Five Things People Said To Me about Not Reading White Dudes This Year… plus two confessions and one tangent
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Canon
1. “So you’re reading a lot of Toni Morrison? ”
Don’t get me wrong, I love everything about Toni Morrison, but I also love the way Tiphanie Yanique gets both magical realism and historical fiction into her Caribbean setting in Land of Love and Drowning and Roxanne Gay’s tough-vulnerable writing, like starting Ayiti, her loveletter to Haiti, with a brutal 500-word story called “Motherfuckers.” I love the way Tayari Jones treats all of her characters with such tenderness on the page, even, and maybe especially, the assholes in An American Marriage. Those are only a few of the amazing books by black women that came out in the last year.
The way Tommy Orange kept 12 narrators distinct and interconnected in There, There. How Theresa Mailhot broke my heart in Heartberries and then told us despair is for the privileged. Those are just two American Indian writers who published incredible books last summer.
I’ve spent the past six months just trying to read all of the writers from the Caribbean I somehow missed out on. I’ve spent my year reading Korean writers and Japanese writers and indigenous writers from around the world. I’ve read plays from Mexico, short story collections from Africa, and poetry from Peru. There is no scarcity here.
“Sunk in the grass of an empty lot on a spring Saturday, I split the stems of milkweed and thought about ants and peach pits and death and where the world went when I closed my eyes.”
― Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
2. “But what about Hemingway (or Edward Abbey or Bukowski or Hunter S. or insert the name of some must-read, hyper masculine white dude here)? And what about Shakespeare?”
First of all, I already read that shit. Why would I need to keep reading it?
Second of all, Fuck Shakespeare. I know, lit professors can’t say that. But what if you took a bunch of Shakespeare scholars to an Outkast concert and asked them to write essays about it, in the form of hip-hop songs? Shakespeare is just one thing, he’s not everything.
When people get all upset about Shakespeare it makes me want to talk about Longfellow. At one point, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the most anthologized, beloved, canonized of all American writers. When his poetry fell by the wayside as the age of modernism made his writing look like silly romantic drivel, people probably mourned.
But the beauty of the canon is that it is a shifting squirming metamorphosis of understanding that dies and is reborn every time we question it.
I have obsessed about the canon for my entire adult life (these are the things that keep a lit professor up at night), and right now it is exploding in a way that will shift our understanding of literature for the next 100 years. Watch it while it changes. There is no better time to be a reader.
“Baby boy you only funky as your last cut / You focus on the past / your ass’ll be a has what“ — Andre 3000, “Rosa Parks”
3. “Don’t you miss good writing? Or it’s not my fault this anthology is all white people, there’s just no good writing out there by people of color [especially in this genre].”
What if the things we think we know about the aesthetics of literature was taught to us by white men?
What if white men owned the publication industry and over the historical span of publication spent 99% of their resources only publishing other wealthy white men?
What if you had to look just a little harder to see how much diversity of writing there is under the white men, who tend to float to the surface?
What if there are other ways to tell a narrative than by using the pattern of male orgasm (come on, it’s not that much of a stretch, with the “climax” of the story shaped by tension and release)?
What if one of the reasons we’ve been seeing so many fractured, multiple narratives is because people are sick of one white guy’s version of things?
What if we were taught to read white men, by white men, in books edited and published by white men? And then those works were later anthologized by white men, who then sold them to white men who taught other white men to teach white men?
What if everything we think we know about literature is shaped by that?
“There should be a word for this, the way it feels to steal something that’s already yours.” ― Tayari Jones, An American Marriage.
4. “Well, I wouldn’t want a professor who just changed what we read based on her personal feelings about other writers.”
Every time a teacher chooses to teach one writer, they choose to not teach the other writers.
Every time you choose to read a book to your kid, you choose not to read all the other books.
That’s the canon.
Where the books get shelved. How readers spend their money. Who gets called “literature.” What books receive reviews in which publications.
Every active decision you make about what you read and every decision you passively don’t make about what to read is the canon.
I teach Intro to Literature to community college students. Many, even most of my students have zero investment in literature coming into my class. This may be the most reading they do in their entire adult lives. I spend a lot of time thinking about that. I lay in bed, wondering how many writers I can reasonably expose students to in 15 weeks.
The truth is there are only so many days in a semester, only so many pages in an anthology, only so many minutes to sit with your child in your lap, reading them the books that shape their neural pathways.
“And he found something sticking out of the snow that made a new track.” ―Ezra Jack Keats, The Snowy Day.
5. “I would read women, but I just can’t engage.”
Here are just a few of the terms used over the centuries to denigrate women’s writing: regional, domestic, mommy poetry, local color, little, hysterical, angry, romance, chick-lit, confessional, sentimental, family dramas. Note that novella is in the feminine form, meaning a small novel.
When people say they can’t engage with female writers, it’s because they don’t care about women. This is probably a bigger issue than one’s reading list, but it’s not a bad place to start.
“Books are often far more than just books.” ― Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist: Essays
Two confessions: (Remember, women write confessions, men write literature.)
My first confession: 2018 is actually my second consecutive year of not reading white dudes. In 2017, I used it more as a guideline and didn’t talk about it much.
In 2018, I took it seriously and I talked about it a lot. Because people’s reactions became interesting to me. Some would uncomfortably giggle, some would say nothing and shrug, many were so far ahead of me that they were like, “duh. I haven’t read a white dude since my high school teacher crammed Catcher in the Rye down my throat a decade ago.”
But there was another reaction, an almost exclusively white male “all books matter” kind of angry entitlement that caused some men to scream at me in bars, or to loudly explain to me all the things I didn’t understand about literature.
Two years in, I’ll admit there are a few white dudes I’ve been missing, compassionate unique voices like George Saunders. Writer friends came out with books this year that I had to buy and will probably read, poets handed me random books in coffee houses and I cracked them open. I read articles, and essays, and short stories online in the freeform way the interwebs took me, but mostly I was pretty strict about not reading books by nor spending money on white dudes. Which leads me to…
Confession #2: I only seriously cheated once, and I re-read Game of Thrones. I didn’t purchase it because I already owned it, but it was still cheating. I was addicted. Waiting, waiting for it to come back on HBO, I broke.
What shocked me on the reread is everything I didn’t see the first time I read it, when I was so saturated with white male narratives that I never noticed how rapey and racist GOT is on almost every single page.
“But strong female characters” the GOT fans are internally shouting. It doesn’t change the way male gaze runs the book and the way women, even the most powerful ones, are threatened with rape as conquest, rape as punishment, rape as jest.
The ingrained racism in the writing is even worse. White is the default color so all characters are white unless specifically described otherwise and those descriptions are painful to read.
Black characters are mostly slaves or pirates or barbarians who, and I shit you not, this is the actual plot line, they love white, white, so-white-even-her-hair-is-white savior queen Daenerys so much that even after she frees them from slavery they are happy to stick around and serve her and call her “Mother.”
What I’m saying is, I read the whole series before and mostly enjoyed it. At least the issues I had with it the first read had more to do with repetitive sentence structures than the way women and people of color were written on the page. I should have noticed that stuff, but I didn’t see it. Because dragons. Because patriarchy.
But not reading white dudes for 2 years reset my brain so that I can no longer enjoy writing that celebrates colonialism and dicks.
A tangent: What I realized when I gave up white dudes is how much white culture has dominated my experience. I find myself asking questions like, “is rock n roll mostly just white dudes who weren’t funky enough for Motown?”
And, wait, “Is Dr. Seuss racist?” I had to stop reading Green Eggs and Ham because that book is rapey as hell. Re-read it and think about #metoo and permission and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Then I started looking more closely at my kid’s bookshelf and, yes a lot of those characters are animals or weird Seussian creatures, but somehow they are all male and they are all white as hell too.
Sex in the City: four white ladies fuck white guys almost exclusively in a nearly white version of NYC. Lena Dunham’s Girls updates this model, but keeps the almost exclusive whiteness. I’ve been to NYC so I know it’s not all white, but I look around and my own neighborhood is extra white, and I’m not quite sure how that happened.
This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. This isn’t the way I see myself. But I like rock-n-roll, and I like Dr. Seuss and God Help Me, I have liked Girls and Sex in the City and going to museums with stolen art that definitely should never hang on white walls.
That’s why I don’t think I’ll read white dudes next year either, at least not as the rule. White dudes as the exception, from here on out, I think.
I’ve read enough of the mono-narratives of white men grappling with their existential angst while fondling something phallic like a fishing pole or a gun.
If you’re, white, I bet you have too.