Anyone who's been paying attention to publishing and the books world lately knows that there's a strong and growing push for greater diversity in literature of all types, and in the publishing industry itself. To most people, you would think that wanting to include and highlight more voices would be a good thing. But to some, suggesting people read more diversely is akin to a witch hunt against straight, white, cis men. Firmly in the latter camp is Martin Daubney, whose Telegraph piece "Are You Reading Too Many Books By Straight White Men" makes this assertion.
Daubney's essay is primarily focused on an xoJane opinion piece by K Tempest encouraging readers to pick up more books by women, people of color, and LGBT people — but it also takes issue with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, author Saladin Ahmed, "social justice warriors," and white men who acknowledge their own privilege. As Daubney writes, straight, white, cis male authors are now the ones who are in danger of disappearing or becoming underrepresented, and the ones who are the primary targets of Internet hate.
This is all (rather obviously to people who have been paying attention) untrue. Not just because I say so, but because of facts.
Despite Daubney's claim that social media has become downright hazardous for privileged men (and his love of putting "privilege" in scare quotes), actual research shows that in fact the opposite is true. Though both men and women experience online harassment, studies have shown that women are much more likely to experience gender based harassment — in other words, women are frequently harassed because they are women, while men are only very rarely harassed because the are men. And educated, though informal, assessments also strongly suggest that harassment of this type is also higher among people of color and LGBT people — and particularly those who identify with more than one marginalized group.
In addition, while men are somewhat more likely to report being harassed online, most men report less severe forms of harassment, like name-calling, whereas women are much more likely than men to experience more severe forms of online harassment. In fact, women are “uniquely likely to experience stalking and sexual harassment, while also not escaping the high rates of other types of harassment common to young people in general,” including physical threats, according to a Pew Research study.
Again, let me repeat this: the idea that men have it worse when it comes to online harassment is not true because of evidence. Daubney can continue to claim that male authors are being hounded off of social media or out of publishing, but unless he has some numbers to back that up, no one has to take him seriously.
The same goes for his claim that publishing is not currently skewed in favor of more privileged voices, particularly straight, white, cis men. Though Daubney never states this outright in his piece, his phrasing when he refers to things like the "perceived 'inherent bias' in publishing" makes it clear he believes all the talk about publishing being disproportionately white, male, and non-LGBT is just conjecture, when actually it too is borne out by the numbers.
According to estimates, 89 percent of employees in the publishing industry identify as white — and 61 percent of employees say that there is little diversity in publishing. And this unsurprisingly leads to a situation where stories by and about white people are disproportionately common, and are especially over-represented among books held up as quality literature. Meanwhile, books by and about LGBT people often struggle to achieve mainstream recognition, regardless of their high quality.
And when it comes to women the same holds true — books by male authors are more likely to be reviewed in literary publications, which are also more likely to publish stories by men. Even in genres where female authors are more common, like young adult, men are still disproportionately likely to take home awards. And that's in addition to issues such as gendered covers or the way in which female-driven genres are written off as "chick lit" or the backlash women face for speaking out against the male dominated literary culture.
Given all this, does anyone really think that encouraging people to try reading books written by women, people of color, and/or LGBT people (whether by reading one of more of those groups exclusively or by just adding more such titles to your shelf) is really going to cause the subordination of straight, white, cis male authors?
Unfortunately, Daubney's reaction is not an uncommon one, and not just when it comes to books. White men — particularly ones who are not LGBT — have a long history of cultural dominance, as well as dominance in academia, business, and government. And just about everything else. So when that position is challenged — when marginalized groups point out that being born with this particular combination of identity markers doesn't actually make you more deserving of relevance or power — straight, white, cis men get defensive. And in a world where we are all (supposedly) know that sexism, racism, and homophobia are wrong, the easiest way to defend the unequal status quo is to pretend that the inequality doesn't exist.
Not even the blinding force of privilege, though, is enough to change the fact that this inequality does exist and is increasingly well documented.
So, to answer Daubney's titular question much differently than he himself clearly does: Are you reading too many books by straight, white men? Probably. Not because there's anything inherently wrong with books by straight white men — though if you aren't any or all of those things, they might not tend to speak to you and that's perfectly fine, too — but because such books make up the majority of titles that gain cultural prominence in our society, and thus are probably overrepresented on your shelf unless you've made a conscious effort to branch out.
Branching out is not a chore. Although achieving equality in publishing (whether by race, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity) would still be a worthy goal whether or not it was enjoyable, the truth is that experiencing diverse voices in literature is awesome. There are books by and about women, people of color, and LGBT people that are truly phenomenal by anyone's standards. To say nothing of the fact that limiting your reading life to only authors who have experienced the world from one specific perspective is boring.
Reading more diversely — and encouraging others to do the same — is not an attack on straight, white, cis men. For one thing, these men are doing just fine and don't need anyone's help. For another, trying to correct widespread inequality in publishing — or anywhere — is not and has never been about punishing the current "winners" in the rigged system. It's about dismantling the system and creating a level playing field for all. Which is good for writers and readers.
So ignore Michael Daubney. Go seek out some books not just by straight, white, cis men. Expand your horizons. Support diverse authors. Send the publishing industry that it's OK for them to publish these kinds of titles. Read even more books. And enjoy!
Images: Giphy (4)