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.”

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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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