Thursday, July 2, 2009

Newsweek Tells You to Read White Male Writers. Now.


The latest issue of Newsweek lists "What You Should Read Now - and Why” in addition to other literary features, listing 50 books that they feel offer "a window on the times in which we live". Not a bad idea, especially when there’s an interesting meta-list of the 100 greatest books (the comprehensive result of different lists) as a comparative measure.

Except that both lists are OVERWHELMINGLY white and male. Some disparity is reflective of the issues in publishing in history. But when one writes a list purporting to reflect our modern world, the practical erasure women, persons of color, and the GQBTL community is not only indicative of an narrow and over privileged point of view, it’s obtuse and just plain wrong.

By the numbers, here are the kinds of voices Newsweek thinks you should be reading now:
  • 42 out of 50 writers (an ENORMOUS 84%), are white
  • 39 out of 50 writers (78%) are men
  • 33 out of 50 writers (66%) are white men
  • 48 out of 50 writers are straight
  • 49 out of 50 writers are either white or male.
It gets even worse once you realize that a great deal of these writers have been stuffed into the last ten slots. Of numbers 41-50 on this list, only five are white men – meaning that the top 40 books are even more disproportionately white and male. It’s like Newsweek realized it fucked up at the last second and tried to stuff as many oppressed bodies in as possible, as a weak and pathetic defense.

And by the numbers, here are the voices that define literature for all time:
  • 84 out of 100 were men
  • 88 of 100 were white
  • 97 out of 100 were either white or male
This is less reflective of Newsweek’s myopia and more of national patterns of oppression in publishing/literature, but still. Wow.

You’re not going to hear me claim that this is a post-racial society that Newsweek is deigning to reflect, but persons of color, women, and BQTLG-identified folks are a major and significant part of our society’s discourse today. I often do not read a diverse enough roster of writers, but’s utterly asinine to exempt or ignore their perspective on society when purporting to choose the books that represent today.

In a time in which the isms or race, sex, and sexuality are far from unsolved and making news on a daily basis, how can a list of books written primarily by white straight men "deal directly with the issues of today or simply help us see ourselves in new and surprising ways"? How are we supposed to see ourselves in new ways if we're listening to the same old voices we've always privileged?


  1. Hi,

    Just a quick note - these stats don't add up:

    - 39 out of 50 writers (78%) are women
    - 33 out of 50 writers (66%) are white men

    That said, you make really good points about most of that list - and I'd argue that the list as a whole is a lot less interesting because of the lack of diversity. I'll be following the alternative list, though, based on Cara's recommendation. Thanks for covering this!

  2. Hi there Ros, thanks for stopping by. Thanks for pointing out the men/women typo, but those are the correct percentages. Feel free to submit!


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