I read some kickass books last year.
I read gorgeous fiction like The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, and gut-wrenching memoirs like Irritable Hearts by Mac McClelland, and enlightening non-fiction like Asking For It by Kate Harding, and smart beach reads like The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. I tried and failed to finish The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, and couldn’t quite get into The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville. I devoured The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P by Adelle Waldman, and succumbed to the hype around the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon.
You might have noticed something about all those authors: they’re all women. That was by design. I read almost no books by men last year.
At the end of 2014, I took stock of all the books I’d read in the preceding two years, and was dismayed to note how few of them were by women. It wasn’t even close to 50/50. It occurred to me that, between the reading I had been assigned in high school and college, and the reading I do for my own pleasure and edification now that I’m out of school, my lifetime reading list is skewed: men are way overrepresented.
And it’s been that way for over two decades. I’ve been living -- sometimes for lack of effort and attention on my part, and sometimes by other people’s design -- in a literary world narrated mostly by men. Which is, inevitably, a very limited and limiting world in which to spend one’s days and years. As I wrote last year, about three months in, I hadn't read enough books by women, and that’s something I decided to correct in a systematic fashion. You know, the way we should correct all systemic inequities.
I made a few exceptions. Last year, by my count, I read two-and-a-half books for pleasure that were written by men. As I expected when the year began, it was, in all other ways, a pretty typical 12 months of reading. There were some books I really enjoyed, some I put down halfway through because I wasn’t really feeling it, and some I recommended to my friends and loved ones over and over again.
But it did get me thinking about the other ways in which my lifetime reading list has been limited. I haven’t read a lot of the books many Americans read in high school. I haven’t read a lot of literary fiction. And the vast majority of the books on my lifetime reading list are by white authors.
So this year, I decided to correct that, too. I decided not to read books by white authors in 2016. And then I tweeted about it. And all hell broke loose.
There’s a worthy debate to be had about whether talking publicly about these kinds of reading plans defeats their purpose. Last week at Jezebel, Jia Tolentino argued that the “Year of Only Reading Kill All Men” takes us further from the very goal of the exercise.
Publicly announced diverse reading years seem akin to corporate diversity policies -- showy and superficial fixes for deep problems, full of effort and essentialism that tends to only make things worse. Furthermore, the Specialized Reading Year may actually chip away at the promise of the better future we’re looking for -- one in which certain writers are no longer seen as inherently special-interest, in which minority/women writers will no longer seen as writing about Identity when white/male writers get to write about Life.
And on that better future: if the Year of Reading Wokely is supposed to model a behavior that should be normalized -- reading from a wide range of experiences, valuing what is under-represented -- we might do well to understand that it’s already well within our power to normalize that behavior, which would not mean extensively discussing our reading habits or restricting them for self-improvement, but just purchasing, consuming, talking about the work.
I might have agreed with Tolentino, who also argues that, as writers, we want to be read for the quality of our ideas, not for the color of our skin or arrangement of our chromosomes. I certainly want that. But then I witnessed what happens when we do discuss our reading habits -- when, on the way to the better future, we are assailed by the bitter present.
It quickly became clear that, though we wish it weren’t, talking publicly about a reading list designed to correct inequities and make you a better citizen of the world is -- or, at least, is interpreted as -- subversive. It became very clear that as much as we’d like to live in a world in which certain writers are no longer seen as inherently special-interest, we currently live in a world where publicly working toward that better future -- where saying, out loud, that you want to hear from fewer white people and more people of color, and that you’re making a concerted effort to do so -- brings on an onslaught of racist abuse.
Here’s a short and by no means exhaustive list of the things people called me in response to that one tweet: A race traitor, a reverse racist, a book burner, an aspiring segregationist, a sexist, a libtard, a cunt, and a dumb cunt.
... And so on.
One person expressed a wish that I also not read warning labels and street signs this year. Another, in a now-deleted tweet, hoped that I would be raped by “a kebab,” which I assume was their highly offensive and dehumanizing way of describing a Muslim man. Another said I should become a “bride of ISIS” so I find out what real oppression feels like, and another said I have “a touch of the ISIS” about me. Oh, and one person said, “I hope they find your charred corpse in a ditch,” to which another replied, “I hope they find her quick before I can make my getaway!”
It’s not news that the Internet is, among other things, a hateful cesspool full of horrible people spewing misspelled bile. And it’s not news that if you’re a woman, you’re far more likely to be spewed on. And the spewing is often unrelated to what you actually say. I could have said I was really looking forward to eating more blueberries, or wearing more gray T-shirts, in 2016, and there would have been spew.
But that’s not what I said. What I said was, I’m taking a break from reading books by white authors for a bit. And people lost their damn minds, in terms that were unmistakably racist and misogynistic. Sure, trolls gonna troll, but I think it’s instructive to look closely at how they trolled in this case.
First, the overt racism, whether it was people saying “those mixtapes are going to be hard to read,” or “you’ll be reading a lot of cookbooks, then.” The implication being that only white people produce books worth reading, or books at all, and that by eschewing them, I'm denying myself quality reading material, or "limiting" my perspective on the world. Or the notion that real sexism happens at the hands of Muslim and/or brown-skinned men (see also: “You don’t like being a girl in a country song? Be thankful you aren’t a girl in a rap song”). As though only one group of people is capable of sexism, or that their sexism cancels out everyone else’s. As though American women should feel grateful that we’re only somewhat oppressed, instead of extremely oppressed. As though suffering is ranked, when in fact, it’s linked.
Then, the “reverse racism” business. Reverse racism isn’t a thing. Correcting a longstanding disparity, whether it’s in university admissions, or hiring, or book selection, and using race as a factor in your selection is not “reverse racism.” It’s a way of reversing the effects of racism. Only to people who consider white thoughts and white words to be self-evidently superior to all others can view an effort to hear less of them seem irrational and unjust. Similarly, there’s no such thing as “reverse sexism.” Only in a world where men are used to running absolutely everything can they hear one woman say “I’m taking a break from male authors for a bit” and believe that they’re being brutally discriminated against.
To borrow from Harry S. Truman, I’m not giving you sexism. I’m giving you equity, and you think it’s sexism.
And then, the “race traitor” tweets, which are closely connected to the “reverse racist” ones, and the suggestions that I also eschew anything else created by white people. I’ve been writing about whiteness a fair bit in the last year, and the response, from certain corners of the commentariat, is always the same: to criticize whiteness, or, in this case, to eschew the work of white people, is a form of self-loathing, because I myself am white (“You’re not white,” the occasional pedantic anti-Semite will chime in, “you’re a Jew”). More than that, they seem to say, to do anything less than praise whiteness, to be anything less than proud to be white, is a rejection of a gift, a dereliction of duty. How dare I? Don’t I know that it’s a privilege to be white? These same people would also like me to know that white privilege is a myth and that reverse racism runs rampant and that white people these days are so oppressed.
Finally, there’s the hope that I’ll be raped or killed, by some imagined dark-skinned Other, or by the well-wisher themselves. Because nothing makes me want to read a book by a white man like receiving a rape threat from a white man.
The threat of sexualized violence, so often, is the response women hear when they dare to express themselves, online and off. It’s an attempt to remind us, in starkly gendered terms, who’s really in charge. The threat of rape -- and of rape by a non-white man, which is imagined to be even more degrading than sexual assault by a white man -- is the oldest, laziest and one of the most loaded ways to attempt to silence a woman.
I’ll rape you, b**ch. Because you won't read a book by a white person for the next twelve months. I'll f**k you up, whore. Because you've decided to craft a reading list that attempts to resemble the real world. I'll kill you, c**t. Because you're acknowledging and trying to remedy racism and sexism, and, by talking about it, you're implicitly challenging other people to do the same.
I don't imagine that merely reading differently and hoping that others will do the same will end racism or sexism. It's going to take 500,000 things -- big and small, public and private, individual and systemic -- to do that. I also don't think it's showy or superficial to, as a member of a dominant group, make it known to other members of that group when you're actively working to correct inequities. To hold yourself, and other members of that group, accountable. That's not going to instantly transport us to a better future -- no one thing will -- but it is, hopefully, a stop along the road.
I could have kept my reading resolution to myself, but I'm glad I didn't. Every abusive tweet -- every racist dismissal of authors of color and the people who read them, every outraged cry of reverse racism from people for whom an infinitesimal loss of privilege feels like a crippling blow -- is yet another reminder of why it matters.
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