Every one of us is making choices about what tiny fraction of the world’s art we’re going to spend our precious time on; I have my priorities and you have yours.
I love exchanging book recommendations. This is related to, but distinct from, my passion for reading; I find it both challenging and satisfying to find out what someone looks for in a piece of literature, and use that knowledge to recommend a book they’ve never heard of but will absolutely adore. And I’m overjoyed when someone can do the same for me.
I always include the same caveat on my requests for recommendations: “I prefer books by women, queer writers, and/or writers of color.” Nevertheless, you can set your watch by it: Within five minutes someone will recommend a book by a straight white man. I know I’ll end up in an argument if I say what I really mean, which is “I do not read books by straight white men.”
OK, not never. I think I’ve read three or four straight white male authors in the last two years, not counting my annual October reread of Dracula. But if I’m on the fence about a book, noticing that the author is a straight white man will usually bring me down on the side of not reading it. And if I’m looking for something new to read—which, the pile of unread library books scowling at me from beside my bed nothwithstanding, I always am—I’m seeking out books whose authors come from marginalized communities.
After college, I realized that aside from one semester of Black Women in Literature, I’d spent 16 years of school totally steeped in the Western literary canon, where straight white men—and to a lesser but significant degree, straight white women—are wildly overrepresented. I decided to make a point of reading more books by writers of color, queer writers, and writers who don’t come from the U.S., Canada, and England. It was a self-improvement kick of sorts, but what started as a project became a way of life.
Because when I started delving into the wealth of literature by less-privileged writers, I discovered that I loved it more than I ever had the works of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, or anyone named Jonathan. Straight white male authors are more likely than any others to be lauded for their “universal” themes, while stories by and about women and LGBTQ people and people of color are considered “niche,” primarily of interest to their respective communities. But the more I read beyond the mainstream, the more literature by and about straight white men strikes me as its own deeply solipsistic niche—one that often doesn’t reflect the concerns of much of the world’s population.
In the U.S., a country built on the foundations of enslavement, genocide, and the subjugation of women, somehow only those books that don’t grapple with the issues of racism and misogyny are considered universally relatable—despite the fact that by far the majority of the population faces one or both of those issues daily. If Hamlet, a dude whose uncle murdered his father to marry his mother, is universally relatable, then why can’t the same be said for Pecola Breedlove or Janie Crawford? A character with emotional depth should be able to transcend barriers of gender, race, or orientation, but it’s mostly white male characters who are given the chance. It’s a peculiar sort of myopia that insists I should relate to Holden Caulfield, but no male-identified person could be expected to empathize with Robin Vote.
At this point I find it shocking that any novel that doesn’t tackle those issues directly is even a contender for the title of “great American novel.” We live in a society built on a complex scaffolding of institutional oppressions. How can a view from the very top, one that doesn’t even acknowledge the structures holding up its weight, be considered more universal than a perspective from closer to the bottom, considering the whole architectural monstrosity in its entirety? I don’t think any novelist has ever come within shouting distance of articulating what it means to be American as clearly as James Baldwin did in Another Country, so why doesn’t he regularly show up on lists like this alongside Steinbeck and Twain?
I want to make it clear that, although I feel for the brilliant authors who are relegated to literary niches while their white male counterparts win widespread acclaim, I am much more concerned about what this does to readers. Not only is our sense of empathy being corroded, and our understanding of the human experience atrophied, by the tiny subset of voices deemed widely relevant; we’re missing out on some really good reading. I had to dig into the archives of some niche book blog—it might have been focused on queer black authors, or queer women in speculative fiction; I can’t remember now—to come across Nalo Hopkinson for the first time, just last year. Nobody should be allowed to reach the age of 28 without having read Nalo Hopkinson!
Every time I mention my avoidance of straight white male writers, someone is guaranteed to ask me how I can “limit myself” that way—with the implication that the women and people of color and queer people I’m reading aren’t as good as the straight white men I could be reading instead. I promise you, in seven-ish years of No Straight White Dudes, I have never been forced to read a subpar book just to fill out my demographic scorecard. There have been almost 130 MILLION books published in the world, and I read about 100 of them a year. I’m freaking out writing this thinking about all the amazing literature I won’t get to before I die, like, there are STILL at least two James Baldwin books I’ve never read, and more books are being published every day. Every one of us is making choices about what tiny fraction of the world’s art we’re going to spend our precious time on; I have my priorities and you have yours.
This is not to say that straight white men haven’t contributed great works of literature to the world; of course they have and will continue to. But they dominated my reading life from the time I learned to read until the age of 22, and now I’m making up for lost time. So please don’t recommend books by straight white men—but do feel free to send me whatever you’ve got about queer women. Especially queer women in magical realms. Or space. Or history. And, hey, while I’ve got your attention, do yourself a favor and go read Brown Girl in the Ring.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).