The customary idiocy is doing the rounds of Facebook again. All about reading authors that aren’t white males.
I don’t know about you, but not being a roman augur, I don’t read authors, I read books. I never learned to read entrails, and besides, it’s probably illegal. Or at least would get me an angry letter from the SPCA.
Seriously now, don’t I think that the author’s biography and his and her background influence how and what they write? Don’t I want to read new and fresh things?The answer is sure, but not that much. And sometimes. Also for both, ask the magic 8 ball.
I don’t talk about it much, but I have a degree in Languages and Literature (technically in Portuguese “literatures.” It’s complicated, but it’s basically a year past the MA and a year short of the Phd.) I don’t talk about it much, because, you know… I was in it for the languages which was the “hardest” thing I could take in liberal arts, and the literature just sort of came along with it.
I find it funny and a little odd that the left — since these quests to not read white males come mostly from the left — has gone back to the status quo that they displace in literary analysis and criticism.
To explain: in the nineteenth century, and to the extent it was done before, literary analysis was the author’s biography. You looked at the book, and at the author’s life and tried to figure out what in the author’s life made the book so powerful.
In the early to mid twentieth century this was replaced by what was eventually actually called explicitly Marxist analysis. You looked at the social-political forces, inserted it int he Marxist matrix of literary analysis and spit out why the book was powerful or significant.
This, btw, doesn’t seem to plug in well into the book selling, but it’s still largely what’s at the back of the left’s considering some books good and others bad. It has nothing to do with the book or the feelings it invokes, but does it further the revolution of the proletariat? Does it slot in easily with class struggle, enough to make it relevant.
Beyond the fact that this analysis is incredibly easy to do and can save you reading some turgid and uninteresting books (I once based an entire paper on a three page prologue. Aced it too.) and beyond its pushing an ideology that gets tiresome after a while, it’s a lousy method of evaluating a book.
For the record so is biography.
The truth is that neither the biography nor the “what was going on at the time” explains the truly powerful, lasting authors.
Sure, we can read Shakespeare and kind of know he didn’t know a heck of a lot about say diplomatic negotiations — maybe — but part of the reason he annoys the crap out of people and that there is a dispute over his biography is that the man wrote everyone and everything and did it powerfully. And also made some boneheaded absurd errors of, say, geography that wouldn’t be hard to inform himself on, even then.
As for Marxist class and race and whatever the heck consciousness? Okay, so Alexander Dumas was 1/4 black. Which should be much more important in those days than now, btw, in terms of lived experience. His father was a slave. Okay, his grandmother was his grandfather’s slave, and is grandfather only released his older son from slavery when hitting France (this might have been a stratagem to save on fares. Also, you were automatically freed in France.) Said grandfather also sold his for lack of a better term common law wife and HIS OTHER CHILDREN to pay for his passage back to France when he inherited the earldom.
If Marxist analysis were right, Dumas would show the consciousness of his oppressed father, etc. Does he?
Hell no. The one thing you can say he got form his father’s horrible life experience was his father’s chivalrous and gallant attitude and the tendency to fall in love with pretty ideas. The ideas, though? Well, his father was an ardent French Republican. You cannot read Dumas and think he was.
And I can tell you why, too, because I have perhaps more experience with it than most other authors: because the times weren’t right for revolution or republic in France when he was publishing. There was a nostalgia in the reading public for the stability of monarchy. That’s what they wanted to read and that’s what sold.
Which is why neither bio nor social terms are right. It’s somewhere between. Sure, this will be different with indie. at least you can GET to the public. But the public will still only buy that which resonates with them.
Let’s all take a deep breath here, shall we? I KNOW. My first short stories, that I sent out were authentically Portuguese, mostly because I knew zero about living in America. I’d been here for less than a year.
They were universally rejected, but the funny thing is HOW they were rejected: all of them accused me of knowing nothing about… Portugal. Or of being a bigot. Or of never having left the US and needing to broaden my horizons.
That’s because each culture has an image of the other culture in their head. They vary across the world. None of them have anything to do with the truth. Until I knew the American image in the mind of Portugal, I couldn’t communicate. What came across, and was actually authentic, was read by Americans as either incomprehensible, bizarre or a slur (btw, the xenophobic accusations were mostly about things like Portuguese — then — not refrigerating cream pastries. I still don’t GET that one. I mean, I get it. Americans have a fetish with refrigeration (old battle with my kids “no, the eggs don’t go bad because I left them out for an hour” but I still don’t GET it at gut level.)
Even if you’re not from abroad, it’s the same with your biography. PARTICULARLY if it’s a different/rich/interesting biography. If your biography doesn’t match the categories in people’s heads it won’t sell.
So good selling books are a negotiation between the reader and the writer, and come out somewhere in between.
For most of the 20th and at least 10 years of the 21st century this negotiation was done through NY editors — graduates of the best universities, that is to say very well grounded in Marxist analysis — which meant what came out as fresh and self-consciously different was almost exclusively predictable Marxist cant. A lot of it written by white males.
Which is part of my problem with this idiocy. Look, there are white males who had fresh and different experiences, compared to the run of the mill of books in the US. Given his upbringing and place where it took place, Dave Freer is one of them. Does this make him easier to sell? Well. No. In fact we periodically talk about it. Even indie, he has a harder time reaching US readers, because though he’s an excellent writer, he doesn’t know what’s in most people’s heads here. The “cultural signposts” so to put it.
There are other males, white and US born who will have similar issues because they grew in small and strange subcultures.
And don’t we want fresh and different perspectives?
Well, kind of. We want fresh and different perspectives we can slot into with not too much trouble. That’s kind of like “I want something fresh, like the last fifty fresh things I read.”
Also, by and large the reading public doesn’t want “new and fresh.” Sure, sometimes, particularly for well pushed, well reviewed books. But super-readers, where the meat and drink of publishing is are mostly readers of “popcorn books.”
I know, I am one of them and fully exploit the KULL program on Amazon, because I read — on a slow week, when installing floors and refinishing furniture — about a dozen books.
And while I love and adore well done “niche”books, say books saturated with early 20th century life in some NYC neighborhood, where the entire story can only happen there, or Barry Hughart’s tales “of a China that never was”, mostly I read “popcorn books”digested and forgotten, just something to read while eating, or while doing crochet. Heck, if I’m tired I read almost exclusively Jane Austen fanfic or interchangeable cozy mysteries.
Besides all this, what IS the obsession with “male” in “don’t read white males.” No, seriously. I’m 56 years old an my early influences as were almost exclusively female: Enid Blyton, (who was the one that made me want to be a writer) the Countess of Segur and Agatha Christie. Dumas and Shakespeare fell in there somewhere along the way, but so did Austen.
And in science fiction Anne McCaffrey was a major influence in my teen years.
So…. really? What is this exclusively male voice that we need a break from. Hell, given that I read a lot of cozy mysteries and most of those are women, reading a male now and then IS a break.
Anyway, again, and for once: I don’t read authors. I read books. And authors being strange creatures (hence the SPCA joke) no, it doesn’t seem that our bio, or our social circumstances explain our writing.
Yeah, I love to read a new and fresh voice. And when I find it, I’ll devour all his/her work in a week.
But I have yet to find that this trends one way or another in race and/or sex. In fact, boxing authors by race and sex almost by definition means you’re looking for people who slot into your image of what “this content of melanin, this equipment” is. Which means they might give you confirmation joy, but they won’t challenge you.
I’m not my color, my sex or my orientation. I’m CERTAINLY not my biography. Being a writer means you can play dress up anywhere, anywhen and anyhow forever.
Don’t box me in.