Should You Take a Break from Reading White Men’s Books?

johnneil

A couple of months ago, an xojane article by K.T. Bradford sparked an immediate, divisive, and heated argument online. Bradford’s article, which was hardly the first of its kind, explained that in 2012 she decided that she wanted to become a better writer. And since being a better writer is often achieved by being a better reader, she set herself book challenges based on the content in top magazines or awards lists. But she kept hitting a wall.

But she kept hitting a wall.

Any long-time readers of this blog are likely aware that I’m also very familiar with the wall. And the “wall” is finding myself bored with the type of mainstream writing consistently nominated for top prizes or included in major magazines.

As a quick digression, this is part of why I never wound up updating my Booker Prize progress. I read two books from the list — To Rise Again at a Decent Hour and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves — and hated them both intensely. They both felt like empty novels about empty, wealthy, well-educated people struggling with existential problems that were nevertheless desperate to be “important.” I have no interest in important when there’s nothing real behind it — but especially when absolutely everyone in the book is miserable, boring, and whiney. I fail to understand why this is such a hot trend in writing right now, but it’s doubly frustrating when all you do just want to kick back with a book to avoid the miserable, boring, and whiney people permeating TV.

Now, sure, one of the books I mentioned above was written by a woman (Karen Joy Fowler), so I’m not going to pretend as though the only people who get nominated for prizes are written by white men — though it’s worth pointing out that the Booker Prize did go to Australian Richard Flanagan this year.

But regardless, I think that Bradford’s main argument about broadening your reading horizons by limiting them to white women, women of color, and men of color, was misconstrued in part by Neil Gaiman fans who took immediate offense to her using a copy of American Gods to make her point.

Yes, Gaiman’s book contains a lead character of ambiguous race (though is certainly not white). And yes, you could argue that it makes good use of its female characters as well. But that’s not quite the point.

This isn’t about saying that white men shouldn’t get awards, or that white men can’t write complex white female characters, or complex male and female characters of other races. It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of women writers, for instance, who write shallowly about women, and so on.

Instead, it seems to me that it’s more about saying that if you are bored with what seems to be the status quo, eliminating those writers who primarily compose it might be the first way to break out of that rut. And the status quo is far too often dominated by rich white men who — it might be unfair of me to say — tend to have a similar outlook and similar interests when it comes to writing.

But this isn’t just about pointing out that rich white men have things in common, it’s also about pointing out how often their writing is lauded and rewarded. American and British literary canons are dominated by white men from wealthy backgrounds — so it makes sense that our perception of “great writing” is colored by that continued, problematic canon of writers and writing. If you aren’t enjoying the books that you’re meant to think are great or challenging or interesting, it’s worth examining who’s setting that standard — and then working outside of it.

And I personally am bored by the current canon. I find the endless empty, existential bullshit whining of unlikeable New Yorkers wandering around a Whole Foods thinking about death boring. I find white, middle-aged women traveling around the world, using people of others cultures and races as her “gurus” and props to be offensive — and boring. I find the sexual anxieties of middle-aged white men in the Midwest — you guessed it — boring.

So if it makes you feel more comfortable about the whole thing, don’t think of it as excluding white writers, or male writers; In fact, don’t let anyone else compose your book lists. But if you are, like me, bored of what’s currently being tossed up as “great,” it’s fair to suggest that taking a break from a certain category of writer might be the first best way to get interested and engaged in reading again — or at least to just read something that feels new for a change.

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Is the Fifty Shades Movie a Sly Domestic Violence PSA?

50 shades

Back in 2012, when the furor surrounding EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey was in full effect, I wrote a series of snarky mini-reviews on the book which focused primarily on how bad the writing was, and how silly much of the non-existent plot was. But for the most part I didn’t seem concern myself too much with the deeper themes of the book because mocking inner goddesses and ellipses took up an awful lot of my time.

Now, three years later, with the movie finally in theaters, it seems like media outlets are tripping over themselves to cover every minute detail about both the production and the final product: Do the stars have chemistry? Do they secretly hate each other? What caused all of author EL James and director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s on-set fights? And, finally, is it any good?

MarkReads and the Case for Domestic Abuse

But while said outlets are dying to tell you whether or not Jamie Dornan’s accent was up to snuff (it wasn’t) or whether Dakota Johnson’s performance transcended the text (it did), many are shying away from what’s become a growing and troubling question surrounding the movie and the series it’s based on: Beyond the BDSM, beyond the helicopter rides and the dungeon of endless orgasms, is this just a story about domestic violence dressed up as kinky romance?

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Sali Hughes’ Pretty Honest is the Feminist Beauty Manifesto Every Woman Needs


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I remember getting my first beauty book when I was about 12. It was a huge and very 90’s manual of how-tos which, while somewhat outdated today, did teach me some important basics of color matching, hair care, skin care and makeup application.

The book didn’t dwell on larger questions about cosmetics or their implications — why do we need them, and why in particular are women singled out? — instead, it assumed you had bought it for functional advice. So rather than a history lesson, it served up a no-nonsense guide with huge glossy photos showing you each step of the process. Whether it was how to do a blow-out, line your lips, shave your legs or achieve a day look for your skin tone and hair color, my first introduction into the world of makeup explained everything in helpful detail. I loved it, even as it got covered in smears and stains from ill-fated attempts at liquid liner or mousse application.

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Goodreads Poll Finds that Readers Stick to Their Own Gender

darcy

Goodreads recently polled 40,000 British citizens on their reading habits and among the many trends that popped up, the one making the rounds today is all about sex. Namely, the surprising gender divide between male and female readers and the writers they prefer.

The survey found that men and women stick closely to their own camps with 90% of the 50 most-read books by men coming from male authors, and an identical 90% of the 50 most-read books by women coming from female authors. Female readers were also slightly more critical in their ratings of books penned by the opposite sex — giving them an average 3.8/5, compared to the 4/5 for works by female writers.

What this brief glimpse at the study doesn’t determine is whether female authors who use male pseudonyms, or initials in place of gender-revealing first names, might be more likely to gain an unwitting male audience. It’s also a little surprising that the enormous success of John Green in the past year doesn’t account for more books by men on women’s lists. Is the scant 10% of books those written by authors who are actively trying to appeal to the opposite sex, with men reading Hunger Games and women reading The Fault in Our Stars?

In one sense, it seems logical that people prefer to read books or stories that are aimed at their own experiences and come from a perspective that they can relate to. On the other hand, it is disappointing that more people aren’t trying to branch out and identify with more foreign points of view.

But what’s really disheartening is that we still tend to view books written by women as less substantial and less “important,” which — given Goodreads’ findings — may just say more about who’s in charge at the top newspapers and publishing houses than anything else.

Does the Goodreads poll reflect your own reading habits? Are you trying to branch out and try new things, or do you prefer to stick to particular genres and authors?

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Zoella’s Book Deal Is Not the End of the World

zoesug

Many a snarky editorial has been written over the past few months following news that Penguin was publishing a novel by Youtube beauty guru Zoella (Zoe Sugg), Girl Online. The snark increased significantly when the book made it to #3 on the Amazon bestseller list based on pre-order sales alone.

“What about our student loans?” cried thousands of frustrated English majors.

While Penguin Children’s editorial director Amy McCulloch praises Sugg for her “incredible voice for teens” that she developed on her YouTube channel where she tackled “real issues like anxiety and cyber-bullying” which McCulloch believes enabled Sugg to “deliver a poignant, romantic and heart-warming debut novel,” some have cast doubt as to whether this isn’t yet another ghostwritten work with a famous name slapped on top to promote sales.

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Update on The Man-Booker Challenge 2014 and Some Delightful Links

To Rise Again

The shameful truth is that I’ve been a bit lazy so far with the Man-Booker challenge. I’m about 75% of the way through Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (which isn’t great after a week and a half). Without spoiling the review I plan to give later, I can at least say that it’s not the book’s fault that it’s taking me this long. It reads at a pretty fast clip, but I just got Dragon Age: Inquisition which is a beautiful time suck.

In any event, I should have the review up by the end of the week and then we can start on the next book on the short list.

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No, The Fall is Not Just Classy Misogyny

The Fall

Last Sunday, Observer columnist Rachel Cooke took The Fall to task over her belief that the show was little more than the fetishization of violence against women. She noted the camera tends to linger for too long on Gillian Anderson’s body in scenes where the show’s central figure (a hard-nosed female detective in a very male-dominated sphere) is just, say, having a shower or catching a work nap. And that the lead villain, played by Jamie Dornan, is a little too handsome, charming and good with children — leaving the show’s audience confused. How can they hate him, even when he’s brutally strangling women? Her argument is that critics overlook the show’s sexist overtones because it has great writing, acting and cinematography — but that ultimately the show is a celebration of the exploitation, rape and murder of women.

Allow me to disagree.

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Fear Not: The British Luther is Also Coming Back

luther

Well, color me confused.

Hot on the heels of the announcement that Fox is producing an American version of the gloomy, violent British crime drama Luther for Fox, BBC One has just come out with the news that the original version of the show is returning in 2015 as well.

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Review: Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl

Caitlin Moran

 

I’m sure that it would be nobler or higher-brow to do a review of How to Build a Girl while ignoring its sometimes controversial, quasi-celebrity author. A good book (some might argue) should exist in a vacuum and be evaluated on that level. The trouble with that noble goal is that if you’re at all familiar with Caitlin Moran and her massive bestseller, How to Be a Woman, you’ll know that Girl is often little more than a fictionalized account of many of the previous book’s anecdotes from Moran’s teen years. Moran gives herself a new name (Johanna Morrigan), and a gay older brother who acts as her sounding board and oracle for most of the book, but for the most part you’ll be treading through familiar territory.

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You Should Be Watching: Peaky Blinders

TEVEVISION - BBC DRAMA PEAKY BLINDERS

At this point in the television game, it seems like a safe bet to argue that binge-watching really is the best method for enjoying non-procedural shows. For a couple of reasons.

The “what will happen next” tension from episode to episode often leads to false predictions and an overabundance of expectation that most shows just aren’t prepared to deliver on. But more than that, a good show is often as absorbing as a good book. And just as it would be hard to read 5 or 6 books at a time and invest emotionally in each one while remembering the intricate relationships and plot points, TV — particularly when it comes to shows with dense seasons and only a handful of episodes — is becoming an equally hard thing to juggle.

That’s why I highly recommend devoting your next weekend to both seasons of the BBC’s 1920’s crime drama, Peaky Blinders.

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