The first time I saw a picture of one of my favorite authors, I was seventeen and an exchange student in the US. (I think I’ve made mention here, but maybe not, of how Portuguese did book covers: generic images, no author picture.) I borrowed a Clifford Simak hardback from the library, turned the picture over, and…. there he was.
And I was profoundly disappointed.
Look, I knew my favorite authors were my dad’s age or older. But did they all (I found other pictures later) need to look old and nerdish, and like they’d dismiss me with a “Little girl, we’re talking about important stuff here?” Couldn’t one of them at least be ravishingly handsome, rugged and about thirty if that?
Now that I’m well, old and one of the group — because the group of science fiction authors extends through space and time, and we don’t make much nevermind about vital status — I look at pictures of worldcons before I was born, and I can imagine myself walking into the hospitality suite, grabbing some stale peanuts and sitting on the floor, where the greats are talking, just to listen. And I know too that they wouldn’t have sent my 17 year old self away. Argued with me, to the last ditch, sure, but like my husband on the day they met and, for reasons known only to the psychiatrists we don’t have, fell into a heated discussion of parallel worlds from philosophical and mathematical perspectives, they’d be enthusiastic and happy to trade opinions. Oh, I’m not saying there wouldn’t have been flirting, some of it likely inappropriate. It was the times it was. But I doubt very much that it would have gone beyond that, without encouragement. (And heck, I grew up in Portugal.) However, there is to the vast SF geekdom this: that we forget everything in the presence of really compelling ideas, and I have always had a way of making men forget what I looked like, when I started talking.
Anyway, up till then, I really didn’t have a mental image of what the authors looked like, and I couldn’t care less. Just as I couldn’t care less if I read books that contained only male characters (Look, mostly not even science fiction, but dad’s World War I and II historical fiction library.)
What I cared about was that the characters be interesting, and the setting plausible and vivid.
I do realize that makes me a very strange little Portuguese girl, (wink, nudge) but I really didn’t need a Portuguese female character to be interested. Though I did sometimes wonder why everyone in the future would have English names. (Look, I was very young. I later found some French names, and Spanish names, too.)
And sure, I read only males — like oh, Anne McCaffrey, and Agatha Christie, to name two of them. — because as we know, in the past, only males were allowed to write.
Which is why nowadays, one by one “dead white males” are being erased from the curriculum, for equity or something. And why incredibly stupid people write about how males shouldn’t write novels, because you know, we have to make up for the hundreds of years that women weren’t allowed to write.
Need I clarify that there was never a time when women weren’t allowed to write or publish? I come from a very old culture, and the really old poetry (All literature starts with poetry unless it’s a nation born from a colony) was often penned by women, sometimes even nuns.
And there was no real discrimination about publishing women, though it’s entirely possible that in the middle-ages there was some sniffy stuff about women writing sacred stuff, for all I know. And sure, here and there some publisher might have been a pain in the butt, but here, listen, getting published for men, women or small striped dragons is not all beer and skittles. Either trad rejection or public indifference are by far the most common result of trying to get published. Getting published and/or known involves both skill and luck, the amount of each varying with each case.
So, why were most of the writers of the past men?
Well, because women often weren’t taught to write. Even in my childhood, it was normal for parents to save up, and send their sons to the best private schools available, while they sent their daughters to the village school. One step down from that, and women weren’t taught to read, while men were.
Unfair, etc? Oh, sure. I assume. Women in my family seem to be literate time out of mind, but you know, for most of a women’s life it wasn’t necessary. Even illiterate women could cypher and count money, which was needed. Writing, not so much, except for the occasional letter, and you could often get a neighbor to write one for you.
Mind you it wasn’t necessary for most men, either, and there’s a good chance most men in the past also couldn’t write. But for a few: priests, administrators, lawyers, it was essential. And if they chose to write on the side, they did.
Before you start screaming, as I said, a lot of the writing we have way back is from nuns. Or, you know, very rich women.
You see, writing, particularly fiction writing, is a thing of a very wealthy society. Societies that are living from meal to meal, barely scratching up a living, don’t have the leisure to write epics, nor frankly the leisure to read them.
So, by definition, only a small number of men, and a smaller number of women (let’s remember that until the advent of contraceptives, most women spent most of their lives pregnant) wrote at all.
Were these white people?
This is not a serious question. Depending on what you consider “white” — I mean, my people were writing plays, while the Northern Blonder People were painting their belly blue — if you extend it to the Mediterranean and middle east, yeah, they were white. On account of the rest of the world being largely illiterate or sunk in pre-history. (I know some South American civilizations had writing, but we don’t know how any of it worked, since it hasn’t been deciphered.)
It’s not like someone stood at the door, checking the paintchip color of people, before disseminating their writing.
No, that requires the modern age and a very expensive college education, because it’s an idea so stupid only the extremely indoctrinated could believe it.
The books, the stories, the biographies and histories we have are the only voices of their time. Were they written mostly by white males? Waggles hand. Probably a majority yes, and?
Will they have inherent biases? Damn Skippy they will. They were, you see, written by humans. And being written by humans, they will have the flaws of humans, which is being confined within their own time. And each time has its own notions, which seem ridiculous to other people in other times. (Yes, ours perhaps more than any other.) And yes, they would have their opinions as males. Which is not the same as the opinions of a woman of their time would be.
However, they are our past. You can often read around the edges and figure out the history of women in that time too. And at any rate, humanity is a whole, not different enough to rate separate histories. We are grown ups and can abstract the not-said from the said. Well, at least I can.
Here’s the thing, though, when you dismiss writers as “dead white males” or, I suppose “dead white females” and instead are prouder than anything that “women and people of color are getting published” and go out of your way to promote those, regardless of quality, you’re being more racist than anyone in the past. And more sexist too.
And you’re doing literature and history a serious disservice.
Humanity comes in many colors and our span of life is finite and confined in time.
But confining what’s available on purpose is exactly opposite the purpose of literature.
The purpose of literature is to get out from the space behind our eyes, and for a little while to be someone else.
Sure, narratives from a different perspective — if well done — are exotic and will appeal. But since we’re not all alike, what appeals to some won’t appeal to all.
During the late unpleasantness in SF there was a big claim that I or others like me didn’t want “women and minorities” to be published.
Besides being farcical (I have looked in the mirror, yes) that claim is also exactly the opposite of what we wanted. And what I want.
I want everyone who wants to write and be published to be so. Now, remember what I said above: most people fail at this, either traditional or indie. Instead of a triumphal march, the road to publication most often resembles a series of kicks in the teeth.
BUT those people who stick with it, and work at it? I don’t really give a good goddamn what their color, sex or sexual orientation is, I want them to be published. Because you know what? I read much faster than I write, and much faster than my half dozen favorites write. And I hate being out of new stuff to read.
Now, do I think they should be given priority in publication or dissemination ahead of “white males”? What kind of stupid question is that? I want good books to get published and distributed wide. I couldn’t care less about the personal characteristics of the author. Sure, if I like an author very very much, I will perhaps want to meet him or her. (This is mixed. Some of the people I met made it impossible to read their stuff again. And I liked it before…) But most of the time? I couldn’t care less. Terry Pratchett could have been a paraplegic lesbian pacific islander, and I’d have loved his books just the same.
To give priority to books because of the author’s color or minority status is rock-bottom-stupid. To get dumber than that, you’d have to be a nematode. Seriously.
The purpose of literature is to communicate. The purpose of fiction is to entertain and escape. Maybe to make you think as a distant third. None of that has anything to do with what a person does in the bedroom, what’s between their legs or their skin color.
And by the way, I know a number of men who write women better than women do, and vice versa, because humans are ridiculous and complex.
So, in defense of dead — and living — white males and even white honorary males, like all the women who wrote before 2000, in all the fields and whom present “women” are intent on erasing:
The only people who benefit from erasing the past of a field are those who know they’re not good enough to compete, and hope that by hiding the giants they’ll look way better.
This can be fixed by making everyone: male, female, hardvark, and white, black, purple, or polka dotted compete fairly.
Judge the book, not the author.
Anything else is the kind of stupidity that unmakes civilization. And none of these luvies would be as fond of pre-history as they think they would.
Write it all, market it all. Try as hard as you can.
Let excellence (and a bit of luck) determine whom our descendants get to sneer at.