On Why I Won’t Take Up the Challenge to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors

March 2, 2015 § 29 Comments


buckleyBrevity‘s Special Projects Editor Sarah Einstein weighs in:

Earlier this week, XOJane published K.T. Bradford’s “I Challenge You to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year.” The article is illustrated by a photo of the author holding up Neil Gaiman’s American Gods with the “no” sign over the cover. The author wags a finger at the reader and gives us what I think of as a don’t you do it! face. In the article, Bradford says that she was inspired by Sunili Govinnage’s “I read only non-white authors for 12 months. What I learned surprised me,” which was itself inspired by Lilit Marcus’ article “Why I Only Read Books by Women in 2013.” But there is a key difference between the reading choices made by Govinnage and Marcus to immerse themselves in the voices of women and people of color, and Bradford’s choice to read everyone but white, straight, cis men.

I applaud readers who take their reading so seriously that they undertake experiments like those of Marcus and Govinnage. I believe that we all should make an effort to read works by authors we have to go searching for, because their voices are under-represented by the publishing industry. I find the alchemy of combining like voices—as Govinnage and Marcus did—lovely and meaningful. I really do. But K.T. Bradford’s experiment—and her urging the rest of us to repeat it for ourselves—is not about reading a particular kind of author for an extended period; it’s about excluding the voices of one kind of author instead. It’s an experiment that says, “I am devaluing the voices of white, straight, cis male authors” rather than “I am valuing the voices of women authors and authors of color.”

In truth, I don’t actually think that Bradford is advocating that we actually stop reading white, straight, cis male authors. She writes in the article:

The “Reading Only X Writers For A Year” a challenge is one every person who loves to read (and who loves to write) should take. You could, like Lilit Marcus, read only books by women or, like Sunili Govinnage, read only books by people of color. Or you could choose a different axis to focus on: books by trans men and women, books by people from outside the U.S. or in translation, books by people with disabilities.

These sort of focused readings can be transformative, and like Bradford, I encourage readers to consider engaging in them, if not for a year, then for a while, and if not to the exclusion of other books, then at least by making a conscious effort to read mostly works by “X writers.” But the recommendation she makes in the article is very different from the recommendation made in the headline. There is something horrible, really, about saying “I’m spending a year not reading works by X writers.” Something that is very different from saying “I’m spending a year only reading works by X writers.”

I’m thinking about this, also, in the context of our upcoming special issue on gender. We’ve already received a few queries from people asking if we are open to work that explores cis, straight experiences, and I’m a little sad that anyone felt they had to ask. Any exploration of gender that excludes the experiences of anyone is, by its very nature, already limiting and policing the ways in which we conceive of gender expression.

Kate Bornstein, the anchor author for the issue, has written,

Instead of saying that all gender is this or all gender is that, let’s recognize that the word gender has scores of meaning built into it. It’s an amalgamation of bodies, identities, and life experiences, subconscious urges, sensations, and behaviors, some of which develop organically, and others which are shaped by language and culture. Instead of saying that gender is any one single thing, let’s start describing it as a holistic experience.

And no conversation about gender that specifically targets one group for exclusion can ever hope to engage with the wonderful, personal, sometimes terrifying ways in which we experience ourselves as gendered beings.

We encourage all writers to think about their experiences of gender, and to send us their brief essays exploring those experiences. We welcome the full diversity of voices. We are committed to publishing work that shows the multiplicity of gendered experience, work that takes us away from the binary and recognizes instead the infinite variety of how we understand ourselves to be. And, we hope, our readers will engage with all the essays in the issue, not just those by “X Writers.”

___

Sarah Einstein is author of the forthcoming Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press 2015), and numerous essays and short stories. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing with a secondary specialty in Rhetoric and Composition at Ohio University.

 

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§ 29 Responses to On Why I Won’t Take Up the Challenge to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors

  • I have to concur, if the tone is one of “don’t read so and so,” that is not constructive. I do think though that avoiding one demographic leaves a lot of opportunity for other choices and one may learn a great deal about how much diversity she has missed. By that I mean choosing one demographic leaves more UNreadable than leaving only one out.

    It’s certainly a mixed bag. And I’m with you, anything that expresses negativity toward any one group of writers is missing the mark with the message.

  • utahrob says:

    I’ll continue to read good writing about the things I’m interested in reading, regardless of who the author is.

  • I really, really appreciate this article. The intentional exclusion of any voice, even a voice that is over-represented, is limiting and dangerous.

    As I’ve been reading these articles and challenges, and have been evaluating my own bookshelves (and my own writing), I am seeing the need for more diversity in author, experience, and narrative, but I have still felt uncomfortable with this particular challenge. Partly because some of the richest reading experiences I have are from white, straight, cis male authors (The Cloud Sketcher, Richard Rayner. A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway), but partly because of exactly what this writer has pointed out–exclusion of one will not provide inclusion for another.

    Thank you for adding eloquent voice to a valuable discussion (and fuel on my fire to adopt a “reading X writers” challenge)!

  • Sammy D. says:

    This needs to be disseminated across social and political forums. Too much of our current diversity push is done at the dissing and exclusion of caucasians, in particular males, and/or heterosexuals. I find it extremely hypocritical and contrary to what we ALL want to achieve, which is an individual feeling of inclusion. Our society, in the long run, isn’t going to be well-served by punishing today’s males for previous generations’ transgressions. There are far more positive ways to promote diversity, and change harmful past practices, than by excluding those you think have been overly advantaged.

    You wrote this so well and pragmatically. I hope others will tske your words to heart.

  • I apologize, in advance, if what I’m about to write might anger or offend, but I do not apologize for the sentiment – which is as follows:
    Why all the insistence on labels? Why must we exclude writers of a certain background, or demographic? I thought the whole point was to find good writing, and read it. To exclude the work of someone who happens to be female, or black, or gay, or white, or for any reason whatsoever, is to perpetuate the very same divides you claim to be attempting to cross.
    Until the only label you apply to authors is that of ‘writer’, I will not accept your artificially constructed boundaries – which appear to me to do no more than increase the number of ways in which we are growing apart.
    A good book is a good book, and shouldn’t have to consider the skin pigment or number of Y chromosomes in the hand that has penned it.

  • fac-n-fic says:

    When I first read Zadie Smith “White Teeth” I only read women authors for a while after that, but in retrospect, I think I was just looking for other authors that was close to her in style–for whatever that’s worth.

    Nice piece. Thanks for writing it.

  • Daniel Riddle Rodriguez says:

    Thank you.

  • Great post, and an important perspective. I say this a white cis-male not because I feel personally dissed or excluded by titles like Bradford — I’m all too aware of the privileges I get to accrue in our particular society — but because advocating for exclusion just feels contrary and intellectually lazy. Rather, as Einstein says, the important thing is to go outside our comfort zone and seek out–in a sustained way–voices different than our.

  • Matt says:

    It can be a little hard to tell. I was a teenager before I learned that Andre Norton was a woman. I was in my 20s before I learned Samuel Delany was black and in my 30s when I learned he was gay. I enjoyed works by Louis Tiptree, Jr before her true identity was revealed. I could go on, but there are a lot of authors who I followed without knowing any details of their personal lives.

  • B.R. Yeager says:

    I am going to be frank: I am surprised and incredibly disappointed by all the support this article has received. It represents an absolute failure to recognize the inordinate value the literary world has placed on white-cis-heterosexual-male writers over those who do not identify as such. For many who belong to marginalized communities or identities, exclusion is the status quo. To state there is “something horrible” about encouraging readers to spend a year away from consuming a demographic that has overwhelmingly dominated the literary world throughout history is sad and a little disgusting. This logic is the same that drives people to whitewash “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter.” We can and should do better than this, instead of scolding those encouraging diverse reading practices.

    • LM says:

      I absolutely agree, and while not surprising it’s incredibly disheartening to see others (including the author) not understand this.

      • B.R. Yeager says:

        You’re right–I feel foolish for being surprised. So much vocal support for this sentiment–it’s just depressing to see the equivalent of “why isn’t there a White History month?” espoused by so many people who should know better. Real ugly.

    • Ann Onymous says:

      If all genders, sexes, races, and sexual orientations are equal, then why discriminate against anyone?

      • broneyyeager says:

        Your question doesn’t make sense, at least in this context. Are you implying that (Western) society frames all genders, races, orientations, etc as being equal? If so, that couldn’t be more incorrect. Do think that reading books by someone who isn’t cis-male, heterosexual and white is an act of discrimination against cis-male, heterosexual and white people? Also incorrect.

      • Thought police says:

        broneyyeager: “Do think that reading books by someone who isn’t cis-male, heterosexual and white is an act of discrimination against cis-male, heterosexual and white people?”

        It is discrimination if you deliberately exclude cis-males, heterosexuals and white people because they are cis-males, heterosexuals and white people. You people use excatly the same rhetoric as racist do: you only see reference groups instead of individuals, and that’s equally dangerous.

    • Gary D says:

      The article explains what is the difference between promoting diversity and alienating people with aggressive rhetorics. Too bad people who think they are being so progressive and liberal use exactly the same methods as the people and they’re fighting against. Double standards at it’s best…

  • Love this. Thank you so much for sharing!

  • […] long the article received criticism, such as this blog post and this one and the comments therein. Many felt that the exclusion of this specific demographic was unfair, as […]

    • dandahan4 says:

      Exclusion of or identifying any demographic reflects on the author of this joke.

      Writing about writing is amusing stuff.

      Read or write but not about writers black, brown or white.

      Most work is in black and white…!

      Satire

      Dandahan4.com

  • tmcgohey says:

    What does “Cis” mean? I’m not familiar with this term.

  • Great post – it kind of limits the pleasure of reading, and makes it something just po-faced, pinched-lipped and WORTHY to exclude. As you say, there is a profound difference between ‘I am only going to read books by….’ and I am NOT going to read books by………….the thinking of the first is an exploration, a widening horizon, the thinking of the second is a shrinking and a narrowing, however widening the intention may be.

    For me, the pleasures of reading are the pleasures of education, of thinking, you know, I have not really read much writing about/from/by… hmm, let’s try, let’s explore. Limitation in reading seems punitive and joyless, whereas to expand, explore, try is a completely different mindset

  • […] Einstein, ‘On Why I Won’t Take Up the Challenge to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors‘ on […]

  • […] Others in the literary world, however, were not so supportive. Some, like Sarah Einstein, Special Projects Editor at Brevity Magazine, took issue with the idea ofexcluding any kind of author for any reason: […]

  • victorcypert says:

    As a gay, white man, I found Bradford’s initial suggestion alarming. It’s a terribly small step from “Do not read white, cisgender, straight, male authors” to “Do not read white, cisgender, male authors” or even “Do not read white, cisgender authors” and then “Do not read cisgender authors.”

    Also, as she holds up her disapproving finger with her ugly frown, she ignored the fact that Neil Gaiman is Jewish and many, MANY Jews do NOT consider themselves white. Technically, Jews are semitic people and many Jews today are quite proud of that distinction.

    Ms. Bradford needs to get a clue about what race and gender really are before she starts giving everyone the stink-eye.

  • Life Outside says:

    Browsing any book store … and any human decides what to read and what not to read .
    How can one reader’s book selections be of any relevance.
    There is no law compelling the selection of reading material
    This is a nonsense issue..

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