I’m not given to musings on the Done Read. I review things, and then on Sundays I dither. I am so cozy in my rut. But I have a musing, and it’s not because I’ve run out of back-logged reviews (though I’m scraping the bottom of that barrel), but because I’ve been thinking about something that came up in the bloggonets about a year ago and then in my theory class the other day.
My theory class, to a person, did not like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. We weren’t reading it for class, so most of us had read it many years ago and couldn’t really articulate why, but none of us liked it. My theory class, to a person, is also white, middle-to-upper-class kids in their twenties.
I like books by dead white men and living white women. This is a descriptive, not prescriptive, statement. I don’t go out looking for books by dead white men and living white women, nor do I solely read books by dead white men and living white women. But the authors that I love and didn’t think I could help loving are the Charles Dickens and the Wilkie Collins and the Connie Willis and the Tana French and the Barbara Vine.
I think my aesthetic preferences might be racist. This is not talked about nearly enough, because racism is a topic for egg-shells and tiptoes. But I was raised on a diet of white, Euro-centric authors and when I read books by Japanese authors or Sudanese authors or Aboriginal authors I almost invariably don’t like them.
A large part of this is me not being used to them, and having no context to put them in. I can’t tell if they’re good. The discussion on Achebe’s Things Fall Apart soon became a debate about whether it wasn’t good or whether we weren’t used to the aesthetic. It might be legitimately awful, but we couldn’t say for sure. A blogger recently reviewed a compilation the style of which she thought was ‘unprofessional,’ and said that the contributers weren’t professional writers (thanks for the correction, Eva), whereupon the editor promptly retorted that she just didn’t ‘get’ the style because of racial differences. She was looking for a different thing than the contributors were offering. The mode of response was unwarranted, and the message may not have applied to the reviewer in question, but definitely would have applied to me. I’m starting to realize I have a very narrow field of aesthetic appreciation.
Because there’s a difference between saying it’s no good and saying I don’t like it. Curry is good, but I don’t like it. An abstract painting may be good, but I probably won’t like it either. The difference with literature is, I think, a sense of responsibility. There is hella whiteness in published books these days and I have been part of the problem. I like what I like because I read what I’ve been fed, and maybe that hasn’t been my fault but it is now.
Those in power in academia control what is taught in universities, and I can do little about that except write a strongly-worded letter. What I can and feel I should do as a reader is seek out authors of different origins and ethnicities, and I know that there are many other bloggers and challenges that do this deliberately. Good on them. But I want to clarify that my reasons for thinking and doing this are not to ease my white guilt, or to mix up the racial profile of the NYT Best-Seller list just for the sake of mixing it up.
I like good books. I don’t think I should read an Ethiopian author to ‘fill my quota’ even though she isn’t good, but I’m afraid she may be good and I just won’t notice. We’ve talked in the intertubes about changing the face of publishing by letting publishers know that we will buy books by and about notwhitepeople, but I also want to change the shape of my brain-pan so that this is actually a true statement I’m making, and not just a moral position I feel I should uphold.
And it might not be true. I might not like Vietnamese authors. But I gave mushrooms a good many goes before deciding I didn’t like them, and every so often I’ll give one a cautious nibble just to see. Still not a fan. But you can’t say you don’t like it if you’ve never tried it (thanks, mom), and tried it well.
So I guess this is my manifesto for 2011: try it well. I’ll be reading much dead white ladies for my honors thesis (in which Daphne du Maurier faces off against Charlotte Bronte) but in my extracurricular reading I want to vary my usual beloved mix of Victorians and contemporary white folk. As the winsome Henry Tilney says, it is well to have as many holds on happiness as possible. So you’ve found me out at last – this is equal parts high-mindedness and selfishness. I want to like more things.
What things do you like?
Also, aside, there are probably mannny problematic things in this post that I’m totally not aware of. Please point them out, but please do not yell at me. This is my other beef – I want to be able to say racist and privileged things by accident and have someone point it out to me without shouting because I am trying and how the hell else am I supposed to know if I’m not allowed to make mistakes? Let us all correct each other’s errors, but let us all assume we all mean well, ok? Ok.