Or at least avoiding books written by them
It’s a straight white man’s world and there’s no shortage of content produced by and for that demographic. Despite not being how the majority of people identify (at least in my home country, Canada, where about a third of respondents identified as racialised minorities in the most recent census and men make up slightly less than half of the total population), it would be pretty easy to watch, read, listen to nothing but straight white men!
My biggest motivator for seeking out non-white, non-straight, non-male authors (that’s a lot of nons!) is the continued dominance of media and artistic spaces by this group of bros. A disproportionate number of authors, journalists, actors, directors, writers, artists, and musicians come from the same dominant hegemony: heterosexual, caucasian, male and mostly unaware of their privilege.
This doesn’t mean that straight white men have nothing valuable to say, just that we hear only their perspectives far too often and have for centuries. The glorious diversity of human experience cannot be represented by these privileged few and, all too often, Western culture treats their voices as the only valid ones.
An example from an unlikely space
I founded a book-ish club called The Literati to create a forum to talk about the glittering world of literature around a theme, rather than centred on a specific work like a traditional book club. The bi-monthly-ish meetings are great for encountering a wide range of materials that we might not otherwise stumble across, but, despite having only female participants thus far, the works we discuss are overwhelmingly by male authors.
For example, at a recent meeting of The Literati, I asked the seven women present to mention a favourite author during their introduction. The group named four white straight-identified men (John Steinbeck, Dan Simmons, Tennessee Williams, and Hermann Hesse), one hetero Japanese man (Haruki Murakami), two white gay men (Oscar Wilde and David Sedaris) and two white, straight women (Audrey Niffenegger and Margaret Atwood).
Not a lot of diversity (around 70% men) and certainly not a mirror of the participants (a couple people named more than one author, giving us more recommendations than attendees). I’m not knocking the attendees or suggesting that we all strip all male authors from our reading lists, but I am pointing out that the environment surrounding us heavily contributes to our determinations about what is valuable and meaningful.
Representation equals ‘regular’
If all we read or see is well-developed male characters alongside token female ones with limited agency and lengthy descriptions of their attractiveness, it becomes way too easy to accept the legitimacy of the straight white male voice. If that’s the accepted norm, why question the relative lack of authors (and protagonists) who represent the diversity of the population?
Male authors make up the majority of my reading history (based on a non-scientific scan of my Goodreads list). And while male authors can and do write female main characters, they typically don’t—and when they do the results are pretty mixed as Michele Willens highlights in The Atlantic. Reading books with predominantly male characters likely makes me more inclined to view men as the primary actors in any story, whether in print or in real life. The literature I’ve read is far more likely to show men (most often straight and white) making decisions, having an impact, and getting what they want. (And it’s arguably even worse in film.) Heroes are usually men, so that becomes the norm; women are supporting characters or non-existent. Because their stories are the ones I hear most often, men are interesting and worthy. This marginalisation of other voices plants the idea that narratives driven by women are not valid, deserving, or important.
Not engaging with meaningful characters who are women, LGBTQ+, or BIPOC sends my subconscious the message that they either don’t exist or are not worthy of reading about. Erasing the majority of people on the planet from literature makes it harder for me to understand and empathise with anyone whose identity diverges from the ‘regular’ straight white man. And that’s not right.
Just like racism can’t be defeated through reading lists, sexism and misogyny won’t go away based on our bookshelves. Reading a diversity of voices will, however, help normalise that the straight white male viewpoint I’ve been fed for so long is not the only experience. Straight white men are not the benchmark.
A slowly changing curriculum
Unfortunately, I can’t entirely rule out reading straight white men. I’m taking a creative writing course through a historically white men-dominated English university (isn’t that pretty much all of them?) and there are a lot of dead white guys on the reading list. The curriculum includes a greater proportion of women authors that I expected, perhaps because the course was developed by a woman, but there’s no denying that the Western literary canon revolves around men.
The ‘man as self-possessed centre-of-the-world’ concept has seeped into my own writing, too. While doing a first-read of a story I wrote for the course, my husband pointed out that I had written a minor male character as level-headed and one of the lead female characters as almost hysterical. The difference in my approach to Mark and Lisa had crept in without my realising it. I defaulted to the norm I’m used to from reading.
By being aware of the potential for bias and expanding my reading horizons, I hope to be able to re-centre and strengthen the women, LGBTQ+, or BIPOC characters I create in my own work. Broadening my reading lists with a specific eye to Black, Indigenous, Asian, LGBTQ+, and women writers can only expand my sense of perspective. Not only does that open my reading universe to more interesting worlds (even if only by steering me away from James Joyce and Herman Melville), but might also increase my understanding and empathy.
Flipping the script
Trading Octavia Butler and NK Jesamin for Orson Scott Card and HP Lovecraft (both men with notably prejudicial views) won’t stop sci-fi media coverage being dominated by men (as this Guardian article outlines) or reverse decades of SWM-dominated reading, but it will help normalise BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and women protagonists in my subconscious. My ultimate aim is to train my brain not to think of straight white men as normal and everyone else as abnormal.
Collectively, people who identify as women, LGBTQ+, and/or BIPOC make up more of the population than straight white men. We are not the minority in real life, why would I want my reading life to be any different?
Straight white male authors have had their heyday in my library, it’s time for other voices to take over.
This post was originally published via community builder Monica Moldovan’s website on March 15, 2021.