primarily to another book I was considering teaching, three other books I was teaching, and audiobooks including two buzzy thrillers, the latest from one of my favorite authors, and finally one by Stephen King, for I had been reading at least one of his books every year for the past five years.
Now it is winter break, with the New Year approaching, and the challenge is upon my mind again. Do I want to pledge not to read authors like myself — that is male, of mostly European ancestry, unquestioning of their biological gender, and attracted to the opposite sex? Wouldn’t to do so be saying that writers like myself only have a limited perspective to portray?
Perhaps. I doubt I have ever been objectified for a masculine genetic feature. I have never been catcalled, or had to prove my worth in light of my skin color, gender, or sexual orientation. No one has ever driven by me yelling racial epitaphs; no one has ever accused me of being in a gang based on the color clothes I was wearing; the only time I was accused of shoplifting from a store it was because I was shoplifting.
But then by following this challenge, wouldn’t I be discriminating against myself — my identity; isn’t one impetus for reading to find works that speak to your situation? — My situation being a white, straight, cis, teacher happily married in the suburbs with three kids. And isn’t all discriminating bad? Still, those overwhelming numbers of white male authors in my “Read Books” list brought feelings of inadequacy — again making me ashamed of the lack of diversity in my reading.
I was hoping that the act of writing this would help me answer yes or no to accepting the challenge, but not yet — I still feel both that I should and shouldn’t do it. I feel that in choosing to accept the challenge the focus would be more on the author than the story — that in reading an author like Roxane Gay I would be reading her so that I could notch up that I read a black author, and a female author, and, I believe, a not entirely/always straight author, instead of just reading her because she seems like an awesome gal with some good stories to tell.
I love lists. Harold Bloom’s Canon, the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die; checking off what I have read against the societal consensus of what I should have read. But these lists only feel right when they have not driven my reading. When I began writing in earnest, less and less did I guide my reading by what I thought would benefit me as an author. My reading returned to its natural driving force: a love of stories. What would it hurt then to encounter stories told by authors well outside of my experiences for a year?
So, I’m decided. In 2016 I will partially accept the challenge, and read some of the female writers, writers of color, and LGBT writers from my collection and my library’s audiobook collection. The ‘partially’ is because I am going to allow myself to cheat now and then. During school breaks, after my wife has finished with them, I’ll read a few more in Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie & Gennaro series; if I acquire any of my white male straight cis writer friends’ books I will read and review them; I will read something from Stephen King, and if book six of “A Song of Fire and Ice” comes out I will have to read it; I will do this reading without feeling guilty, for I am done with feeling guilt or shame based on my reading. But otherwise I will use this year to begin rebuilding my identity as a widely-read reader, and now that it’s decided I am looking forward to experiencing new perspectives, and ultimately, hopefully, new distinct stories and storytelling.