The Side Effects of 'Anti-Racist' Reading Lists

Reece Jordan argues that books written by people of colour should be commended on their merits rather than pigeonholed by the characteristics of the author.

Good people with admirable intentions have begun to circulate what they call ‘anti-racist reading lists.’ These lists are not new; they spring up during every cultural paroxysm produced by racial injustice. They are propelled by the understandable urge to react, educate, and to create some form of social change. But amidst the haze of reactionary goodwill there lies the danger of the methods by which these goals are attained going unchecked – and this appears to be the case here.

The problem with these sort of readings lists – as opposed to, say, ones that merely recommend ‘best books’ – is that they define the books’ value before they have even been read; the reader approaches them with the foreknowledge that the end-goal is that he or she will become more ‘anti-racist’. The list thus becomes something of a prescription, a catalogue of remedies for a certain illness. ‘Ingest this,’ it says, ‘and the problem will go away.’

Whilst this may yield desirable results with non-fiction texts (it will be a hard stretch to find someone ill-equipped to fight racism after digesting a factual history of socio-economic disparities, implicit bias, and slavery, for example), fiction should certainly not be what the doctor orders. However, as Lauren Michele Jackson points out, these lists make no such distinction: ‘essays slide against memoir and folklore, poetry [is] squeezed on either side by sociological tomes.’ The inclusion of fiction, I presume, is rooted in its proven ability to develop empathy. Get a white reader to read a narrative from the perspective of a black protagonist, who has been created by a black author, and they’ll begin to understand a life quite different to their own – so the formula goes. Fair enough. But there is a side effect to the prescription of this dynamic between black authors and white readers: it demeans the artistry of the writer. An apposite quote from Vladimir Nabokov I think best illustrates my point:

“In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalisation when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected. If one begins with a readymade generalisation, one begins at the wrong end and travels away from the book before one has started to understand it. Nothing is more boring or more unfair to the author than starting to read, say, Madame Bovary, with the preconceived notion that it is a denunciation of the bourgeoisie.”

If we swap out Madame Bovary for any of the literature on the lists – Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Purple Hibiscus are frequent appearances – and ‘denunciation of the bourgeoisie’ for ‘a means to become anti-racist’ then we begin to see how reductive it actually is. Intricacies of plot, structure and language, what Nabokov calls ‘the sunny trifles’ of novels, are lost in the reader’s pursuit of education by way of some Freaky Friday vicariousness. It contributes to the pernicious idea, as Jackson again states, that the role of black authors is to teach a white audience rather than exist as artists unto themselves. So whilst it might feel like a nice pat on the liberal back to promote these novels under the umbrella of ‘anti-racism’, it nonetheless is a reduction of the author, and all of her labours, to the unsolicited role of conduit for white people to have a ‘black experience’; and, to parrot Nabokov, ‘nothing is more boring or more unfair’ than that.

You’d hope that the opposite occurs. You’d hope that someone reads a book from these lists and, rather than swoon over the faint glow of their self-fashioned halo, instead fall in love with the novel’s ‘sunny trifles’ and its author’s effort in creating them. You’d hope – but you can’t be so sure.

Of course, it would be unfair to suggest that those who promote these lists do so with malicious intent; but to construct a great novel requires an arduous amount of work. We do a disservice to the authors we are attempting to elevate by cheapening their works to, essentially, self-help books.

Reece Jordan is a recent English graduate from the University of Bristol who writes on cultural issues, politics, literature, and composes short stories. 
He tweets at @reecejordan98. 
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