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White Male Writers: No Longer the Default, and Not Terribly Interesting

Steve Rhodes/Flickr

Oh, a white male writer, you say? I know the type. To say that a writer is a white man now evokes something specific. This is, historically speaking, a radically new development. Those two qualities—whiteness and dudeness—were once assumed, if you called yourself a writer. Now, not so much: It’s no longer really possible to say that someone’s a Jewish writer, a gay writer, a working-class writer, etc., with the assumption that this is still a white dude we’re talking about. 

As you almost certainly already heard, a white male poet named Michael Derrick Hudson got selected for The Best American Poetry 2015 under his “yellowface” pseudonym, Yi-Fen Chou. The stunt ended up revealing that yes, Yi-Fen Chou1 stands out in a way that Michael Derrick Hudson does not, but as the rest of the Internet pointed out, this is not, in fact, proof that white men are the real victims of diversity. 

But the most startling aspect of this debacle was the extent to which it revealed that “white male” is emerging as a literary identity of its own. “The fact that these white male writers are not the default anymore—that they can be named as white men and (sometimes unfairly) typified as pretentious—truly bothers them; this is not a demographic accustomed to being pre-judged,” Jia Tolentino wrote over at Jezebel in her response to the affair. 

I knew immediately what Tolentino meant by “pretentious”, because it summons a whole list of signifiers: @GuyInYourMFA, the DFW-bro controversy, the apologetic anonymous poet, blazers, The Toast’s “male novelist jokes” and The Hairpin’s more extensive caricature of the same, Franzen vs. Weiner, and perhaps most of all, a certain Knausgaard, whose windswept struggle is so much more Nordically austere than anyone else’s. It calls to mind mansplaining, and the conversations I remember having in college about the that-guy phenomenon—you know, the oblivious freshman holding forth in his philosophy class. But while the object of this criticism is sometimes just a male writer, and other times just a white one, self-importance and obliviousness have become a cliché for those who tick both boxes.

There has been a shift in the arts and entertainment away from treating the white male experience as the default. A slight one, and one that’s received plenty of backlash, but a shift all the same. See also: the artistic acceptance of a woman having a “male muse,” which may also, in some as-yet-to-be-articulated way, relate to the ubiquitous billboards of Rafael Nadal in his underpants. In other words, this need not be about white men as villains or oppressors; it’s simply about recognizing that everyone’s exotic to somebody. Even white guys.

But when it comes to literature, there’s something appealing about “pretentious” as the stereotype everyone’s landed on. “Pretentious” highlights how writers of any other background have long been categorized as unserious. White female writers get cast as dabblers (“a writer, how charming, where’s the banker husband?”), while non-white writers get tokenized, facing assumptions that they’re only worth reading because they shed light on a marginalized group’s suffering—and it’s even worse for female writers of color. For the writer devoted to Art, on the other hand, as the fiction goes, sustained by candlelight and two-buck chuck in a garret that might just overlook a fjord—or at the very least, Prospect Park West—profundity can only come from someone of the white and male persuasion. As long as mainstream society keeps bestowing a monopoly on universality to one particular demographic, there’s a certain joy in mocking writers of the demographic in question for collective (if not necessarily individual; more on that, too, in a moment) presumptuousness.

The specific cliché that’s emerged for the White Male Writer subverts the whole Seriousness thing, reframing it instead as self-seriousness—which is, of course, how Seriousness appears from the outside. Rather than insisting that people of all backgrounds can produce universal, canon-worthy art, branding white, male writers as pretentious mocks the (ridiculous) idea that only white men can write profoundly.

As a framework for venting, the White Male Writer™ approach makes sense. It’s a literary, non-violent version of that controversial (and, perhaps, in the UK, illegal) “#killallwhitemen” hashtag. (How awesome it would be if, along with “urban” fiction and “chick-lit,” special shelves in bookstores were devoted to “Pompous White Guy Interest”?) As a strategy for increasing the amount of shelf-space taken up by non-white and non-male writers, though, I’m less convinced. 

For White Male Writers™ rhetoric to work as a strategy, it would need to inspire otherwise aloof readers to consider that, hey, not all black writers, female writers, black female writers, etc., are the same, either. But it seems unlikely to me that terribly many of the unconvinced would make that leap. As with other™ arguments (such as, Nice Guys™, White Feminists™), starting from a hyperbolic generalization has a way of putting off even the potentially convinced. In this particular case, though, it’s particularly hard to attribute this to defensiveness. Precisely because white men have been in a position of relative advantage in the literary sphere (among others) for so long, it’s just too obviously impossible to categorize all white male writers as White Male Writers™. The majority of mainstream literature can’t be summed up as Sartre pondering existence in a Parisian café, and it certainly can’t be reduced to the musings of that guy in your dorm who fancied himself a Writer because he’d spent more than the usual amount for a notebook.

But the biggest problem with  White Male Writers™ as a tactic is that keeps the focus on… white male writers. It invites an ongoing conversation about what they should do, how they ought to represent female or non-white characters, or how they can be good allies. It’s an approach that especially invites white male participation—who else, after all, finds white men as interesting? If the goal is to open up the literary world to other demographics, a better approach would be to take white male writers—™ or otherwise—out of the spotlight.

  1. It eventually emerged that “Yi-Fen Chou” wasn’t just demographically deceptive, but was the name of a specific Asian-American woman he’d gone to high school with. The story of how that came to be has to be more interesting than dude’s poetry.