by Rachel Charlene Lewis
These two white women are not the only ones encouraging people to publish more women. Numerous campaigns such as VIDA Count and the hashtag #readwomen are pushing people to read more writing by women. More and more the message is becoming clear: don’t read men, only read women.
I get it.
I’m an aggressively feminist queer woman of color. I spend a lot of time thinking about the politics of who and what I read. I want my bookshelves to be filled with marginalized voices and experiences different from my own. And I’m happy we’re having these conversations about diversity in literature.
I was in class a few weeks ago when a male author came in to talk to us about writing. One of the first things he said was that people limit their reading in a way that’s harmful. He said, with eyes wide to enhance the shock factor, there are some men who won’t read women and some women who won’t read men. The laughter in the room was an easy sort that made me wonder if I was the only person in the room who’d ever decided to stop reading men.
How could the two – men not reading women and women not reading men – be equated? In a culture where we are so very much overloaded with male opinions, surely women not reading men is revolutionary, a personal overthrow of patriarchy, or if nothing else, a stepping away from male ideas, thoughts, and experiences. I couldn’t help but think that men not reading women was awful, while women not reading men made perfect sense; after all, didn’t we already know what all men thought about the world?
But then Eileen Myles told The New York Times that men should “step away” and “stop writing books,” and “go on vacation.” And suddenly this sentiment, something I totally would have once said, didn’t sit well with me at all. I didn’t realize why I was so pissed off until Jurczyk’s “No More Books by Men” in The Awl set me off.
The problem is simple: I can’t listen to one more white woman getting praised for banishing all men to the proverbial literary dungeon for 500 years while white women simply step up and take their place.
Hear me out: there is nothing I want less than a literary world dominated by white men, but a close runner up would be a literary world dominated by white women. Reducing this conversation to just not reading men is missing the point.
There are many men we never hear from, and there are certainly women we hear from a whole lot more from than other women. We can’t keep using terms like “men” and “women” because they leave out the specific identities we’re actually talking about. Are we talking white men? Are we talking trans men? Are we talking disabled men?
When we don’t make these specifications, we continue to line our shelves with more books by white women and step all over the queer, trans, disabled men of color who aren’t on our bookshelves at all.
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In November, a lot of feminist writers fell head over heels for Claire Vaye Watkins and her piece in Tin House, “On Pandering.” The entire time I read it, I was uncomfortable; we were similar, nearly the same at points, dealing with literary men and their arrogance and dealing with the horribleness of sexism at large. But I felt our difference like tears along the thread that connected us. We are not the same. We will never be.
She knows this. She calls herself out for her whiteness within the piece and, too, is called out for this same reason by Marlon James, who says that writers of color often have to cater to the white woman reader. I applaud him for saying this, and at the same time I am left with that ick feeling that stems from experiences of dozens of men of color who have spoken over me and tried to tell me what’s what.
There is no singular answer, and that’s why we have to keep doing the work.
Luckily, there are people out there who have already started. Lee and Low, the people behind the hugely influential #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign, brought us an important infographic illustrating the homogeneity of publishing. Glory of Well-Read Black Girl highlights the work of black women writers all the time. But we have to keep pushing for the changes we want. We have to keep critiquing the publishing systems and listening to each other and asking – how can we be better?
My version of the bettering of the literary world is not one that thinks that the end of all issues is giving white women the key to the castle. As if it’s somehow okay to erase and silence genderqueer and non-binary writers. As if it’s somehow decent to act as if issues of documentation, ability, and queerness don’t impact the lived experience to the same extent as gender. It’s dangerous to our literary spaces.
If you decide you’re only going to read women, fine – but which women are you reading? Have you ever read a book by a trans woman of color? Are you buying and reviewing these books, too? Are you reading gender non-conforming people? What is your canon? When you stray beyond the western canon, are you tokenizing? Are you bragging about how diversely you read and not even recognizing the books as literature, as craft, as art, as work worthy of payment and award?
Solving the issue of the suffocating nature of our literary canon is not easy, and we already know that. It’s going to take lots of voices fighting and collaborating and thinking and rethinking and being critical as hell of ourselves and each other, because we’ve got a lot to change. If you get sucked into the idea that reading a bunch of white ladies is somehow anything more than a slight uptick in your diversity meter, you’re already failing.
Rachel Charlene Lewis is a writer and editor from Maryland. She is always on Twitter as @RachelCharleneL.
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