Selective Reading

Alyssa Rosenberg writes for the Washington Post covering culture and media, she writes about television and film mostly, but she flits about a bit and often talks about books. In March 2015 she wrote about an idea suggested to her by a blog post by a technology journalist called K. T. Bradford. The idea is that book readers could try reading books by particular authors based on their sex, race and gender. Particularly, that they try for a year to not read books by white, middle class cisgendered males.

I am, to be honest, a white cisgendered male, although I had to look up cisgendered to find out what it means and for anyone who needs to do the same it means that your gender identity is in accord with your biological sex. If you walk like a duck and quack like a duck then you are a cisgendered duck. I don’t think anyone could accuse me of being middle class but I am receptive to the idea of checking my privilege from time to time so ideas that ask me to do that are not immediately written off as hysterical feminist rants, even if they are, like this, a definitively first world problem. I don’t,  for example, tend to agree with issues like the proportion of MP’s in parliament and the number of directors on the boards of large companies, that often seem at a superficial level to have some merit to them but are on closer examination devoid of merit and in fact counter to any logic that can be applied. So I thought it worth examining the idea of choosing authors based on their sexuality to see where the idea comes from and discover, if I can, whether it has any merit.

K. T. Bradford is a technology journalist who has written about and reviewed technology, “mostly of the mobile variety,” for Laptop Magazine, Android Central, Mashable, Time’s TechLand blog, and others. She also describes herself as a, “Non-Fake Geek Girl,” a term that I’m afraid you will have to parse yourself because I have no idea what it means. She also writes short fiction, and part of her self improvement program is to read a lot of short fiction and, not unreasonably, she reads the sort of fiction that she wants to write, which turns out to be science fiction and fantasy. The inspiration for her idea, if it can be called that, was her discovery that a lot of the stories in the magazines she was reading were just not very good.

I’m fairly sure that most nine-year-old children are vaguely familiar with the idea that not all stories are equally good. You know, some stories are better than others and some are so terrific you have them read to you every night for a week until mum knows the story by heart. It is, to be honest, a little disheartening to hear that a woman who is both a journalist and an aspiring author of short fiction was discovering this as an adult by reading fantasy magazines. It does kind of make you wonder what she’d been reading up to that point in her life.

Her reaction to these stories she didn’t like, and I’m not joking here, was, “I rage-quit the issue.” K. T. Bradford, it seems, is a grown adult who has anger management issues over made up stories in pulp fiction magazines. Okay.

Her solution to this anger management issue was, as explained on her blog, “Then I thought: What if I only read stories by a certain type of author? Instead of reading everything, I would only look at stories by women or people of color or LGBT writers.  Essentially: no straight, cis, white males.”

I freely admit that I don’t see the connection either. She said the stories were not that good, so she stops reading straight white cisgendered males. Is there any evidence the stories she didn’t like were written by straight white cisgendered males? Or by straight dudes, or by white males, or even by men? If there is she doesn’t say so. K.T. Bradford is a technology journalist, so I think it reasonable to suppose she is familiar with the concept of adding up things to see how many of them there are. She could have added up the stories she didn’t like, analysed the demographic profiles of the authors and learned that the stories she didn’t like were written by pre-pubescent teens sitting alone in darkened bedrooms with one finger up their nose. Or maybe they were written by people who, just like her, needed to improve their writing and were extremely grateful for the crumb of encouragement they got from getting one of their stories published in a magazine.

However, absent any logical connection between sexual orientation and writing ability, K. T. Bradford claims that, “Cutting that one demographic out of my reading list greatly improved my enjoyment of reading short stories.”

What confuses me at this point is how she would even know which authors are cisgendered. I have been consistently referring to K. T. Bradford using feminine pronouns because the photograph on her blog makes her look like a woman, and she calls herself a geek girl, but I genuinely have no idea whether she is cisgendered or not and absent the option of asking her directly there doesn’t appear to be any way I could possibly know that, or any reason for me to ask. So how does K. T. Bradford know which authors of short stories in science fiction and fantasy magazines are cisgendered?

Obviously, she doesn’t, and therefore her claim that cutting out that particular demographic can improve her reading experience is completely invalid. The whole thing is, ironically, a fiction based on her own prejudice. She doesn’t want to read the work of white middle class cisgendered males and has constructed some utterly transparent and illogical reason to justify her prejudice.

There is, to be fair, nothing inherently wrong with having prejudices, we all have them, even me. I don’t read science fiction and fantasy magazines and wouldn’t even know how to get hold of one if I wanted to, and am not particularly interested in finding out. But I have no logical explanation for any of that, it just is the case that science fiction has never interested me and I see no need to justify or explain that to anyone else and if they want to crucify me on Twitter because of it then so be it.

The mere fact that K. T. Bradford has no valid justification for her prejudice does not, of itself, mean that her idea has no merit. She might be right for the wrong reason, or right for no reason at all. To close out this topic we would have to know whether reading any particular demographic might serve some purpose. Is there, for example, any privilege to be legitimately checked? Is there a prejudice in the book publishing industry so that straight white cisgendered males get priority in the publishing queue? Do we need more women authors? Is the feminist viewpoint represented in contemporary fiction? and so forth. In other words, does she actually have a point or was this just another in that long line of completely illogical feminist rants where all they are saying is that they want a bigger slice of the pie?

As a side note: Not all feminists rant. Not all feminist rants are illogical, and not all feminist rants that are logical are about equality of opportunity. I totally, wholeheartedly and completely support any feminist action that searches for equality of opportunity. As soon as they turn that into equality of outcome, I switch off. Women should be able to be jack hammer operators if they want, and scientists and judges and tank drivers and they should be able to stand for election for public office and choose their own clothes and have the vote and hold the TV remote and get degrees and put mayonnaise on their chips and sit on the board of directors and assemble flat pack furniture and play professional ice hockey and have their own front door key if they want. Absolutely. Hell, they can even do all those at once if they want and I don’t even care if they want to stand up to pee. But once they start arguing about how many of anything there are, I zone out.

If women can be promoted to a judgeship then how many female judges there are says nothing about equality. How many female judges there are is a function of how many female barristers there are and how many female solicitors and how many female law students. If, and only if, fifty percent of law students are women can you expect around fifty percent of law graduates to be women. But that only has to do with law graduates and might have nothing to do with how many women actually enter the legal profession. How many women in the profession actually go down the route of civil and criminal trial law that might lead to a judgeship? How many pursue it long enough to qualify as a barrister? How many even want to be a judge but would prefer to remain in the cut and thrust of a criminal trial? Without the answers to all of these questions simply counting judges and claiming to have shown that the system is patriarchal is illogical, unintelligent, uninformed and unworthy of anyone who might aspire to becoming a judge.

When feminists allow themselves to be sidetracked by fights over how many, how many board directors there are or how many politicians there are or how many Pulitzer prize winners there are they are no longer arguing for any kind of equality that I can recognise as being equal. They are arguing for a bigger slice of the pie. There is nothing wrong with wanting a bigger slice of the pie. We all want a bigger slice of the pie and both capitalism itself and the American Dream are predicated on the idea that anyone can aspire to improve themselves, drag themselves up, become more than their parents imagined. “I farm so that my son can go to college so that his son can become a poet.” Wanting more of whatever is available is natural, it’s human, it is perfectly normal and the one who gives back some of her share is praised and admired precisely because it is so unusual. Wanting more of the pie is normal. Pretending that you are owed more of the pie is the dishonest and distasteful side of feminism, and I will not subscribe to it, neither will I support or defend it but I will expose its hypocrisy when required.

K. T. Bradford wants more of the pie, too. Her pie consists of science fiction and fantasy magazines with her stories in them, and that’s what she wants more of, more of her stories in more magazines. I wish her well. Reading lots of those stories should give her some insight into what the publishers are looking for, then all she has to do is learn to write to the template. I’m sure it’s called creative writing for a reason but if template writing is your bag then go for it. But can she achieve that by not reading work by straight white cisgendered males?

I first read A. S. Byatt’s novel Possession (1990) shortly after it won the Booker Prize in 1990. I was going through a completist phase and that it had won a prize seemed a good reason to read it. It turned out to be a terrific read and I read it at least twice more before it occurred to me that I had no idea who A. S. Byatt was. I didn’t even know if A. S. Byatt was a man or a woman but it didn’t seem to matter very much because the book was engrossing and convoluted and beautifully written and absorbing and confusing and everything I like in a novel I haven’t written myself.

After they invented the interweb I learned that the A. stands for Antonia, but knowing that has added nothing to my appreciation of her writing. So when K. T. Bradford said that not reading straight white cisgendered males improved her reading experience I have no idea what she was talking about. People don’t read Jane Austen because she’s a woman, they read her because they are terrific and very well written stories. No one reads Zadie Smith because she’s a woman, they read her because she tells intelligent, contemporary stories about things that are invigorating and relevant to the lives we lead. No one reads Anita Shreve because she’s a woman, they read her because although not very much happens in an Anita Shreve novel, it does always happen very beautifully and lyrically to intensely believable people in a way that makes you almost wish you lived in the world where her novels exist. People in general do not read women writers because they are women, they read them because they are damn fine writers who just happen to be women.

For as long as there have been writers there has been a debate about what writers do, whether it is their responsibility to report on the injustices in the world or to posit solutions or to transport readers to worlds where such problems do not exist or to temporarily relieve readers of their cares and woes. I read for all of these reasons, and more, and one of the most stimulating things I have learned is to read people you disagree with. Then read authors who have been censored in their own country and authors who have had their  works suppressed and authors who have had to pretend to be someone else and flee to another country to get their books into print. All of these are terrific reasons for choosing which books to read and this will lead you to the works of Boris Pasternak and Chinua Achebe and Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov and Frederico Lorca, all of whom are on K. T. Barnard’s banned list because they happen to be straight white cisgendered males.

Anyone who would choose not to read Cervantes or Henry James or James Joyce or Honore de Balzac or Thomas Hardy or Ernest Hemingway because they are white middle class men has no understanding of what a novel is and should have her library card burned on the beach at midnight by the light of a full moon. When she has nothing else to read but back issues of science fiction and fantasy magazines she will come to fully understand the meaning of the word pain and will repent and beg to be allowed to read Richard Powers novels. I suggest she start with The Time of Our Singing (2003), which might teach her a thing or two about prejudice.



Washington Post 27 March 2015 – 24 books for a year of reading only work by women, Alyssa Rosenberg

K. T. Bradford, 22 February 2015 – I Challenge You to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year

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