A Constraint to Free Me
Apr 06, 2016
by Andrew Mangan, Associate Editor, Colorado Review
A year ago, I was deluded. I’d persuaded myself to believe that I was a diverse reader, since my ten favorite authors then were a demographic scattershot: Lorrie Moore, Junot Díaz, ZZ Packer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ben Marcus, Ottessa Moshfegh, Yiyun Li, Donald Antrim, Nam Le, Tobias Wolff (in no order). Fewer than half are white men! I am not the problem. Go, me.
Then, around this time last year, I decided to tally my books, the number I had by women and the number by men. I do stuff like this occasionally because I am apparently a masochist, and because I had at that point been operating under the assumption that the gender divide of my bookshelf would be pretty fair.
It was not. Men outnumbered women approximately 1.5:1.
Furthermore, during this tally, I realized that after that top-ten list, my favorite authors were more or less a blizzard of white dudes. Oh how I love Charles Baxter and Michael Chabon (like everyone), Jeffrey Eugenides (like most), and Franzen (well, at least The Corrections). And then there were Bret Anthony Johnston, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Adam Haslett, George Saunders, the up-and-comer Thomas Pierce, and the Davids Bezmozgis and Gates and Foster Wallace.
So, no. Not eclectic. Not really. I fully believe David Foster Wallace’s saying that “fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being”; and if I’m not reading widely, then my understanding of what is to be a human being is horribly narrow, even ignorant. Thus, in response, I engineered for myself a restriction in my reading: No white men, alternating genders; if an author is genderqueer, it takes place of a self-identifying man. It sounds Byzantine-ish, but in practice it’s fairly easy. I did this for a year, reading white men only when required by class.
I relapsed after a month. I really, really wanted to read Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life.
But then I stuck to it for real, for a year. Since then, I’ve opened up my favorite-author list substantially. I discovered new favorites: Kirstin Valdez Quade, Angela Flournoy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Akhil Sharma, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, Fran Ross, and James Baldwin (yes, I realize it’s a sin I hadn’t read him). I read more by Adam Johnson, Rebecca Curtis, Daniel Alarcón, and Mona Simpson (good god, her story “Lawns”).
Simply put, I needed a constraint to free me of my own myopic tendencies concerning literature. And though I’ve since quit this rule, I created another, similar one, as I will endlessly. But thankfully, the options are out there; they always will be. You just have to get yourself to look.