Why I don’t read white men’s books anymore

Novels have been controlled and banned since they first appeared on the scene. And yet the majority of people in the world today probably do not view reading as a political act. Whenever I see lists like “most banned books of 2018” it reminds me that people still fear the power of words. It makes me grateful to live somewhere where a “banned books” list doesn’t mean books are really out of reach. Books are just one of many tools used to spread information and views, and that’s a powerful thing.

I know I wasn’t the only one in the aftermath of the 2016 election who felt the desire to do something, anything to protest the results. In the days, weeks and months following the election, many people made lists of organizations to boycott and began to think of various ways, big and small, to make their displeasure known. Money talks in this country, although we may wish it didn’t, and if companies suddenly start losing a lot of money, it is possible to make them listen.

I am someone who buys a lot of books. I love owning them, but also because I’m on the road all the time, having a library card has been inconvenient. (Some might point out that carrying books on the road isn’t practical either, but to that I say shh). Therefore, I am very careful about the books I buy and I have decided, on an experimental basis, to pay a little more attention to whose books that I bought. I’m usually drawn to books written by women anyway, but I’ve made the choice not to buy books written by white men for a year (at least) because, frankly, they don’t probably didn’t need my money.

It also occurred to me that the majority of the books I was exposed to in school as true “literary” works were written by white men. Think about it. What are the big names everyone is supposed to know by the time they graduate from high school? Dickens, Shakespeare, Hemingway, Twain, Carver, Fitzgerald, Hawthorne, Thoreau (need I go on?) very few women make the list. Of course, there is Mary Shelley, notable for her major contribution and mentioned in the context of her husband. And yes, we can say that these authors mostly come from a different era where fewer women or people of color were allowed to publish. But even those who did, like Austen and the Brontë sisters, though recognized as important, did not follow the program. They were dismissed as more “feminine” works and undeserving of attention.

So, in 2016, I decided enough was enough. I had devoted most of my life to absorbing and reading white men’s works of fiction, and I was no longer going to donate my hard-earned money to help boost their book sales. This choice was my own little version of a protest against a system that seemed inherently biased. Although great progress has been made, there are still countless articles that explain how, despite the fact that women tend to read more than men, men are even more published than women. Most major publishers publish less than 30% female authors. And yes, both men and women tend to prefer someone’s books to them sex, but women also tend to read male authors at a higher percentage than the reverse. (Perhaps because there are simply more books by male authors and we’ve been conditioned to think that men are inherently more literary? Just a thought). And all of this is just the image of men and women, which doesn’t even begin to address the differences of racial inequality.

Luckily, many of the smaller independent bookstores I frequent have made this transition quite smooth by displaying more women’s books and POC front and center (I clearly wasn’t the only one with this idea). It also helped me cut down on the inevitable pile of books I collected as I walked around the store. If I had caught any white man books, I would put them back first before making the really tough decisions. Not only did not buying these books bring me joy, but absorbing different ways of writing and points of view had an active effect on the way I saw the world. I became fascinated with how men from more diverse backgrounds talk about masculinity, fatherhood and how these ideas interact with the modern world. Authors like Mat Johnson or Ta-Nehisi Coates offer a much more nuanced and interesting take on this than, say, Jonathan Franzen.

After about a year of that, I finally picked up a white guy’s book, and found it oddly… disappointing. This book came highly recommended to me by people whom I greatly respect and whom Internet readers greatly appreciate. The main character, a man, was relatively well developed, although he tended to embody the standard male tropes often found in fantasy novels. But the few female characters were all portrayed in terms of their beauty, with very little other supporting information to flesh out their characters and make them look like whole beings. I found the book so flat compared to the rich, layered intricacies of other books I had read that I quickly began to avoid white male authors again.

Now, that doesn’t mean I’ll never read another book by a white male author. I still think it’s important to read from a wide range of different perspectives. But they dominated the first 26 years of my life and probably affected a lot of the ways I see the world as a result. So I’m pretty okay with doing a few decades of counterbalance. It can’t hurt, can it?

About Marcia G. Hussain

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