Black (and white) Books

This morning I encountered a mild Twitter spat between an English author and an Australian film director about a famous American musician’s choice of books. The musician’s 10 favourite volumes had been laid bare in a magazine article and the author was seemingly dismissive of them, although to be fair, the biggest jibe was reserved for the magazine article’s headline, which proclaimed “From Bukowski to Kerouac…” Which is a bit like claiming to be an experienced international traveller having taken in both London and Manchester. The film director took the author to task, saying that the list contained some of the finest writers and as such should not be condemned. The writer countered with the fact that these fine writers were all white and male, which, as a definitive list of influences, suggested that the influencer pool was somewhat shallow. I thought that both the author and the film director had valid points. But my biggest take was something personal that had troubled me about my own list of favourite writers, seen on the About page of this very website.

I have listed 30 books. They’re not intended as a “greatest” list. Instead they are personal to me, books and writers who have given me the most pleasure or been the most memorable or who have a particular historical resonance to my life or even shaped the way I write now. They stretch from books enjoyed in early childhood to books I read only a little pre-pandemic. Some of them aren’t even that great. Richard Llewellyn’s Tell Me Now, And Again is a deeply flawed book and far from his How Green Was My Valley best, and yet when I read it as a teenager it felt daring and domestically-exotic in equal measure. I reread it a couple of years ago and while its flaws were more apparent, I still enjoyed it as a piece of nostalgia and in many respects, foresight. 

More troubling, if that’s the right word (I’m still trying to decide), was that these 30 books contained only three female writers (Anna Burns, Joyce Carol Oates and Erin Morgenstern), with every other writer (with the single exception of Haruki Murakami) being a white male. Not a single BAME writer other than Murakami (whose elevation to the literary establishment seems to surpass such categorisation, unless that in itself reveals another layer of misunderstanding), a thought that hadn’t occurred to me when I wrote the original list and almost included Arundhati Roy, whose novels I like and greatly admire but don’t love in the way I do the others here, and who therefore within the context of the list itself would have felt almost tokenistic. Likewise, Zadie Smith.

Where is Marlon James? Where is Colson Whitehead? Where is Toni Morrison? Where is Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Alice Walker and on and on? 

The truth of that is that these are writers I haven’t experienced, despite both Marlon James and Colson Whitehead having books on my “must read” list.  And it got me thinking about how my choices (not just my “list” choices, but my everyday reading choices) have been made. We can, of course, only ever read the books that we discover, be that through reviews, peer group enthusiasm, gifts, browsing or however else. And as such the social circles we move within play a part in determining our choices. But so do the items on offer, those books published and presented by reviews and bookstores and that huge online repository I try and stay away from. The sheer number of books published has risen in recent years to the point where choice can feel overwhelming. And it would be easy to say it’s publishing’s fault, that not enough BAME writers receive the recognition they deserve; occasionally, such as the recent furore over the launch of Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, claims of outright racism are levelled and often with good reason. 

However, to blame “publishing” feels lazy. Whilst the disparities between white and non-white writers are clearly there and need addressing, on a personal level I need to ask myself why I haven’t read, for example, those Marlon James and Colson Whitehead books? And it comes down to making decisions on what books I carry around with me that, while consciously have nothing to do with race, are nonetheless lazy in terms of what I hoped to gain from the book itself. Possibly my favourite writer, Tim Winton, has taught me huge amounts about different kinds of Australian experience, has highlighted toxic masculinity, has increased my awareness of environmental issues, all while entertaining me with some of the finest prose I’ve ever read. Maybe I should apply this principle to BAME writers, too. Maybe I’d take away a different sense of reading and understanding. Just as on a personal level I seek to learn and educate myself about history and experience, perhaps I should also be doing so on a literary basis. 

Marlon, you’re up next. 

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