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.


12 thoughts on “The “Straight White Male” Author ID

  1. Michael says:

    I don’t have a lot of money to spend on books (I bought all your esther diamond ones with christmas money) so I usually have to rely on what the library has available. I suppose I can vote with my dollars when I do have them to spend and that will have to be enough

  2. Laura says:

    That was an absolutely EXCELLENT use of your Christmas money! :)

  3. Karen Junker says:

    Honestly, I have asked the same questions about how to find authors who are themselves diverse in some way or stories that feature characters or situations that are diverse in some way. It does take a bit of research. The article you link to DOES have a list, so if you started there, you could noodle around on the internets once in a while and find others. That’s what I did.

    I’ll repeat here what I’ve said elsewhere: A ‘challenge’ is not a command. You don’t have to do it, any more than you have to take the “30 Day Fitness Challenge”. It does not force anyone to do anything. It is frequently a suggestion, something to get one thinking about one’s choices.

    Yes, romances are becoming increasingly diverse. There are multicultural romances, gay romances, romances with disabled heroes and once in a great while a Jewish heroine. Many small romance publishers have been starting to cater to niche markets. Laurell K. Hamilton insists she writes mystery, but if you include her work as fantasy, there are even bestsellers that feature polyamorous characters.

    But as you have mentioned elsewhere, in SFF, the publishers may ask you to change your name if you are female. The books published are mostly by male authors. Yes, it is true that male romance authors sometimes use a pen name, but the publishers may also turn down a book because Walmart won’t sell it if it has gay characters.The reason some markets are niche markets is not because there are no readers who want it, but because the publishers with the most clout, distribution, promo/marketing budgets, etc. are afraid to risk putting out those books. So, people buy what is widely available. What is widely available is not going to change unless someone in a big house notices people are interested in buying it (BDSM, anyone?). Libraries don’t generally have a budget to buy a lot of books from small publishers or self-publishers. So, the interest in certain subjects or support of certain authors (for whatever reason) may not get noticed. Llewellyn is a niche publisher that has done well by providing material for their niche market.

    You don’t have to go to a lot of trouble to find queer authors. there are lists on the internet that take no longer to find than logging in to Amazon. You don’t have to read them. You don’t have to put down the remote, get off your couch and walk for 5 minutes a day, either. But if someone challenged you to do that, you might take no more notice of that than I would. I think the only reason people are freaking out over Tempest’s challenge is because uppity black woman. You probably don’t need to Google that – I’m pretty sure it makes sense in context.

  4. Michael says:

    They were a lot of fun too. I look forward to more. Especially about Lopez and whatever’s going on with him. He needs to stop being a jerk though and just ask for proof or something. Though some of that’s on Esther for not offering proof.

    They’re your characters of course, I’m just reallllly into them. Between my theater background, my world religions and folklore studies and my mixed racial heritage (Irish / Jamaican) you’ve managed to hit all my buttons between Esther, Max and Lopez.

    I really enjoyed what I’ve read and I look forward to more regardless.

  5. Laura says:

    So happy to hear that! I hope to keep hitting all your buttons as the series continues.

  6. Theresa says:

    Patricia Williams King posted this on her FB post. I read it and I agree. Most of the time you have no clue unless someone broadcasts it. Most of the writers I know have a touch of the introversion. Not big Broadcasters by nature.

  7. Josh Keidan says:

    I have to say this is an interesting and more civil discussion about this topic than many I have encountered. As a straight white guy I’m looking forward to taking this challenge — as I look back over my reading I feel like I read more “literary” fiction by a diverse range of folks, but that my genre reading tends to fall back on a less diverse group. And I’m a relatively thoughtful reader (English teacher, MA in Lit)…
    In fact, I thought I’d post here because as I went through my library looking for books to read which I had overlooked / put off, “In Legend Born” was near the top of the stack — I’m looking forward to getting to it soon.
    And ok, it was weird googling authors to try to find out if they were men / women, straight / gay etc, but it was kind of interesting to learn about the different folks. It did feel almost invasive, though.
    If you are interested, I’ll be blogging my way through the challenge:
    — Josh

  8. Laura says:

    Josh, thanks for sharing that link and for sharing your perspective on this.

    I think civil discussion about an issue or topic among people who disagree is usually valuable, often eye-opening, and can be stimulating and enjoyable. But personal attacks, imaginary point scoring, self-righteous ranting, gloating, demonizing, posturing, and so on… are as tedious as they are useless. It can be tempting to fall into the latter behavior, and sometimes one does, but it’s a mode that’s better avoided and not emulated.

  9. JJ says:

    Like Karen, I also interpreted KTB’s post as saying, “Consider taking the challenge to push yourself out of your same-old, same-old reading patterns — and seek out authors with backgrounds which vary wildly from yours, because you may be very pleasantly surprised at how much enjoyment you get from something very different from your usual choices.”

    And like Laura, I think it would have been a lot more effective if it had been worded, “I Challenge You To Spend A Year Reading Authors You Wouldn’t Normally Read”. (This would still encompass the huge number of people who tend to read books written only by straight white males, whilst also challenging those who tend to read only books written by women, or by any other demographic.)

    I can’t speak for other genres, but for SFF, there’s a great site which makes seeking out minority writers very easy — and I’ve been using it for a couple of years now as a way to diversify my SFF reading habits. I’ve discovered a lot of new authors who work I hugely enjoy — and on those occasions when a book by someone new just isn’t “doing it” for me, I don’t have any problem in setting it aside and moving on to something else, because I’m still challenging myself to read new authors.

    This website includes a huge database of SFF books, lists of award winners, the ability to track your books read and to-be-read, the ability to create a reading challenge based on a theme (or to join someone else’s challenge), and a forum for discussion on these books:
    Worlds Without End – Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Books

  10. I happened to do something very similar to KT Bradford’s challenge last year, which I wrote about at the link. I also included a few dozen titles for folks interested in expanding outside the default-mode bubble, though of course there’s way more out there.

  11. Laura says:

    Dallas and JJ, thanks for posting both those links.

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