Dear Reader, pause for a moment and think of three great masters of literature.
Now, picture their faces or do a quick Google search to see what they look like. I’d venture a guess to say they were, all or mostly, white cisgender men. Unsurprisingly, societal systems of oppression are just as alive and well on our bookcases as they are literally everywhere else.
So, how did our collective view of “great literature” become so narrow? Why, in a world with such varied experiences, is there a single narrative within a single genre that constitutes “good literature”?
I mean, how many books can one read about a white man on a quest, anyway? We get it, my dude, you’re only willing to explore your feelings in the context of very conventionally manly activities, in the company of an underdeveloped female plot device. And, sure, I like Hemingway as much as the next person, but isn’t it time for some other narratives?
Because of my privilege as a white, middle-class, cisgender woman who is often assumed to be straight (I’m bisexual and married to a hetero, cis man), I’ve been blind to many of these systems for a majority of my life. As such, I was naïve enough to be surprised at the ways that kyriarchy (the social system that keeps all intersecting oppressions in place) had influenced and dictated my life and habits.
Books have always been my way in. When I wanted to learn more about art, I read. When I wanted to learn more about my own sexuality, I read. When I started thinking about sobriety; you guessed it, I read. So, in examining my privilege, I found myself checking out my bookcase.
It turned out, unsurprisingly, that even my most sacred of spaces—my bookcase—was dictated by systems of oppression. I’d filled my bookcase with cisgender, straight, white dudes, without even noticing. Reading is supposed to set us free, not keep us stuck. But when we only take in literature from a single demographic, it does just that. And although there are, of course, infinitely more harmful places where these power systems manifest, the words that we consume are important.
And sadly, my bookcase was not alone. In 2017, according to Amazon user data, all 10 of 2017’s “Most Read Fiction Books” were written by white people. Only two in the non-fiction category were by people of color, Trevor Noah and Kevin Hart, Black men who had seen significant success and large audiences before venturing into the writing sphere.
The literary world of sobriety doesn’t fare much better. Though problem drinking is on the rise across demographics, and is especially high within the LGBTQ+ community, in my experience, most prominent voices in the sobriety space are white, cis, and straight ones. So, in the nature of self-reflection, let’s dig a little deeper into a few of the countless reasons these power structures manifest on our bookshelves.
Because of my privilege as a white, middle-class, cisgender woman who is often assumed to be straight (I’m bisexual and married to a hetero, cis man), I’ve been blind to many of these systems for a majority of my life.
Breaking the Continuity of “Greatness”
As soon as we learn to read, those of us in the U.S. are told and “shown” an idea of “great literature” that’s been so continuously and consistently reinforced since grade school, that by adulthood, we don’t even remember to question it.
“Good literature,” as taught in schools and referred to in antiquated academia, tends to reflect mainly the white cisgender male demographic (with a scattering of white, cis-women). In fact, nine of the 10 most commonly taught texts in American high schools are by white, cisgender men. There are zero openly queer folks represented, and Shakespeare alone makes up 40% of the list.
Booze too, has long been the public domain of the white, male, and largely straight artist. Writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Bukowski, Thompson, and Wilde paired their love of alcohol and their art in a way that would create a cultural understanding that in order to create, we needed to destroy or suffer in miserable drunkenness. What this said to me growing up, and what it says to the majority of school children without needing words, is that great literature is by white, straight, cisgender folks only. Usually, while they were drunk and cheating on their wives.
Masters of written language like James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and Toni Morrison are simply not covered in the American classroom in the way that white literary giants are. In the above list of most common texts, which examined Public, Catholic, and Independent schools, grades 9-12, it was found that the most frequently required books and authors were written by white males, with almost no change in overall balance in the past 25 years.
When repeated enough, these messages are powerful and serve to keep us from questioning the books and other media that we consume. But of course, we’re never off the hook. Allowing these messages to continue, especially to children, does a huge disservice across generations and creates a foundation of false knowledge that we must intentionally and actively disrupt. If we aren’t actively working to dismantle systems of oppression, we are supporting them. There is no middle ground.
Writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Bukowski, Thompson, and Wilde paired their love of alcohol and their art in a way that would create a cultural understanding that in order to create, we needed to destroy or suffer in miserable drunkenness.
Disrupting the Establishment
These messages about what constitutes good literature aren’t only confined to grade school and college, but also escalate throughout the larger publishing world and the media. Of the world’s five major publishing houses, all five have white cisgender male CEOs and were founded by white cis-male founders.
There is a legacy of power and money (and deals made over booze-filled lunches) in these spaces that is deeply ingrained and difficult to infiltrate. Similarly, as recently as 2012 writer Roxane Gay proved that this also extended to book reviews, when she discovered that 90% of books reviewed by the New York Times in 2011 were by white authors. Nearly 60% of those books were by white cisgender men. Of the 742 books reviewed, just one was by a transgender writer. These numbers are obviously wildly disproportionate to population demographics.
And while strides have been made, with women making up 43% of writers reviewed by The New York Times Book Review in 2017, non-binary writers make up only .2% of those reviewed in the same year. A 2014 breakdown by race, shows that white writers still made up 83.6% of writers reviewed, with Black writers making up only 4%. With stats like these, we must either believe that white cisgender people write great literature at record rates (Spoiler: We don’t!), or be willing to acknowledge that our bookshelves have likely been filled by a discriminatory system, which we have been supporting with our dollars.
Of the world’s five major publishing houses, all five have white cisgender male CEOs and were founded by white cis-male founders.
Opening Doors to Access
According to Business Insider, all 14 of 2016’s highest paid authors were white. Every single one. That isn’t coincidental. When white supremacy keeps non-white writers from being considered, covered by prominent reviews, and paid fairly, the results serve to reinforce false ideas that writing by white authors is “better,” more relatable, and/or more commercially viable.
It’s also important that we consider both the current and the historical barriers to writing careers for people of color, and queer folks. During slavery, Black people in America were denied access to education. Just admitting that they could read or write could be deadly. Knowledge is power, and those at the top of power structures avoided sharing at all costs.
At that time, putting writing into the world posed a very real safety concern and was largely fiscally infeasible due to the inaccessibility of printing. Post-slavery, underfunded and segregated (first legally, now in more insidious ways) schools serve as an additional barrier, though of course, many Black writers have brought their work into the world despite society’s best efforts to silence them.
For queer folks, being vocal about their gender identity and/or sexuality in their writing can still be dangerous. According to an FBI report, as of 2016, despite underreporting of violent incidents, hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity were on the rise. Beyond physical violence, only 17 states and the District of Columbia have housing and employment protection that prevents transgender and non-binary folks from being fired or evicted due to their gender identity or expression. Writers should not have to risk their job, their housing, and their personal safety to follow their dreams.
When white supremacy keeps non-white writers from being considered, covered by prominent reviews, and paid fairly, the results serve to reinforce false ideas that writing by white authors is “better,” more relatable, and/or more commercially viable.
Now, I understand that making our the books on our shelves more representative will not, on its own, dismantle these compounding insidious systems of oppression. But, it’s a small, doable starting point. Here are a few ways that we can start to take on oppressive power structures on our bookcase:
1. Get honest.
Look at your book purchases, ask if they look single-dimensional, and then ask why. Be honest.
I find it helps to write my answers down. Ask yourself about your underlying biases and where they came from. Why do you believe what you believe? Confront your discomfort with blunt honesty, even if you don’t like the answers. This is how we start seeing the blind spots that we develop when we have the privilege of not noticing them. Seek out greater learning via books, documentaries, shows, or the Internet if you have questions, and always make sure to pay for the work of LGBTQIA+ folks and people of color (POC).
Never expect or ask for free emotional labor. If there is a book review that you love and rely on, pay attention to who they feature. If someone is missing, call it out on social media or via a letter to the editor.
2. Actively seek.
The leaders to follow here are POC, particularly WOC, LGBTQIA+ folks and people at the intersection of these and other marginalized identities. The good news is that, in the age of the internet, we have unbridled access to so many brilliant voices, both in the sobriety community and beyond.
Consume media by and for people who are different than you. Social media is a great place to start. If someone you follow comes out with a book, pre-order it. Listen to podcasts, watch movies, television, and read magazines and blogs, but understand that often this media is not for you, meaning that the white/straight/cis gaze will not be front and center.
Be a good guest and learn by listening. Respect these voices and stories and note their resource suggestions. Use sites like Patreon to support writers, creators, and teachers in their endeavors. Again, always pay for what you consume.
3. When buying books, buy two. (Or more!)
If you find a book you love, support the person/people who brought it into the world by buying copies for friends, rather than lending your own. Although I know the lure of sending a great book to a friend once you’ve finished it, these writers engaged in effort and emotional labor to bring that book to you.
If you enjoyed their work and think a friend would, too? Great! Pay it forward by buying a second copy and giving it away. Not only will you have yours for rereads, but your friend can feel free to dog-ear, take notes, and fold pages to their heart’s content.
4. Ask a child what they’re reading.
If you have kiddos or young folks in your life, consider purchasing books for them. If you have contact with teachers and school officials, ask them what books will be included in their curriculum and why. Bring alternative, age-appropriate suggestions for consideration.
As discussed, it is unlikely that kids will see varied perspectives in school. You can help by giving them alternative opportunities to learn about and discuss big issues. Talk about systems of oppression and have hard conversations.
As a white, cis-person, I operate daily within a world where media—whether television, movies, “popular” radio, books, magazines, etc.—is made for and about folks like me. It’s rare for me to turn on the TV and not feel represented based on my race and gender identity. It’s rare that a white gaze and narrative is not centered. Even within the sobriety space, a majority of those with a platform look like me. Cisgender folks are represented in media in ways that non-binary and trans folks are still not. And it’s still rare that I see bisexual characters portrayed as something other than one-dimensional, sex-crazed plot devices.
Writing at its best comes from experience, and representation, both in the written word and on the bestseller list, matters. One of the very best things about reading is getting to see the world through someone else’s eyes. When we only read books by one demographic, we never have to sit with the discomfort of an experience that is different from our own and, we never have to confront our reaction to not being centered.
When we only read books by one demographic, we never have to sit with the discomfort of an experience that is different from our own and, we never have to confront our reaction to not being centered.
Sure, it’s just a bookshelf. But maybe it’s also how we start to realize how infuriating and exhausting being actively discriminated against must feel. Perhaps we start to look at why, when the race of a character is not specifically noted, we assume they are white. How when their sexuality isn’t noted, we assume they are straight. We start to look at why transgender and non-binary characters are often confined to stories about their gender, rather than their multifaceted experience.
Maybe the way we consume media and news, and the ways that we question ourselves and others starts to change. Maybe we learn our way into an unlearning of ingrained untruths. Maybe we start buying books for the kids and young people in our lives, so that they have a better chance at taking on these systems than we do. Maybe, we finally start to wake up and act. And maybe it all starts with one book.