The "Straight White Male" Author ID
SF/F writer K. Tempest Bradford recently published an article challenging readers to go one year without reading straight white male authors. Here’s the article in question:
Everyone and their cousin seems to be talking about it this week. And since every noisy fray really needs yet one more voice, here’s my take on it. (Written mostly, I confess, because I’m stalling on attacking a mountain of 2014 bookkeeping and other unpleasant paperwork that currently covers my desk.)
I think a fair bit of this brouhaha is due to the nature of the sf/f genre and the social issues being debated (to put it mildly) in the sf/f community. After all, in the romance genre (which is where most of my writing friends work, and where I got my start as a novelist, lo, those many years ago), most of the writers and readers are women. So exhortations to read more women authors don’t arise in that community, since that’s what they’re already reading much/most of the time. (I’m not sure about other aspects of diversity in the romance genre, though.)
Anyhow, 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? Such as:
“The author has published four previous novels, has won multiple awards, lives in a coastal village in Maine, and is gay.”
I can’t recall seeing that bio on a book jacket.
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? (My last 8 books have all been published without an author photo.) Many (most?) writers also do not have names that reliably indicate their race or ethnicity. For example, among the names Sargeant, McLinn, Christopher, Delaney, Putney, Morrison, Day, Barnes, Gerristen, and Jenkins, which of those names “sound white” to you? Are some of those authors African-American? Or Asian or Hispanic, using married names, paternal-family names , or pseudonyms that don’t perfectly align with their ethnicity? (Hint: Most of those authors are not white.) Similarly, are you sure an author named Arroyo, Wu, or Offong is not white? Again, what if that’s a married name, paternal family name, adoptive family name, etc.?
And, again, a writer’s material doesn’t necessarily indicate their ethnicity, either. For example, the protagonist of the Kirinyaga stories is a Kikuyu mundumugu who holds fast to traditional tribal values and laws; the author of those award-winning stories is my dad, Mike Resnick, a white atheist from a Jewish background, who shares none of his African protagonist’s beliefs.
A percentage of writers also have names or pseudonyms that don’t reliably reveal their gender: N.K. Jemisin, Nevada Barr, J.K. Rowling, Paris Afton Bonds, C.L. Moore, P.D. James, Kim Stanley Robinson, Evelyn Waugh, E.M. Forster, Georges Sand, George Eliot, e.e. cummings, Kameron Hurley, J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee, and so on. Not to mention how many writers’ names originate in languages so unfamiliar to me (Thai, Turkish, Chinese, Arabic, Swahili, etc.) that I’ve no idea what gender the name signals, even if it’s self-evident to people who know that language or culture. And when she started writing as Robert Galbraith, J.K. Rowling took pains to conceal that the author was not male. Similarly, Jennifer Wilde was a popular romance writer in the 1970s whose true gender and sexual orientation were concealed for years (the late Tom Huff, a gay man).
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.
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. What if some of my favorite writers are straight white males, after all? I’m certainly not going to deprive myself of the pleasure of reading their fiction for a year—precisely because, first and foremost, reading fiction should be a pleasure, in my opinion; not a duty, a chore, a project, or a social obligation. (The latter is particular to me. I know so many authors personally, I had to make a conscious choice years ago that knowing someone—even being close to them—doesn’t oblige me to read their books. Otherwise, I’d spend so much time reading for social obligation, I wouldn’t have any time left to read what I really want to read.)
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…. Though not in usually my own reading, as it happens.
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.