Be an activist about the authors you read

Wow: ALL the books that The Economist cites by its own writers in its year-end ‘what to read’ section are by men! Clean sweep. Good work, boys.

I’ve all but ceased* reading books by white men. I realised earlier this year that almost every book I’ve read in the last 5 years had a male author(!) – except the Wolf Hall duo.

burstSo I’m on a drive to read more by women – and men of colour.

This skew is everywhere. For example, every week, The Week has an author (who needs some press coverage) recommend their fave books. This week, as quite often, they’re all by men.

It seems to be much easier to get published if you’re a man. One author approached 100 agents about a book: when the author’s name was a woman, it received just two responses, but when it was a man’s name, it got 17 responses. (Exact same book proposal.) Furthermore, the responses to the man’s name were much more positive and encouraging than those to the woman’s name. Sadly this wasn’t a ‘lab experiment’ but a real author’s experience of trying to get published. She’s a woman – Catherine Nichols – and said “it must be great to be a man!”.

It’s interesting: I read almost entirely non-fiction (science, maths, history, etc.) and, when I say that it’s mainly by men, people say ‘well yes’, as though women don’t/can’t write such books. It’s nonsense: there’s loads, if you look a bit. Here’s some of what I’ve read this year:

There are two good reasons for diversifying the authors you read.

First, to hear new voices and views. White men have certainly – ahem – made themselves heard (e.g., I have a degree in Western philosophy, which was entirely white men). I was inspired by David Evans who’s been reading this year books by authors from every country in Africa. For example, the book Nine Pints, science book about blood, is vastly different because the author is a woman than it would have been if it were by a man, e.g., she describes endometriosis and menopausal depression from her own experience of both.

I’ve found that deliberately reading books by people who aren’t white men opens up space: space for voices I’d not much heard before. Space to encounter new ideas and perspectives. Which, for me, is the whole reason for reading.

And second, because writing books is both a consequence of privilege and a cause of it. I say this as somebody who’s written a book. It’s a consequence of privilege because you need time to write: time when your employer pays you to write (senior people seem to get that more than junior people do), or time when you don’t need to be earning – or caring for anybody or commuting for hours because you can only afford housing miles away from your work. That is privilege. And it’s a cause of further privilege because books turn into speaking engagements, fees, travel, and press articles and hence better networks, clients, visibility etc. Cumulative advantage. In other words, your choice of authors whose books you buy / read / talk about / promote affects where power & privilege go. Be an activist.

So if you’re writing a book & you’re a white guy, get a co-author who isn’t. Share the spoils. I really mean this: it’s true for any book, and particularly if you’re a white guy writing about international development or philanthropy or some other thing designed to re-distribute power and privilege. Do some of that yourself. Go find a co-author. There are loads of people who can write books. Try to find somebody from a low- or middle-income country: we hear far too little from them. They will enrich your book perspectives and hence the book. 

*Not completely. I’m not a fundamentalist.

And anyway, Emily Maitlis has a new book out now, and the third Wolf Hall book publishes in March. I’ll be busy 😉
More on this topic:
  • Oxford philosopher Rachel Fraser article in the Spectator: ”Reading shapes our moral sensibility: the literary dominance of white men impoverishes our ethical understanding.”
  • Journalist MA Siegart on research showing that “men were disproportionately unlikely even to open a book by a woman… All this suggests that men, consciously or unconsciously, don’t accord female authors as much authority as male ones…If men don’t read books by and about women, they will…continue to see the world through an almost entirely male lens… this narrow focus will affect our relationships with them, as colleagues, as friends and as partners. ” 
Post-script: Here are some books I’ve read since writing the post above. See: there’s no shortage of great books – incl. non-fiction – by women and people of colour:
Books, Sept 2020
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