I've had this in mind for a few weeks, but I think I now have a better reason or set of reasons for its implementation: I would like to resolve to read no novels or poetry by white American men for the next year. Wow! Isn't that crazy!
Of course, it wouldn't be crazy—it would probably just be considered accidental—if I went a year without reading someone who wasn't white, American and male, but this--this is something really extreme, almost ascetic in its commitment to political correctness, right? This is like one of those super-size-me type stunts, right? Yeah, no.
Here's what I'm thinking. I ran across a list titled "Best American Fiction 1968-1998" (downloadable here) compiled conjointly by two very smart, sensitive but frequently self-righteous readers, D.G. Myers (A Commonplace Blog) and Patrick Kurp (Anecdotal Evidence). And there are more Philip Roth books (3) on there than books by men of color (2, unless I missed one). And if you're a woman and not Southern, you have about as good a shot getting on the list. And that doesn't even cover the absence of women of color on the list. And I can't say for sure (since I haven't read all the books on the list), but it seems to me unlikely that any has a significant gay theme.
I don't think of it as being all affirmative-action-y to say that, if you've really been reading widely in the thirty-year period in question, there'd be quite a few more books by gays, by women and by men who are not white. In fact, I don't even think such an assertion is all that "politically correct"—it's just a statement of reality. Between 1968 and 1998, there was more fantastic literature produced by minorities than is represented in this list, though Kurp argues to the contrary ("Despite the growing attention paid to female writers during Myers’ 30-year period, he rightly excludes books written by women except O’Connor’s (and she died in 1964) and Welty’s (her best stories were written long before 1968)." He also says he hates Morrison and J.C. Oates. And maybe just women who don't write purposely to and for male audiences.) I'm not going to impute more bias to either man than what Kurp outright declares—I'm just saying it's a very narrow list, and I don't ever want to look back at thirty years of writing and be only able to come up with a list this limited.
Frankly, I'm terrified of becoming one of these narrow readers—one of the men who call themselves "common readers" and pride themselves on the "capacity for ignoring the tribalism and exclusivity endemic to the world of books," all of which washes out to mean that they never bother themselves with questions about what kinds of books they're not reading. Instead, they obsess over the "quality" or "worth" of the books they've already read, as if the notches on their bookcase represent the whole universe of books and what that universe really requires is a good ranking system. I don't ever want to be like that. I might as well go back to collecting baseball cards.
If you've noticed, I've not suggested any specific authors who have been left off, and that's because I don't feel like I have the authority to provide a full or very complete list of the omissions. I've got a few books I think should have been considered, but to be honest, I haven't read a tremendous amount of literature by writers who aren't white, straight and/or male from this period, and I feel like I need to do so before I can adequately form a counter-canon of sorts. I'm confident that there are enough books out there from this period to overwhelm the list Myers and Kurp created, and I'll hopefully be reading many of them this year.
So this is where my New Year's Resolution comes in. I'm not going to see it as a failure if I do end up reading something by a white guy—this isn't about purging my mind of white-guy-literature or something, and it's not really even about proving a point (that's what this post is for). I just feel I need some kind of motivating force behind the choices I make for my reading this year, and this can be it.
It does take a certain amount of conscious force to change the way you choose what you read. The blog Three Percent and The Complete Review and some others are doing an amazing job encouraging people to read more literature in translation, and they acknowledge that it has to be a conscious act to do so. I don't really see my resolution as being very different from them—as with international literature, I see a fairly large gap in my reading, and I want to make reading choices that address it.
We'll see how I do.