You are what you read — and vice versa

Two recent articles from two writers, critics, and feminists I greatly admire – Jessica Valenti in the The Guardian and Roxane Gay writing at NPR’s Code Switch – have led me to confront a horrible truth about myself, revealed by the undeniable evidence of my bookshelf: I am a rampant sexist.

It’s true. Most of the books on my bookshelf—general fiction, historical fiction, memoir, general nonfiction, and scholarly criticism alike—are by women. Overwhelmingly (not exclusively, but overwhelmingly), what I buy to read for pleasure is by women. And the majority of these authors, I am further pressed to concede, are white.

Let’s review the evidence that condemns me. Prompted by Valenti’s observation about homogeneously sexed reading lists and Gay’s weariness about how mainstream recommenders like The New York Times publish reading lists that are, at least this summer, entirely white, I turned to the bookshelf just next to my desk. First, a warning: having recently unpacked my library in yet again a new house, I have not yet proceeded to any systematic classification but merely grouped books by size and weight on the appropriate shelf. Thus, shelf 1 of bookshelf 1 looks like this:

27 books altogether. Of the memoir, 6 are by female authors, 1 by a male. General nonfiction is a little more balanced: 3 male, 3 female each. Contemporary fiction (anything after 1900): 4 female authors, 1 male (Wallace Stegner, if anyone’s interested). Pre-1900, as is to be expected, the balance reverses: 7 male authors, 2 females (Margery Kempe, who told her story through a male scribe, and Mary Shelley). Only one book on this shelf (Leila Ahmed’s A Border Passage) is by an author who is not a white European or North American.

Hmm, I thought. More men than I expected. I turned to shelf 2 to broaden the sample. Of the 24 books reposing there: memoirists, 3 female, 2 male. General nonfiction, 4 male, 4 female – again even. No contemporary fiction on this shelf, and of the pre-1900 representatives, 7 are male (assuming the composer of Beowulf was male, as most do) and 4 female (Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Francis Hodgson Burnett—ok, that’s a 1901 pub date, but a pre-1900 sensibility—and George Sand).

Not too bad, I told myself. No non-whites on this shelf, admittedly, though the subjects of at least two nonfiction works are non-white, and 1 memoirist, Thomas Page McBee, is trans. These, however, are the books of school/work/teaching/research provenance, and the males are only well-represented in whole because my research interests are pre-1900.

So I strolled over to the for-fun bookshelf, and there was my guilt, spelled out. On one shelf of 30 books of assorted fiction and memoir, 4 male authors: Jay McInerney, Vladimir Nabokov, Robert Olen Butler, and Junot Diaz (who has to do double-duty as the only non-white on that shelf, too). Another half-shelf, all fiction: 3 books by non-white authors (Helena Maria Viramontes, 2 by Edwidge Danticat) and only 1 by a (white) man: Matt Bondurant’s The Wettest Country in the World, which I bought because I was in FSU’s grad program at the same time as Bondurant, knew him through workshop, like his work, and wanted to show my support through royalties.

The verdict: my reading list is enormously sexist. Grossly, grossly sexist. And awfully alabaster, to borrow Gay’s term.

So here you find me struggling with conflicting desires. One is to be a good literary citizen of the world, support diverse writers and diverse types of literature, broaden my own horizons, educate myself on things outside my own experience, and pursue the timeless questions of human experience through the lens of literature. Another is to be an informed scholar, who synthesizes and contributes useful information to my fields of interests: women’s literature, the European novel, early English lit, and the medieval romance in particular. But the third, and most prevalent, is to read for pleasure, to pick out and peruse books I suspect I will enjoy.

To the first two desires, as my first two sample bookshelves show, I read fairly widely, if not awfully representatively. I could do better.

But to the third, when selecting books for my recreational reading, I am rampantly discriminatory. I want to read about female subjects, and I consistently avoid male-authored female protagonists, since I have yet to find a man who can write convincingly (for me) from a female perspective. (N.B.: the only female protagonist of male creation who I’ve felt moved by in recent memory was Kelly in Robert Olen Butler’s A Small Hotel, and she is set to off herself unless her soon-to-be divorced husband can admit that he loves her). I prefer it, I admit, to see my female characters struggle and triumph over adversity, rather than devolve into tragedy and suicide (unless I’m reading Euripides, in which case I just can’t wait for the tragedy and suicide to commence). In short, I want to read about women whom I can admire, be inspired by, or perhaps identify with, and it turns out that a lot of those women look like me.

Should I try to diversify? It certainly wouldn’t hurt me. Would I learn more, especially if I made efforts to adopt more non-white authors, those writing about cultures and experiences far different from my own? I can promise that I would. Would I feel I identified as much with protagonists who didn’t look as much like me?

Aye, there’s the rub. For I can look back to early days and identify how my reading preferences were shaped. Mark Twain and King Arthur and Tolkien, jolly tales, highly inspirational—but I always found myself creating, in my mind, a female character to join in all the manly adventures. When I read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, however, I became breathless. She was writing about me. Jane—plain, slighted, stubborn, deeply moral—that was me. Meg from Little Women was me. I absorbed those books, made them part of my consciousness, as I never could with Tolkien or Twain, where I was only touring the characters’ world.

When I’m choosing what to read, I semi-consciously reach for the works that will answer the questions I currently have, illuminate the struggles I’ve had or am having, teach me about how I can live in the world. So I keep buying the works of white women and their magical, or saucy, or conflicted, or persecuted heroines who rise above adversity and become queens/enchantresses/successful small business owners/fulfilled wives of rich and powerful men. I know darn well that the human experience transcends boundaries, borders, race, culture, gender, sexual identity, whatever body or continent you’re on or in. Reading more widely would be highly educative, I admit it. But also, I sneakily admit, a bit more touristy than when I am reading about what informs, and has informed, this particular and individual self.

Which means that, when I read for pleasure, I’m not really reading to learn about the world, or become more informed about and sensitive to the circumstances of people who are different; I’m reading to become further acquainted with me. And that seems the most limited approach of all.

N.B.: I fully endorse The Last Love Song, Tracy Daugherty’s impressive bio of Joan Didion, as an NYT summer reading pick. It’s a splendid read, an incredibly detailed and insightful portrait of the woman, with some interesting historical tidbits to be picked up along the way. Which proves that I can enjoy and believe in men writing convincingly about women, if not as them. Unless they’re trans.