The joy I get out of going to a museum is experiencing visual art in all of its breathtaking and jarring forms. I am of the gaze-first-read-description-later type; I’m less interested in who created a work than in the emotions it evokes, the mental paradigms that get shifted around, and the connection I make to something bigger. I wonder how I would feel about this transformative experience if a sign was posted at the museum exit stating that most of what I had seen had been created by only a narrow demographic. More than anything, I would feel cheated – of beauty and experience and a chance for personal growth.
A movement is afoot in the literary world to broaden our horizons and expose us to diverse writers. It’s called #ReadWomen2014, and it started innocently enough. Joanna Walsh, a writer and artist, created bookmarks that listed female authors and sent them to friends and colleagues in lieu of holiday cards. Recipients in the publishing world acknowledged that women are underrepresented in book reviews, and therefore less of those works are making it out into the mainstream. For example, in 2012, works written by women accounted for only 22% of reviews in The New York Review Of Books (source: VIDA). As a result we readers are being deprived of their voices and unique perspectives.
Picking up this thread, David E. Pritchard, the editor of the journal The Critical Flame, wrote about dedicating this year to women writers and writers of color:
What we can see today are the outlines of a culture still dominated by white male figures, and by the presumption of their essential literary merit, everywhere from major publishing houses to small literary journals. As far as mainstream literary culture is concerned, white males are the default. They continue to personify the sublime human person, accessible to all readers, while other writers—women, African Americans, Latinos, etc.—are presumed to relate an incomplete version of life, narrowed by their lack of access to this white male universality.
Many of us don’t think about this much. Books get press or attention on social media, they make their way into book group lists, and we read them. That they are written by men or women is less important than that they are a “good read”. What Pritchard points out, though, is that perhaps we have become too comfortable in thinking that the version of character, plot, and setting presented by predominantly white male writers is the right and true version of writing. Or that there is one at all.
To be clear, this is not a feminist thing, it’s an art thing. I don’t think the answer is to read only women writers or writers of color, although I appreciate the stand being made. Instead, I’ll dedicate myself to reading the writing of the global melting pot and to intentionally choosing works because they represent something new, to me. My own voice as a writer will develop more fully if I understand how broad and deep the canon of literature really is.
First up, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. (That will be after I finish the latest delicious installment in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches.) What will you be reading?
Leah and Carolyn