Earlier this week, K. Tempest Bradford wrote an article encouraging readers to forego books by straight, white, cismale authors for a year, the better to “change the way you read and the way you go about picking things to read”. Bradford is not alone in her approach; as she herself mentions, Sunili Govinnage read only authors of colour in 2014, while Lilit Marcus spent a year reading only books by women. The point of such experiments should be obvious to anyone who’s been paying even a small amount of attention to literary and SFFnal politics over the past few years: thanks to a combination of conscious and unconscious bias, works by straight white men are reviewed more, praised more, promoted more and generally given disproportionate prominence in the literary scene than those by other writers, and as such, it’s easy to miss out on excellent books – to say nothing of contributing to a culture where their authors are routinely dismissed – by never questioning what and who we’re reading.

Enter Laura Resnick, who has missed the point so spectacularly, it’s hard to know where to begin. To quote:

…my reaction to being challenged to give up Straight White Male writers for a year goes like this.

I can’t think of any writers whose names indicate their sexual orientation. Can you? Is there any such thing as a gay/lesbian/transgender name? Or do authors routinely list their sexual orientation in their formal jacket bios?…

Nor does an author’s fiction give the reader a reliable indication of his or her sexual orientation. For example, the New York Times bestselling Lord John novels feature a gay protagonist; the author of his adventures is heterosexual (Diana Gabaldon). There are also gay authors who write straight protagonists. I can think of several current examples, but since I’m not sure how public they are about their sexual orientation, I’ll stick with naming the late E.M. Forster and the (very) late Oscar Wilde.

And even when an author’s photo clearly indicates their gender and racial/ethnic heritage, how often do photos reveal their sexual orientation? (Rarely, if ever, would be my guess.)

And what if there is no photo?

And I just.

OK.

This is one of the stupidest strawman misdirects I’ve ever fucking seen. Christ on a bicycle, Resnick is literally writing this on the goddamn internet while flapping her hands like the internet doesn’t exist; like there’s just no way to learn anything about an author’s identity beyond what’s contained in a physical fucking paperback; like Bradford is really just asking us to stand in a bookstore and guess. Bradford, in fact, doesn’t say anything about how readers should go about determining authorial identity, presumably on the basis that explaining how to Google things might come off as condescending. I mean, look, yes: Resnick is correct to assert that you can’t just assume someone’s race or sexual orientation on the basis of their name or the content of their writing, and that identity is a thing with many facets. Obviously. But Bradford has never claimed otherwise, and acting like there’s literally no easy way to learn these things, the whole enterprise is tragically doomed from the start when you are, as mentioned, actually on the internet, is just a whole new level of derailment.

Because once you get down a few paragraphs, Resnick’s real problem with Bradford’s challenge becomes clear: it’s not that she thinks this information doesn’t exist, but that she can’t be bothered to look it up:

So in order to ensure that I am not reading straight white male authors, I’d have to do far more googling and research on writers than I am willing to do, since my interest is in their fiction rather than in the authors or their personal details. And even if I wanted to go to such effort, some of that information isn’t available without a bizarre intrusion into their privacy, since some writers choose not to discuss various aspects of their lives in interviews and social media.

My god, it’s just so hard.

The way Resnick has it, you’d think that Bradford was exhorting us all to start acting like digital stalkers, as though considering the personhood of the author is necessarily synonymous with needing the author’s details any cost, regardless of time or privacy. I mean, does Resnick even understand the part where this is proposed as a challenge – that is to say, as a call or summons to engage in a contest – rather than a set of hard rules for everyone to adopt, forever and ever, amen? And even if Resnick was minded to accept, it’s hardly a policed event: K. Tempest Bradford isn’t lurking outside her house, machete in hand, ready to barge in and demand an accounting if she accidentally reads a straight dude’s book. The actual point in all of this, which Resnick has stubbornly missed, is to encourage people to read more widely; to engage with perspectives other than their own; and to maybe consider the race, the gender, the sexuality of the authors they read as relevant, given the proven cultural bias towards promoting the works of straight white men over others.

The idea that this approach is somehow inimical to having an interest in the content of a writer’s fiction is the exact opposite of what Bradford and Govinnage are positing: namely, that an author’s real-world identity and experiences are sometimes – though not always – reflected in their works, and that if we’ve defaulted to reading only or predominantly one type of author, then perhaps we’ve defaulted to only or predominantly reading one type of content, too. As such, if we are, as Resnick claims to be, sincerely interested in reading good stories, then ignoring the relationship between author and work – as though every book, like the goddess Athena, is cut fully-formed from the flesh of some oblivious, authorial Zeus – is something we should be wary of doing.

And then it gets worse:

Additionally, apart from having no interest in trying to research writers’ personal information before deciding whether to read their fiction, my reaction to Bradford’s article is that I would have found her argument more effective if phrased in a positive and constructive way, rather than phrased in the negative, counter-productive way she chose—by advising on authors (straight white male) not to read.

Ladies, gentlemen and others of the internet, behold this sterling example of tone policing, aka You Didn’t Discuss Your Experiences Politely Enough (According To Me) And So I Choose To Disregard Your Argument. The fact that this approach is favourite among sexists – the “I’d listen to feminists if they weren’t so angry” brigade – makes it doubly cringeworthy when deployed by a white woman against a woman of colour: as Flavia Dzodan famously said, my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit, and in the wake of Patricia Arquette’s tone-deaf call for women who aren’t straight, white or cisgendered to step up and help white ladies achieve equality for themselves, I find myself with even less patience for this sort of White Feminism than usual. I don’t know if Resnick identifies as a feminist or not, but for the love of god, fellow white women: do not fucking tone police women of colour on issues of diversity. More to the point, what article was Resnick reading? Bradford’s piece isn’t an angry polemic against the evils of patriarchy; it’s a calm, articulate acknowledgement of the fact that yes, there’s a bias in the literary world, but here’s a suggestion for countering it.

Again, I feel obliged to point out that nobody is forcing Resnick to read anything she doesn’t want to. Hell, it would’ve been quite easy for her to say, for instance, “I support the sentiment of Bradford’s article, and even if you don’t want to skip your favourite white male authors for a year, there’s still a lot to be gained by diversifying your reading”, and left it at that. Instead, she goes out of her way to attack the logic of Bradford’s challenge, which makes what she says next seem more than a little insincere:

I agree completely that reading a wide variety of authors and themes is a wonderful idea, one to be embraced. This practice has always been encouraged in my family, and it’s practiced by many of my friends, too. I also agree that reading about women, other societies, and other sexual orientations from the perspective of authors who are women, or who are from other societies than our own, or who have other sexual orientations other than “straight” is a suggestion to be embraced. But I don’t agree that limiting my reading in any way is a good idea. Not even if it’s the group—straight white male writers—whose voices have been heard the longest, loudest, and most consistently in our society’s reading culture.

I say again: Bradford is proposing a fucking challenge. By definition, a challenge in any context has rules and limitations, which is how you differentiate your participation in it from the norms of everyday living. That being so, it’s fair to ask: is Resnick opposed to all reading challenges on principle, or just to this one? And if Resnick is really so concerned with the prospect of limited reading, then why has she just spent umpteen paragraphs complaining about how unreasonably difficult it is to try and read diversely?

Years ago, some stranger at a party asked me what I read, as people often do with writers. I named a bunch of books I’d read lately, and named a bunch of writers that were among my favorites, and when I was done… The person asked, “Don’t you ever read any male authors?” I had named only women, and I hadn’t even noticed! Not until this person remarked on it.

Although I still tend to read more women than men, ever since that conversation made me realize I’d been limiting my reading, I make more of an effort to read male novelists. Your mileage may vary, but eliminating straight white male authors from my reading would probably set me back, in terms of the variety I read, since male authors (of any ethnicity or sexual orientation) used to be noticeably absent from my fiction reading.

Look, I’ll be honest: I tend to read mostly women these days, too. But when it comes to my cultural consumption in other areas – when it comes to films, comics, TV shows? Those arenas are pretty fucking heavily male-dominated, even when you actively want to diversify, and as such, I feel no particular urge to try and redress the balance when it comes to written fiction, which is the one narrative arena in which I can come anywhere close to finding parity, let alone surpassing it in my favour. Straight white dudes have a fucking monopoly on visual storytelling, and not just in front of the camera, but behind it, too – directing, scriptwriting, animation and countless other fields are all so squarely white and male, it’s like staring at a box of envelopes. And while I’m not suggesting Resnick should tailor her fiction consumption to fit my preferences, I take issue with the inference that there’s no correlation between straight white male dominance in fiction and straight white male dominance elsewhere; as though this isn’t a single facet of a bigger, more complex problem.

Look at it this way: if you’re eating bread for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but have fruit for desert, and someone comes along and exclaims over how strange it is that you don’t eat bread for that one last meal, too, then switching to a baguette before bedtime will not add variety to your diet, even if you keep the strawberries. By all means, Laura Resnick, read what you like – but don’t confuse your personal reticence to change your habits, even temporarily, for a reason why the rest of us shouldn’t even try.

 

Comments
  1. Clive Tern says:

    I’ve just read a similar rant elsewhere about Bradford’s post. The thing which that rant, and Resnick’s, have in common is the appearance of not having read Bradford’s post.

    Bradford suggest cutting out reading stuff written by people like me, and she outlines how it benefited her as a reader & writer. But the ‘Avoid SWM’ thing is really just the attention grabbing headline.We readers are challenged to consciously change our reading habits for just one year. Then the suggestion is to do a new challenge the year after. There are a whole raft of suggestions on how to accomplish the challenge, which you set for yourself!

    For me, it appears to another bout of hot air from someone who couldn’t park their privilege long enough to carry out some basic research, and apply some critical thinking.

  2. Daz says:

    If Resnik doesn’t want to take part in the challenge, fair enough. Unless she sees it as actually harmful in some way, though, I don’t see the point in taking to the internet to bemoan the existence of something she has no interest in.

  3. Renay says:

    So much about this feels so similar to the request I made of book bloggers to review more women. You’d have thought I asked them to burn books by men on their lawn and called them personally to tell them they were all sexist, irredeemable jerks. It took me a long time to figure out that these types of reactionary responses are less about the pieces in question and more about the guilt powering the response from the person writing it. The more guilty they feel (whether they know it or not), the more defensive they get, and the angrier their response is, to the point at which they’re responding to an imaginary attacker instead of the original piece and author.

    • Lurkertype says:

      Exactly. They’re responding to what they think is in the piece. Or to the headline, which often (especially online) has little to do with the piece.

      I’m not going to do this for a whole year, but it did make me stop and ponder my reading. Being a woman, I’ve got plenty of ladies in my reading lists, but I thought “I REALLY need to read more stuff by PoC. Honestly, what’s my excuse?” Well, my excuse is, they don’t get published and publicized as much, and articles like this are needed to bring authors to my attention. So yay. My poverty leads me to read mostly indie authors who temporarily put novels up for free (or make the first one of a series free), and the very nature of the beast is that I automatically read more women, PoC, LGBTQ, and so forth authors.

      But you don’t see me blogging about how a year is tooo haaarrrd, or what about the menz? or some of my best friends are X.

      I’ve also never taken the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge (for I am small, weak, and clumsy), but that doesn’t mean I can’t maybe park farther away from the store instead of right up front. And I don’t worry that the Olympics suddenly won’t get attention.

      My “favorite” part was all the people who were OH NOES about Neil Gaiman’s book being the one in the first photo and ranting about that. When Neil actually tweeted that he rather liked the article and didn’t mind at all being used as the example of cis-SWM.

  4. megpie71 says:

    Yes, the headline on Bradford’s article is inflammatory – but that should be laid at the feet of the site management (along with their lovely insistence you have JavaScript turned on in order to see anything on their page). The actual article itself I found rather interesting – things like her pointing out that when she stopped reading cismale white writers except in carefully curated circumstances the amount of reading she did went up made me stop and think about why I’ve largely given up on traditionally published fiction. My go-to excuse has been my budget (I’ve been on a very low income for most of the past seven years), but I realised I’d actually stopped reading and buying new fiction long before the budgetary constraints cut in, because I was fed up with what was being offered. Instead, most of my “new” reading has been fanfic, because I find it interesting and different… and I suspect at least part of the reason I prefer it is because fanfic tends to have a more diverse voice than traditional published fiction (more non-heterosexual views of the characters, more prominent and complex female characters, a more diverse racial palette and so on).

    So, once I actually start reading new stuff again (which is happening once I’ve finished culling and re-packing my existing collection) I plan to go and have a look in the local library and find out whether there are any non-white, non-male Australian authors of Science Fiction, Fantasy or Horror floating about in their collection (if only for the Look the librarian may wind up giving me).

  5. riceballmommy says:

    I’ve been actively seeking out more diverse books. The only complaint I can see is there are so many great options for adults but not as many for young adults/kids. With every diverse book list I find my to read list grows exponentially, but my daughter’s not so much. It really is not that hard though to find a list of books by non-cis gendered white males in adult fiction. I don’t know what her complaint is about.
    Now finding all of them in stock at the local library is another issue though.

    • lkeke35 says:

      I don’t think its finding the lists of books, that she’s complaining about. I think her concern is that there are not enough people reading the books on the lists.

      • riceballmommy says:

        I understand, I’m just saying for Resnick to complain that it’s just “too hard,” it’s really not as long as you are looking for adult fiction.
        It is sad though that these lists have been the first time I’ve discovered some of these books and authors. They are truly amazing and are getting missed out on because if you’re not looking your not going to find it. They’re just not what get pushed to the front most of the time.
        I love the idea of the challenge, it will help more great books get some notice, and open people up to new possibilities.

  6. […] her challenge to readers. Much of the reaction? Has been double-plus ungood in a way that’s really baffling. Do people really dislike reading challenges that much? If you’re on board with this sort of […]

  7. […] On Points, and the Missing Of Them. A response to a response to a challenge to diversify your reading by reading only writers who are not white straight cis men. (For the life of me I cannot fathom why so many people find this challenge so difficult to understand.)  (via @scalzi) […]

  8. […] not worried that a dearth of people reading straight white men will destroy his career. Foz Meadows vents about a critical column that argues it’s just not possible to figure out if an author’s […]

  9. […] On xoJane, K. Tempest Bradford wrote about foregoing books by white, straight, cismale authors for a year. On their own blog, Foz Meadows posted a breakdown of a reaction to Bradford’s piece. It’s a bit exhausting to read because of what Meadows is breaking down, but check it out if you’re interested. […]

  10. […] for One Year by K.T. Bradford Bradford’s Follow-up: Let’s Talk About Comfort Zones Foz Meadows: On Points and the Missing of Them Uncanny Magazine’s Support The Challenge […]

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