I Stopped Reading Books by Privileged White Men and Have No Plans to Start Again

I think I owe it to myself — and to all writers who are not straight, cis white men.
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Publish date:
June 13, 2016
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reading, book challenges, xoBooks

In 2015, when I read K.T. Bradford's excellent piece that outlined her challenge to stop reading "white, straight, cis, male authors for one year," was immediately intrigued, and hopped on board. Over a year later, however, I realized Bradford's wasn't just an interesting idea, but the best freaking idea I'd come across in a long time. I have now extended the length of the experiment and have no intention of opening a book by a straight, white cis man any time soon.

Like most people, I grew up reading books by cis, straight white guys. To be fair, there's a lot of good stuff written by people who fit into that privileged description. In fact, my favourite book in high school was Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. I enjoyed its dark tone, and how it was ultimately balanced by a happy ending where Pip finally gets the girl – only years after he initially wanted her. I loved the romance of a man not fetishizing a woman for her youth and beauty, but continuing to love her years later, after time and a difficult marriage have erased the first dewy blush of her youth with world-weary and wise womanhood.

I love that message to this very day, but I'm done reading Dickens.

In my second year of university, I took an entire course on William Shakespeare. The fact that my university had a full-year literature course on Shakespeare, but not one on Collette, Toni Morrison, The Brontes, Maya Angelou, Jane Austen, Truman Capote, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, still pisses me off. By the time I was 20, I had been assigned every history play Shakespeare ever wrote, but I had yet to take a class that put Alice Walker or Margaret Laurence on the syllabus.

Don't get me wrong, I was assigned books that were written by people who weren't born with white penises. For example, in what Americans would call my sophomore year of university, I was assigned Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe's masterpiece about Okonkwo, a local Nigerian wrestling champion; however, at that point I had already been asked to read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness twice. In case you're not familiar with it, Heart of Darkness is a horrifically racist novel about travelling through what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the time of Belgian colonialism. In this text, Conrad likens the indigenous population to dogs, and routinely refers to them as "savage." I got its shitty message about white male superiority the first time, and I'm pretty sure I didn't need to be exposed to it again.

The truth is, I do not blame the high school or university teachers who assigned me so many texts by white people with dicks. It's not like we only read books written by straight, cisgender white men, but they were definitely over-represented. Having said that, I know my excellent educators were just trying to prepare me for a world that wouldn't consider me well read if I hadn't read Hemingway and Thomas Hardy. They also did their best to help us students arrive at nuanced, anti-racist, and frequently feminist analyses of such texts. Plus, most of them were good books. In many cases, they were considered "classics." The truth that all my teachers wanted was for my fellow students and me to go out into the world and be considered "educated."

Now that I'm 30, I've spent countless hours of my life reading and rereading books by white men. I found not reading books by straight, cis, white male writers for one whole year was a great start; however, it was not enough to even things out. With the number of John Donne sonnets and god-awful Rudyard Kipling poems I was instructed to read in my youth, I have at least a couple of decades worth of catching up to do. The truth is, I don't have time to read books by cis, straight white men anymore. I've spent a disproportionate amount of my reading time on them already, and now it's time to explore something else.

I alone cannot change the unfairness of the canon being overwhelmingly dominated by white guys who sleep with girls. I also cannot change the fact that I spent so much of the first three decades of my life reading straight, white, cis male voices, and spending comparatively little time on others. However, I have realized that I can change what I read going forward. In light of this, I think I owe it to myself — and all writers who are not straight, cis white men — to devote at least a couple of decades, and maybe even the rest of my life, to correcting that imbalance.

It's not that I don't think straight, cisgender white men have anything valuable to say or interesting stories to tell. It's just that my life has given me ample opportunity to hear their opinions and get to know their literary voices. I read F. Scott Fitzgerald in university, but I've never read Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife he forced into an asylum, and whose diaries he allegedly plagiarized for his novels. While I'd be super keen to retire a few decades early and just read books at my local beach all day, I know I can't. I have a limited amount of time to read and I need to make priorities.

It's also not that I want to discriminate against privileged white guys. It's not that I hate them or think they have nothing interesting to say. I can appreciate the brilliance of Anna Karenina or 1984. I understand how influential Emma Bovary was for raising awareness about how much even middle-class women's lives sucked in 1850's France. It's just that I think this demographic isn't the only one with something to say. I'm ready to immerse myself in historically marginalized literary perspectives.

Now that you know my reasons for reshaping my reading habits, you may ask, "But Sarah, do you feel bad about how you'll likely miss out on some fabulous books by implementing this policy in your reading life? I mean, you haven't even read Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle."

My answer? "No, I do not feel the least bit bad."

There are still more than enough people giving these dude-writers their literary love. I'm willing to bet your local library has way more copies of Salinger's Catcher in the Rye than Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. As a lover of books, I know there are more than enough brilliant pieces of literature by individuals who do not fall into the narrow category of straight, cis white male authors. Furthermore, I've read a lot of those uber privileged writers already, but devotees to the Western Canon are missing out on some fabulous authors by devoting so much energy to dead white guys.

The way I look at it, I only have one life, and so I will never be able to read all the world's great books, no matter how much I may want to. In light of this, I want to prioritize authors the canon has not historically highlighted. I resist the notion that being well read should mean focusing on books critics thought were essential before women had the right to vote, or back when Jim Crow laws were still in place and homosexuality was a crime.

In 2016, so much of our world is still dominated by white male perspectives. When I turn on the news here in Canada, I see Justin Trudeau, the leader of my country, who is a straight, cisgender white male. When I walk down the street, cis white men feel emboldened to catcall at me or tell me that I should smile more, whichever they see fit. I have yet to find a way to keep the perspectives of cisgender white men from having such a disproportionate influence on my daily life; however, in my literary life, I'm ready for new points of view. I'm ready to spend at least a few decades learning what other people think. The personal is political, and I believe that extends to my bookshelf. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some Wayson Choy to read.