The cumulative nature of diverse reading

[This article was originally published in February 2016 on Medium.]

The name I gave my commitment to not read books by men in 2015 — the No Man’s Land Reading Project — is the only original thing about it. Author Jack Heath did it in 2011 and would like you to know women write just as well if not better than men. Lilit Marcus did it in 2013 and said the best thing about it was that it felt totally ordinary. Joanna Walsh told the whole world to do itin 2014. Chloe Angyal was doing it at the same time as I was for reasons very like my own.

In fact, such projects are now so ubiquitous, at least in certain circles, that Jezebel published a vehement critique of them on January 7, 2016. Its author, Jia Tolentino, observed the following:

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 be seen as writing about Identity when white/male writers get to write about Life.

Tolentino’s conclusion is, if you decide to read more or less of anything, good for you, but “shut up”, because more often than not, “inflation — self-inflation, at the indirect expense of the writers whose work is supposed to be your focus — is a side effect”. Tolentino demands people do away with this brand of affirmative action, at least in public spheres, because it stigmatises groups for the sole purpose of allowing a person to trumpet their own condescending Samaritanism. She concludes:

If you were a queer writer, or a woman of color writer, would you want someone to read you because they thought they were doing something dutiful about power structures? Or because they gravitated to you, not out of any sense that you would teach them something about diversity that they could then write about in a year-end essay — but that they just read you because you were good?

Reading Tolentino’s piece shook my confidence. I am yet to read a piece by a white male writer (such as myself), written in response to or in spite of thoughts by a female writer, that wasn’t mostly superfluous. But Tolentino is drawing disproportionately extreme conclusions based on a limited interpretation of the nature and effect of a diverse reading year.

First, whether or not one marks the end of a diverse reading year with an essay, if you read more diversely for a year, you’ll be reading more diversely for the rest of your life. It may, essentially, be that that year leads you to one day gravitate to a good book by a woman writer of colour without self-awareness, just as Tolentino desires you to.

Second, Tolentino is creating in diverse reading years’ architects a false dichotomy. When she asks whether a writer would rather be read by a person taking on power structures or a person who thought they were good, as though a person must necessarily be entirely self-interested or entirely naïve, can the answer not be both? Or one and then the other? After all, once a diverse reading year has begun, how else do you select titles than by the same recommendations and reviews that led you to other supposedly good books?

Finally, she is overlooking the value of an as-yet-unachieved critical mass of voices (let alone actors) confirming an undertaking’s worth. If there is a glut of diverse reading year pieces written by sanctimonious wankers, the problem is wankers, not support for diverse reading.

*

The point of a year of reading women, or not reading white men, or reading only writers of colour, is to set in motion a move away from existing tastes which might then become natural and ingrained.

As I wrote in my review of Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, one of the key benefits of confronting even one form of inequality is that the conversations one has and reading one does around that action lead to awareness of other unconscious biases. Tolentino would have readers gravitate to more diverse writers naturally, but if these things happen naturally, and there is little proof they do, they do not happen quickly. Forced collision can fundamentally alter readers’ orbiting patterns, and witnessing such a collision encourages others to invite the same. If the impact is garish, it soon fades into meaningful, consistent, improved patterns.

For example, in my diverse reading year, I remained guilty of perpetuating bias. I read works by twenty-two white writers, all writing in English; three writers of colour, all writing in English; one Italian writer whose work was translated into English; and all of the writers are or were, as far as I know, cishet. I didn’t even begin to consider, at least not until it was almost too late, what it would have been like to incorporate other factors into my book choices — writers of colour, non-cishet writers, writers whose works have had to be translated into English.

But once you start the work of correcting a statistical imbalance, the firings of a flawed mind (i.e. any mind) can’t really be prevented. Every one of the authors led me to another, and each issue they wrote about to the next. Their names and works, dropped into conversation, are like doorways through which it is impossible to stop walking. As I’ll attempt, crudely, to explain later in this essay, there is something verdant, flammable and captivating that reading diversely gives a reader. My curiosity feels voracious. I don’t think I could resist what feels like a permanent change in the way I go about selecting books if I tried.

I’ll read Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid because Lucy was phenomenal. The same goes for Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch vis-à-vis The Secret History, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna vis-à-vis The Poisonwood Bible and Marilynne Robinson’s entire catalogue vis-à-vis Housekeeping. I’ll read Alice Munro because she influenced Margaret Atwood, Edwidge Danticat because she influenced NoViolet Bulawayo, and Octavia Butler because she appears to have influenced too many writers to name. And that’s to say nothing of the myriad writers I didn’t get around to this year but whose books still fill my shelves: Charlotte and Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Joan London, Iris Murdoch, and on and on.

At the very least I will forever alternate between books by men and by women, and my interest in (let alone commitment to) books by non-male, non-white writers has the feel of a perpetual motion machine, turning in wider and wider arcs.

*

That said, writing about it is something else, to say nothing of the fact that most reflective pieces involve more white writers taking up space. “If only it were possible to do something good and rewarding without publicly prioritizing what effect that act has on you”, Tolentino writes.

The “you” in this context is important. A reflective piece that purports to further diverse reading should put the authors and their books front and centre. And yet, descriptors of personal experience are neither entirely selfish nor pointless. Personal growth in this context is part and parcel of evidencing the undertaking’s worth. It could be the case that saying “these books are very good” will convince people to read more diversely, but it was an emotional-intellectual appeal, which made no reference to the quality of any book, which first got to me.

… this book-avoiding nonsense is only a relatively innocuous hint at something much more important, something both endemic and profoundly ugly, something that has precious little to do with literary taste.

Author Robin Black wrote that in a September 2014 guest blog post on Read Her Like an Open Book. The nonsense to which she’s referring is the nowclearly mapped trend of men preferring to read (and review) books by men. This is a bias Black encounters when men approach her to ask that she sign her book for their wife, mother, daughter, niece and so on; even if they’re buying it for themselves, they’re not saying so. It depresses the living fuck out of her.

… something about this experience, the line of actual, living, breathing men armed with spellings of women’s names, made the imbalance feel true and — excuse me — just so fucking weird, in a way that no statistics, no documented trends ever have.

It was Black’s fatigue that initially got to me, as did her underlying belief that not reading women indicates something is compromised within a person. I knew it in my gut to be true.

Some might think there is a glut of year-in-reading pieces (and that all such projects are conceived with a didactic essay in mind) but as Black’s experience and one or two unimaginative reading challenges published early in this new year show, there are still plenty of people not challenging their reading at all.

In short, it is far from obvious to the proverbial “you” that reading more diversely is an extremely and even life-changingly important choice, or even a basically desirable one. If it was, the statistics and experiences would not be what they are.

Perhaps Black’s observations only needed to be written once, but how rarely is an article (let alone a blog post) from two years past referenced? It doesn’t hurt to repeat it. Of course, writers shouldn’t grandstand, and white people should hardly be going to other white people to ask which writers of colour they should be reading — that’s Ally 101. But assuming those two factors are in order, hearing that more and more people are tired of the unconscious and even defensive centring of white male writers is a good thing, and if recommendations are woven into that conversation, the likelihood that change will be affected can only be greater.

*

Yes, I sometimes wanted to read books by men. A conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates made me want to read Between the World and Me. Unified agreement among my colleagues is a unicorn but The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay was unanimously praised. Listening to Thomas McGuane read a story by David Means made me want to read every short story either of them has ever written.

They were the natural urges and caprices that overcome any reader as they stand empty-handed before their bookshelf and search for what they want or need from a book. A great deal of resistance to undertaking a project such as mine is hidden behind this moment, behind a right to do what you want, which amounts to the most entitled person in the room shouting ‘Don’t take my freedom.’

Digressing for a moment, this reading project returned me to a virtue I have recently realised is common to many things I love: they encourage me to think about things that make me a kinder person. For example, Aziz Ansari’sMaster of None resulted in my thinking about race, family, the elderly, sexism, and living a decent and meaningful life; Parks and Recreation makes me think about friendship, aspiration and being the bigger person. They encourage my mind to be a constructive, empathetic place. And I’m not alone in having had this experience.

Reading books by women was a gift in this regard. Emily Bitto’s Lily, NoViolet Bulawayo’s Darling, Barbara Kingsolver’s Orleanna, Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy — they made me think about women in ways I never have before, taking me inside their adolescence, fear, sacrifice, fury, sexuality and general lived experience.

I realise women writing about women seems like a stupid thing to point out, let alone dwell on, but it would be disingenuous of me to gloss over it like reading well-crafted, centrally placed female characters did not represent a significant departure from what my majority-male reading has presented me with. And very few books I read in the past year had more male than female characters — The Secret History, The Shipping News and The Autograph Man(none of which entirely won me) stand out in this regard.

Most of the others flowed evenly between male and female points of view, and the ones I liked best — Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale(which presented a highlight of my year when Atwood tweeted my review, increasing traffic on my site by about 10,000%) — were dedicatedly female-centric. I don’t know if that’s coincidental, but it’s true.

This, to a not insignificant degree, is what women create in a room of their own. As Robin Black wrote, not reading women hints at something profoundly ugly, and to my mind a great part of that ugliness is the reluctance of men to know women this way, to empathically occupy their emotional and mental space, their lived experience. There is a tacit knowledge that this exists in the pages of books by women, so they are less read and less reviewed, because the alternative would, we men are sure, incriminate us (in that most sacrosanct of places, our consciences) in the largest ongoing act of systemic discrimination and devaluation ever conceived. Anyone who hides behind their freedom is referring to their freedom from shame.

I don’t give anyone credit for doing this consciously. Reading as deliberately as I did this past year is in stark contrast to every bit of reading I’ve done since the MS Readathon in Year 4. But the desire to remain in the known, forcing puerile excuses to the surface? My bookshelf alone puts into perspective how non-existent is the sacrifice one makes by neglecting one gender’s output. It never bothered me when I was unconsciously doing it in men’s favour; it has not bothered me to do it consciously in favour of everyone else.

The fearful delusion that reading women demands something of you is the only thing standing in the way of the fact that it offers something to you.

*

I did not set out to write this piece in response, let alone opposition, to Jia Tolentino’s, but I keep returning to her most damning paragraph nonetheless. In it she compares diverse reading years to corporate diversity policies. Linking to an article titled ‘Diversity Policies Rarely Make Companies Fairer, and They Feel Threatening to White Men’, she concludes that diversity policies tend to “only make things worse”.

Leaving aside the fact that making white men feel threatened is probably not such a bad thing, in that article, the authors actually noted the following:

… managers committed to fostering a diverse workplace may need to spend a bit more time crafting messages and designing programs that are more effective because they come across as more inclusive. … In order to foster fair, inclusive workplaces, diversity initiatives … must be more than ‘colorful window dressing’ that unintentionally angers a substantial portion of the workforce.

Their argument, which Tolentino grossly misrepresents, is that readjusting, aiming and firing again is better than laying down one’s arms; don’t throw such policies out, incorporate accountability and depth. Because in the meantime, insofar as their message is relevant to this article, with statistics still overwhelmingly in favour of whites and men, diverse reading years and the resultant essays (written without the holier-than-thou piety of a good deed done) do more good than harm. And even such projects as my relatively undemanding one effect changes to personal reading habits at a level that, while they may have begun as window dressing, cannot remain so.

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