Reading with Liberal Big Brother: When Preference Becomes Prejudice
by Martin Cloutier (May 2013)
Recently, I was talking with a colleague who claimed to be ashamed at the lack of gender parity in his personal reading choices. “I ran my reading numbers and found them embarrassingly skewed,” he said. “And fixing that required a conscious effort: making new lists, buying differently, and reorganizing my To Read Next shelves.” This is a sentiment I find echoed by many other writers and professors, yet, in spite of the speakers’ good intentions, it never fails to send a chill up my spine.
I’m a gay writer, living in New York City, a feminist, a believer in Affirmative Action in hiring and admissions, and just about as liberal as a vegan stir-fry at a womyn’s music festival. However, the notion that our reading habits need to be monitored and sorted for gender parity alarms me.
I’ve always read as I pleased, carried by my personal whims and preferences: a happy bee, buzzing around whatever topics or writers suited my fancy. Sometimes, I’d fall in love with one author and read everything she wrote. Sometimes, it would be a particular period, and I’d have to read all the important novels from mid-century British authors. But while I was in my Henry Green phase, I didn’t want to stop myself and start reading Iris Murdoch just to achieve gender parity.
When I mentioned this to my colleague, he replied, “Literature is where I've staked my life, and if I'm not going to try to act morally and ethically there, where will I?” Unfortunately, the choice to label his position as moral implicitly reduces all those who disagree with him as immoral. This is partly why it’s so difficult to have a reasoned discussion about gender parity. Everyone is either staking out the moral high ground, or having to defend themselves against immorality.
The insistence on bringing reading choices into the ethical sphere turns something like a preference for reading Henry Green into a prejudice. Now when it comes to hiring and admissions practices, gender parity should be a moral issue. But intruding into the private space of my reading life is a step too far. Your reading list can be broader, smarter, more multicultural than mine, but I resist the notion it can be more moral.
If you were to say to me, “Martin, you haven’t read many French realists. That’s a big gap in your reading experience. Pick up some Stendhal or Balzac.” I would thank you for the suggestion. It still leaves me the option of saying, “I don’t really like the French realists. I prefer 20th century American literature.” And although you might feel slightly superior for having read more broadly, you haven’t condemned me to unethical behavior, just ignorance. In other words, my preference could still be a preference and not a prejudice. But as soon as morality enters the discussion, I’m immediately labeled as biased and rebuked, while you, my accuser, sit comfortably on pillows of moral superiority.
Andrew Erin, a freelance reviewer, writes that when it comes to gender parity in book reviews, he’s “part of the problem.”1 Of the 280 books that he has reviewed only 66 were written or edited by women. These numbers are typical of the report compiled by VIDA2 on gender parity in literary magazines. They are disturbing and need to be rectified. My concern is where to put the focus: in public practice or personal behavior?
You could make the case that if reviewers initially read more books by women they would routinely review more books by women. And so, like my ashamed colleague, you might advocate for quotas on reading habits. Several years ago, Robin Black created an Internet controversy by calling for gender parity in President Obama’s reading list.3 People accused her of everything from patronizing women to mind control. And while some commenters exhibited a disturbing misogyny, others made valid points about personal freedom.
My friend Harold, a fiction writer, believes “quotas are good because we’re racist, sexist and homophobic beings.” He alternates male and female authors, and every third book, if he hasn't read something by an author of color, he “hunts around for it.” On the surface, this seems benign, even admirable. But I question where the impetus is coming from. Is this his own personal taste, or has he so internalized the edicts to act “morally and ethically” that he can’t tell his own impulses from that of Liberal Big Brother?
You may say who cares where the impetus is coming from as long as the behavior is correct. But reading, I believe, is a little like falling in love. We are directed to our lovers by private desires, peculiar quirks, and individual deficiencies. We can’t fall in love with someone just because they’re different from our past lovers. If we do, it’s usually not an edifying relationship.
We must come to books to satisfy a specific thirst that arises from within. And the internal thirst of our psyches doesn’t come collated by sex and race. It might make itself known by a desire to read everything about riverboat journeys in the 1800s. Or, the urge to read stories about the lives of ancient Romans. The fact that most books on these subjects have been written by white males is irrelevant to our psyches.
I hear you shouting: Martin, wake up. We’ve been in a dysfunctional relationship with white male authors for hundreds of years – we need to break the pattern. To which I’d reply: by all means, break up with the straight white guys. Unlike those of us without gender parity in our reading habits, you are free to do so without moral reprobation. Leave them, if you find their stories dull, or their perspectives too narrow. Or, even if you still love them but want a bit of something on the side. Reading is a form of meditation; you must listen to your innermost voice and go where it dictates.
So how can we achieve gender parity in literary publications without impinging on personal freedom and stifling our inner voices? Hire more female reviewers and place an emphasis on gender parity in reviews. I’m reluctant to advocate for exact quotas because it’s possible in any given period to have a greater number of compelling books by either gender. Issuing moral directives and imposing quotas on reading habits only impedes personal freedom and stifles the promiscuous inclinations of an engaged mind.
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