If Not Excluding White Male Authors, Then What? + Response to Secular Round Table

If there is anything I’ve learned from the backlash against reading authors who aren’t white men, it is that people have a fairly simplistic view of what equality looks like. According to the commenters who think it’s horrible that I’m taking two years to correct a reading imbalance that has persisted for two decades, including one of the members of The Secular Round Table, I’d be better off and more egalitarian by continuing to read mostly or even only white male authors as long as I never consciously discriminated against or in favor of authors based on their race or gender.

Frankly speaking, I see that as ludicrous. It would be unfair of me, however, to not allow for anyone of that persuasion to proffer an alternative. So here’s your chance, if you think me reading selectively for two years is a bad thing: What ought I do instead?

PrototypeAtheist at The Secular Round Table responded to my Daily Dot op-ed. To respond to his points:

  • The title of my op-ed, “Is it time to stop reading books by white men?”, was not of my choosing. Additionally, the answer to the title that was posited in my piece is not a “Yes, never ever read a thing written by a white men henceforth forevermore.” It’s a lot more nuanced than that.
  • Discriminatory behavior does not have to be conscious to exist. Just because the PrototypeAtheist believes that he does not discriminate against women and/or people of color in his reading does not mean that his reading history will not reflect that bias. It probably does, just like that of most people. That it so reflects a societal, built-in bias that leads to this common outcome, as I discussed in my op-ed. You don’t have to actively discriminate in order to discriminate. Discrimination is a thing that happens as a result of an unfair system.
  • Countering unconscious bias with conscious action is not ironic or hypocritical. It is a recognition of the realities of the situation, which is that we live in a society that is already biased.
  • White male authors’ livelihood will not be significantly harmed by a few people not reading them for a year or two or some people choosing to diversify their reading habits in other ways.
  • That “Affirmative Action” takes away from “deserving” cisgender heterosexual white men in order to give to non-male and/or non-white people based merely on those facts is a frankly disgusting claim. There are non-male and/or non-white people who are just as deserving and just as qualified. Their advancement has been hindered by the systemic as well as unconscious bias that is endemic in our society. I want to be part of that, not reinforcement of the status quo.
  • No one is being forced to do anything. PrototypeAtheist is free to indefinitely read nothing but white male authors if he so chooses. I am choosing differently.
  • Ideally, yes, who the author is as a person won’t matter. We do not live in a world where who you are doesn’t matter, however. Pretending we do and going along with the biases built into the system is not a noble and egalitarian approach, it’s one that reinforces extant biases.
  • For the next two years, I am choosing both books that I would like to read and books that others have recommended to me with a focus on non-male authors this year and non-white authors next year. How that is “vindictive” after twenty full years of mostly reading white male authors, and many years to come that will include many books by white male authors, is beyond me.

As for potential courses of action, here are the possibilities, as well as outcomes, I can see for my reading habits.

Continue Reading Without Anything Resembling Conscious Intent

For twenty years, my reading habits were dictated not by anything as noble as the unbiased, merit-based system some claim it was. I didn’t pick up and examine every single book that exists in the world and then decide, based on its relative merits, whether or not to read it. Instead, what I read was dictated by what I stumbled upon via schoolwork, browsing featured titles at the school and public library, citations within books I’d already read, LibraryThing recommendations for similar books to what I’d already read, mentions made by peers and teachers, NPR specials, and the religious worldviews I held (or, later, lack thereof). In other words, all aspects of my life, chosen or not, influenced what I ended up reading.

If I’d continued to read that way, I’d have been unlikely to change the patterns in my reading. The majority of the authors I’d read would be white male authors, neatly aligning with the biases in society and in the publishing industry. I would have allowed the biases built into society and transmitted to me via various institutions to dictate who I read. Needless to say, this outcome is not the one I’d prefer.

Continue to Read What I Already Was Reading, But with Additions

In this scenario, I would have continued to read what I did as described in the prior scenario, but also would have made an effort to obtain and add in authors who weren’t of the kind I usually read.

This isn’t a bad choice, and one that others have made in lieu of more extreme challenges, but it really wasn’t for me. First off, I already have lots of books by authors who aren’t white men in my reading queue. Secondly, since my spare time is limited and I can be a stubborn creature of habit when overwhelmed, I’d likely default to familiar authors instead of the ones I’d added, making the reading a chore instead of a pleasure. Lastly, I have full, free reign over what I read (I’m not in school nor am I currently part of any sort of reading group), so I am not in any way obligated to make exceptions for any reason.

I’d imagine that, if I were to go with this choice, I’d read a few authors outside my usual but not many.

Read Selectively for a Short While

In this scenario, I would spend a year reading non-male authors and a year reading non-white authors exclusively. This is the path I have chosen that has led to the controversy at hand.

The short-term outcome I see is that I will expose myself to new authors and acquire new favorites, but also fall behind on some of my favorite white male authors. In the long term, I will automatically read more diverse authors thanks to the jump-start from 2015 and 2016; I won’t have to exclude white male authors to read authors who don’t fall into that group.

If Not Excluding White Male Authors, Then What? + Response to Secular Round Table

22 thoughts on “If Not Excluding White Male Authors, Then What? + Response to Secular Round Table

  1. 1

    I’m starting to think of a formulaic version of number 2 for myself (not for you; I encourage your current plan). The idea would be to set a requirement–for every white author I read, I must read a non-white author NEXT. For every male author I read, I must read a female author NEXT. If I read a white male author, I must either NEXT read a book by a woman or non-binary person of color, or two books, one for each half of the equation.

    The NEXT is important, which is why I’m stressing it. No attempt to create a vague feeling of equality or relying on my own sense of balance (statistically, as a person of multiple privileges, I know damned well I’m likely to perceive balance where there is none, just by a token effort). I just need to compile a solid list of NEXT authors, first.

  2. 2

    I don’t know. I can’t understand getting all riled up about your reading choices. If you had decided to read only fiction, ‘look at all this wonderful nonfiction your missing’ or maybe you had decided to only go with nonfiction ‘look at all this wonderful fiction you will me missing’ I think it is awesome you are have decided in an area you want to focus more on. good on you for narrowing your focus.

  3. 4

    I wasn’t thinking to comment, until I read through your links, and comments therewards.

    The only thing I’m able to write down now is “why even read white male authors?”.

    Just kidding, there are surely a few white males worth reading afterall. If you think about it though, the asymetries involved in all aspects of the process of writing and eventually being published, it makes it way more probable that a piece of literature from a non-white non-male writer is actually of better quality, just because the steepest selective processes render the talent pools completely different and largely decreasing selectivity in the white male pool.

    My own sample, though quite biased itself, certainly is going this way.

    On another side of such kind of discussion, let’s make a paralell with music. You can certainly have the same record for a challenge and one very quickly sees how it does not change anything for anybody anyway anyhow anytime (and even anywhere). You could well rock over non-white non-male musicians, and even if you’ll be lose on Beattles beats you’ll also be spared some of the very worse (no mention of crap for the sake of respecting undeserving non-diversity πŸ™‚ ).

  4. 5

    People are so–naive is too innocent a word–so ignorant about how their choices are formed. It’s like they really believe that this:

    the unbiased, merit-based system….I…pick up and examine every single book that exists in the world and then decide, based on its relative merits, whether or not to read it.

    –is the way they choose what to read; the way people should choose what to read. As if it were even possible. As if even if it were, there didn’t already exist in the world more good books than any one person can read, so why not read the ones not-by-white-men for a change?

    Anyway, my point: human choice is never purely rational, and if you think your choice to read white manly male authors is unbiased, here are a couple of white male authors you need to read: Daniel Kahneman, Leonard Mlodinow.

  5. 6

    This is an attempt to answer your question ‘What ought I do instead?’ I don’t actually have a problem with what you’re doing, but my reading was pretty diverse in a natural way, and as a result of the previous discussion I started trying to figure out why.

    As a practical example, when I was going to visit the US, where you live, it was automatic that I wanted to read about the place. And it was automatic that I considered the field as a whole. I literally sat down and thought about the demographics of the US, and the most prominent works from each group and which ones I would enjoy – and those prominent works led me to less prominent ones I probably enjoyed more. For me, the process included white American culture, which is a foreign culture to me, but also Hispanic, African-American, Native-American, etc…. But I never thought about why I did it that way. It was an automatic, virtually a reflex procedure to me. And it’s a behavior pattern which applies to all the other places I visited, and gender and sexuality and so on.

    But think of it like this – if I suddenly became interested in SF and wanted to get a grounding in the classics, who would criticize me for researching them, making a list, and taking a few months/years to read through it? If I wanted a grounding in what the many people who live in this world have to say about life, wouldn’t I do the same thing? Note that this is a slightly different project from saying ‘I won’t read books by white men’ for two years. It involves a different kind of positive selection process.

    After a while though, it becomes almost automatic, because once you get on that wagon, you’re in a world where the authors and readers reference each other, and all those sites which tend to suggest books to you, suggest ‘similar’ books. It’s possible that the reason you’re not there already is that you need jump-starting, so your 2-year method may a good enough one. But make sure to pick books you’re genuinely interested in, not books you think you should read, because the internet will be trying to feed you similar books for the rest of your natural.

    Let the project be passion-led, rather than straight-white-male avoidant.

    There… I could have summarized this whole essay in that one sentence.

    The last thing I will say is that the books by straight white males I do read are spaced out enough – and varied enough, actually, that it’s possible for me to appreciate those particular qualities and voices in their own right, rather than as just the background default. And of course, many of them are very good, and well worth reading, and I think it’s worth gaining a bit of distance on them, the better to appreciate them.

  6. 7

    if you think me reading selectively for two years is a bad thing: What ought I do instead?

    I’d read whatever I’m interested in, and consider the author’s gender and cultural perspective as part of understanding the book. And, yeah, if I felt I had been reading too many dead white wasps, I’d feel perfectly reasonable preferring something else. Who the fuck’s business is that but yours? Granted, you might miss something good from one of the authors you’re overlooking but … so what? With the amount of good stuff there is out there to read it’s a certainty you’ll miss something no matter what, even if you spend every day of the rest of your life reading. Taken from that point of view, I wouldn’t say I am “excluding” anything, I’m just reshuffling the order of my “to read” list.

  7. 8

    addendum: I go through phases where I read sci-fi, other times novels, other times “fine literature” sometimes history and biography and other times technical books. Because I read for my own edification, I feel no qualms about what I read and when and why. I don’t see it as a moral issue. I also wouldn’t see my failure to be reading history while I am in a sci-fi reading frame of mind as a moral issue. I suppose if you made not wanting to read more of something you’d read too much of (stuff by dead white wasps?) into a moral issue, then you’ve got to confront moral questions — but if you simply treat the whole problem as a question of your personal aesthetics (shrug) who can say anything about that?

  8. 9

    if I suddenly became interested in SF and wanted to get a grounding in the classics, who would criticize me for researching them, making a list, and taking a few months/years to read through it?

    “Criticize” is maybe too strong a word but I’d wonder why you cared, if your object was reading for pleasure. Unless you were studying sci-fi for some reason and wanted to – what – impress people with your thorough knowledge of the sci-fi classics – what’s the point? Why take it so seriously?

    Certainly, if one were making a study of a topic, such as the history of The Diet of Worms (picked out of a hat) then you’d want to cross-check references, look for original sources, try for completeness, opposing interpretations, etc. But that’s if you’re trying to be a professional or an amateur acting like a professional. There’s a difference between reading for pleasure and studying a field. (If I were going to try to write SF, then of course I’d be studying all the Hugo winners and working my way backward from there, simply because, like in history, or philosophy, you don’t want to look foolish by presenting an idea as new that has already been thoroughly exhausted or owned by one proponent or another. Ditto science.)

    1. 9.1

      This is kind of amusing because I think we’ve sort of been here before Marcus. The answer is that this is just how I do what I do, it’s inherent to me. Like some people are inherently tidy and some are not. Maybe. I’m an automatically analytical, systematic kind of person on lots of levels. It’s just me. I don’t ‘take pleasure’ unless I’m doing things in that kind of way. And I don’t have a clear distinction between my professional and private lives when it comes to studying culture. I am trying to write SF as it happens. I’m also a cultural historian, world traveler and person of miscellaneous cultural backgrounds. It all just blends together. But whatever it is anyone else wants to do and how they want to do it is also fine.

      If anything, I would say some of the resistance to this No-White-Males project comes from the fact that it expresses itself as a negative. It’s just a matter of words then… but the All-Women-POC-LGBT-Other? challenge sounds unwieldy.

  9. 10

    I went through a period of reading “great literature” (i.e. the stuff that was typically required reading) in order to better understand the roots of the literature I enjoy today, as part of a process that increased my pleasure in my reading. Most of it was enjoyable on its own terms anyway; rebellious students to the contrary, very few books end up on the regular “canon” list because they’re intrinsically boring. (Fashions in writing style do change though, and readers in bygone times were often more patient than today’s, myself included.)
    It seems to me that what Heina is doing is a similar thing, only rather than purposefully looking at what is included she’s looking at what is excluded, so as to get some parallax. I’ve done somewhat similar things before myself, albeit not in such a conscious way; for example, I spent a year reading almost exclusively contemporary Russian novels (in translation) and feel I got a lot out of occupying that foreign headspace for a time.
    Heina is looking at categories of writers who aren’t actually foreign but are in a sense treated that way by the inherent bias of the US literary marketplace toward white male authors. Unlike me, she’s doing it on purpose rather than happening to follow an accidental line of interest. It’s an interesting experiment and I’m looking forward to hearing what Heina takes away from it.

    1. xyz

      This is a perfect analogy to Heina’s project, and the only reason some are up in arms about it is that it feels “discriminatory” when it’s really just balancing the scales. I also don’t remember any criticism back when I became obsessed with the American Civil War and Reconstruction when I read 5 books about it, devoured the NYT “Disunion” series and listened to David Blight’s open yale course about it.

  10. 11

    One of the best courses I had in college was a political science course of reading African literature. We read books by authors from Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa and Zimbabwe. It was a great way of learning about other countries and cultures and other perspectives.

  11. 12

    Oooh, I’m gonna so run with that list. I’m happy that at least a couple are already on my shelves. I think I’ve got more work to do on the non-white than the non-male axis, at this point.

  12. 13

    Countering unconscious bias with conscious action is not ironic or hypocritical. It is a recognition of the realities of the situation, which is that we live in a society that is already biased.

    The people making this claim of hypocrisy really bug me. It’s so fucking simple. If I have been stacking weights randomly on a set of scales without paying much attention, it may well turn out that the weights are lopsided. If for some reason it is desirous for the weights to be balanced, it follows that I’m going to have to pay attention to the underrepresented side.

    This analogy also applies to pretty much any example of unconscious, systematic bias: balancing things will always require adding to the underrepresented side, or subtracting from the overrepresented side, or some combination. Of course, sceptics whose interests are not served by this redressing effort tend to get offended, which is then expressed in the form of idiotic whining.

  13. 14

    On a second thought, the music parallel may not be the best parallel: when someone would speak about it, the music ‘challenge’ would certainly results into greater overall musical appreciation (like, “well, I did not know about themself/selves”) and actually also be enriching to others.

    In the lit. ‘challenge’, I feel like (and therefore may be wrong but still) this would not lead to someone having more willingness to get out of the common author pool. Therefore the ‘challenge’ is probably more than necessary.

  14. 15

    Looking back at your original post I think you’re structuring this 2 year endeavour on a false dichotomy. You’ve posited two possibilities for the previous focus on white male authors:

    1. An unconscious bias that disposes you to white male authors

    2. A paucity of good reading material written by women and/or people of colour.

    Either of these could be true, but off the top of my head I can think of others. For example :

    A. Unconscious ( or conscious ) institutional bias. Perhaps the reading lists assigned by your lecturers/professors/tutors were predominantly composed of white men ( for philosophy this is, as you seem to agree, a given ) .

    B. Disproportionate representation of men in certain academic fields. STEM for instance. In such cases it’s hardly surprising that pre-eminent authors on related works are male.

    C. You have no such bias which favourably disposes you towards white, male authors.

    D. You’re an English speaker. Presuming this is the your first language and the format you prefer to read in, your selection comprises a corpus written in the Anglosphere, which is predominantly white and, historically, male dominated.

    I don’t disagree too much with what you’re proposing, and in fact it’s analogous, I suppose, to situations in which I try to buy secondhand video games from an independent retailer here, rather than online. If I choose the latter option, it would be an economically sound decision; however, I do like supporting small local businesses, who are at a disadvantage against cheaper online retailers. However, in this case, I think you’re tethering yourself unnecessarily to factors which, in my opinion, should have little to no bearing on one’s selection of reading material. I’ve no doubt that there many excellent non-white, non-male authors, and although my reading list is probably similarly skewed, my favourite author ( or perhaps joint, sharing that accolade with some 19th/early 20th century white dudes πŸ˜› ) is Haruki Murakami. I don’t think you’ve provided compelling evidence though that the genesis of your assymmetry is a personal bias on your part. Maybe you’ve come up with alternatives to the dichotomy posited in your previous post, but it appears to me that you’re assigning causes that perhaps are non-existent, or rather might exist in conjunction with other factors.

    Looking at information provided in your initial post on this subject, in addition to including some basic historical facts and observations of the contemporary literary landscape, I think it’s very possible to construct a narrative here which doesn’t evolve from implicit bias.

    Firstly, at least on a conscious level, you admit paying no attention to ethnicity and gender with regard to book selection, choosing your reading material on the basis of interest and, with regard to college, ease. ( I can readily identify with the latter πŸ˜› )

    “The short answer is that I paid no attention to gender or race in my reading, and not caring is a recipe for bias in a world riddled with inequality.”

    In my opinion, you’re already clearly working off a non-discriminatory paradigm, excluding individual attributes which are contextually irrelevant ( exceptions for commentaries on gender and race of course ). Absent evidence that you’re subject to implicit bias here, why should you pay attention to race or gender ?

    Secondly, with regard to the literature relating to the preferred part of your degree, philosophy, you provide a non-discriminatory explanation for the assymetry.

    “As for the Philosophy courses, to call the better-loved of my two majors β€œan extensive overview of white male thought” would be rather generous towards it.”

    Philosophy is a male dominated discipline, and has always been so historically; as such, it’s unsurprising that, in this particular genre, you’re reading has been skewed towards male authors. The same argument could be offered, however, for many other fields which are primarily male in composition, such as most STEM categories. It’s reasonable to speculate that for academic disciplines in which men are more numerous, pre-eminent authors whose works are chosen for publication will be male.

    Presumably you’re reading corpus is primarily in English, and while plenty of works by linguistically diverse authors are translated, they represent only a fraction of the material available. The Anglosphere is predominantly white; men still dominate many of its academic fields and on the tentative evidence I’ve seen there are more male authors than female in general. And of course it’s not simply a case of contemporaneous asymmetry. Historically, men have been the default writers in every literary field. For example, my primary academic interest is Greek and Roman classical civilisation. Pretty much all of the primary sources, from the histories of Thucydides and Tacitus, to the poetry of Homer and Ovid, to the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, are male authored. It’s impossible to study ancient writers with any sort of gender parity. I haven’t been able to find any information about gender composition of secondary source material, but looking at my bookshelf the only female author I can see is Mary Beard, and I’d imagine that like so many other fields, the Classics are dominated by male authors.

    I can understand if you’d like to promote authors who you feel are being neglected because of their sex and/or ethnicity, but is your rationale that they’re producing works which are superior to, or at least on par with, those of the white males you’re choosing to temporarily ignore ? If that’s the case I’d consider following your lead ( though not to the same extent :P) making some alterations myself; on the other hand, if you’re choosing to engage with authors who aren’t as proficient, and in the case of academic material as knowledgeable , then I’d generally disagree with your endeavour, as that would be subordinating quality in a context where I don’t see egalitarianism as necessary. Ultimately, I read academic material to expand my understanding of various subjects, and fiction purely for pleasure. I have limited time and thus want access to books which serve the aforementioned purposes most effectively. Gender/race asymmetry isn’t in itself problematic in my view, but publishers/learning institutions discriminating is. Even here however there are caveats; publishing houses are businesses after all, and if they observe that books by certain authors are going to sell better, well, they’re going to gravitate towards those authors. That may exacerbate the asymmetry, but I don’t think I’d call that discrimination on their part.

    Why do you ( seemingly ) believe it’s necessary that there be gender parity in literature ? Why not aim to confront explicit/implicit bias in academia, the education system ( pre-school right through to third level institutions ) and the publishing industry, and after that accept whatever composition arises in each literary field ?

    Back to my original point though, I don’t think you’ve made a convincing case for bias on your part or, said otherwise, I think you’re being too hard on yourself, and gravitating towards a worst case scenario πŸ˜›

    1. 15.1

      Why not aim to confront explicit/implicit bias in academia, the education system ( pre-school right through to third level institutions ) and the publishing industry, and after that accept whatever composition arises in each literary field ?

      I have no power to do so. I’m doing what’s within my power to enact small changes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *