Thursday, August 27, 2009

Reading, Writing, and Male Privilege

When I read fiction for pleasure, I tend to read fiction written by female authors. This isn't a conscious thing. It is just, I suppose, my preference. I spent decades of my life, in school, reading books written by men and, well, now I know what I like. And, now that I can choose what I am going to read, I read what I am interested in and what I enjoy.

What I would never do, however, is compile all of my favorite lady-authored stories and create some sort of anthology called Bestest Fiction Writing Ever On the Planet! Why? Well, for one, what the "best" writing is, is largely a subjective matter. It's a personal preference. Two, I know any list I create would not really be a list of the Bestest Ever writing (could there ever, objectively, be such a thing anyway?). It would, instead, be a list of (what I believed to be) the Bestest Ever writing by only a smaller segment of all writers, namely, the women ones.

A few weeks ago, however, the science fiction blogosphere was in an uproar about one such anthology. Its title? The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing Science Fiction, edited by Mike Ashley. Of this anthology's contents, the front cover made the following claim: "The 25 Finest Stories of Awesome Science Fiction."

Of these stories, as blogger Arachne Jericho notes, not a single one was written by a woman or a person of color.

Now, given my introduction to this post, I absolutely think that people are entitled to their own reading preferences. That's a no-brainer. Yet, what becomes problematic is when people pass off their own subjective preferences as some sort of objective truth about what kind of writers tend to be the "best" or most "awesome" kind of writers. That's my issue with anthologies that claim to present the best, finest, or most awesomest of any kind of writing.

See, we all have our personal preferences. I stated mine above. While some of us might say we don't "notice" things like the sex, gender, race, or ethnicity of the author, I think that many people nonetheless prefer writing written by certain types of authors. Reading is a personal thing, and what speaks to one person doesn't necessarily speak to another. So, I think it's also a no-brainer that this particular editor of science fiction writing has a personal preference for white male-authored stories. There's nothing "bad" about that, per se. It only becomes a problem when a person turns that preference into some sort of objective truth. Like, perhaps claiming that the stories he likes are "the 25 finest stories of awesome science fiction."

When these sorts of things happen, one can predict certain responses. For one, women and people of color will become upset. And justifiably so. Works by women and people of color are largely excluded from what is considered the Western canon of literature and "classics." While the exclusion of women and people of color (POC) from the Western canon is the result of a myriad of historical factors, the exclusion of these groups of writers from a modern science fiction anthology is not at all complicated, justifiable, or excusable. (I'm not saying it's justifiable or excusable to exclude women and POC from the Western canon- just that it's less so for more modern works, given the great numbers of authors in these groups toiling away).

Two, when the Anthology Defenders come out, we will see the axiom "privilege means not having to be aware of one's own privilege" come into play. Specifically, the white male fans of science fiction who aren't appalled at an anthology's exclusion of non-white, non-male writers, will insist that when they read science fiction, they just want to read good science fiction. They don't care about quotas, tokens, or diversity. They just want to read good stories. And, so what if every single last one of those good stories happen to have been written by a white man? Implicit in this argument, oodles of which you can find in the comment section of the link above, is the idea that it was just some sort of Incredible but Justified Coincidence that the anthology only contains works by white men.

That outlook is, simply, white male privilege in action. It is an entitlement, a perspective, that differs from that of many women and many people of color. For, as a woman, I am both aware that (a) I like good stories too and (b) the stories I find to be "good" are often written by women. As white men, many fans are aware that (a) they like good stories too but (b) they don't "notice" things like race, gender, or ethnicity (even though they, like say Mike Ashley, obviously have preferences for fiction written by white men).

Why don't they notice these things? They don't have to.

When JRR Tolkien conjures up an incredibly rich fantasy series that includes walking trees, rich made-up languages, and a powerful magical ring-thingy, but cannot seem to imagine a race of woman warriors or, indeed even, say, one woman in an entire trilogy full of male characters who is not defined solely by her beauty or her relationship to a man, that is male privilege in action. That male readers (and many female readers) fail to notice, that they don't have to notice, the homosocially male world that Tolkien has created, that is male privilege in action.

Many men don't have to notice things like gender. And so, quite simply, they don't.

And, in not noticing the exclusivity of character and/or author representation, they nonetheless act as though they have some sort of handle on objective quality that the rest of us, who do notice such things, lack. They have the privilege of believing that what counts as "good" fiction to themselves is the arbiter of what counts as good fiction for everyone else, blissfully ignorant of the fact that oftentimes their lists are exclusive, both in terms of author and character representation. While the writers of the Greats/Bests/Awesomests often exclude and alienate we Others, white men have the privilege of believing that people who look much like themselves are Just Really Good at Writing, Coincidentally!, and that those Others (a) whine too much, (b) are tokens, and/or (c) are only making these complaints because they are jealous of the Incredible Talent of the White Man.

Not having to notice that Others have stories to tell too, and that Others are listening to those stories, they, quite simply, don't.


The Angry Black Woman's Most Awesome (ha ha) takedown of a defender of this anthology of white male science fiction.

K Tempest Bradford's "Mindblowing" List of science fiction by women and persons of color.

My reviews of Ursula Le Guin's "The Matter of Seggrei" and The Left Hand of Darkness.

No comments: