The Imaginary War on White Men
I’ll always remember the moment that I finished the first draft of my first novel. As I typed the final sentence, I could feel my pulse in my temples, and I paused before typing the final period of the last sentence of the book. And then, as soon as it was done, I felt lightheaded. It didn’t take long to regain my composure, however, and I immediately started making phone calls. “I did it,” I’d say. “I finished it.”
Then, of course, came the process of sending it to trusted friends and a few strangers to read it and give me feedback, as well as to a copy editor who would spot all of my typos and grammatical errors. About six months later, I was ready to start querying agents who might want to represent me, as well as sending the manuscript to smaller, independent publishing houses who would speak to me without an agent.
About three months into that process, a friend said to me, “I really like your book.…”
“But?” I asked. There was clearly a “but” coming.
“But,” they said, “I think it’s going to be hard for you to sell it in this climate.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well,” they said, and made a face that meant they were about to say something controversial or offensive.
“Just say it,” I said. “It’s okay.”
“Look, you’re a white guy. And nobody wants books written by white men right now.”
My friend isn’t overtly racist, by the way. They happen to know a lot about the publishing industry, and it was true that books written by traditionally marginalized groups were very hot in 2019. This continues today, by the way; publishers are under increased pressure to find stories about the marginalized, written by authors who represent those groups.
Nevertheless, a mid-size independent publisher purchased my book about two months later, and it was published the following year.
I’m thinking about this story because of the words that James Patterson spoke last month to the Sunday Times, lamenting how much harder it is today for white men, especially older white men, to find writing jobs in film, theatre, TV, and publishing. He called it “just another form of racism.”
James Patterson is worth $800 million dollars. On a list of living authors with the highest net worth, Patterson comes in second, just behind J.K. Rowling. He has an enormous fan base, and every book with his name on the cover is an immediate bestseller. His recent collaboration with Dolly Parton (Run, Rose, Run), debuted as the number one best-selling book in the country.
Of course, in a world where the writing rooms and bestseller lists of the world are still dominated by white men, his comments provoked a furious response. Patterson issued a straightforward apology two days later.
There’s a familiar saying among diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioners: When you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
And, if privilege is truly all you’ve ever known, then yes: in a future world where equity is the norm, things won’t come as easily to the formerly advantaged. There are only so many seats at the rhetorical table. If women, the LGBTQ community, and people of color start getting more access, there will be fewer straight white men in the room. For them, success might be just a little harder to come by.
But honestly, straight white men don’t need to be afraid of such a world. Because it will only be the mediocre straight white men who will have to learn to live with less.
And yet, any time a conversation is raised about breaking down barriers and improving access for marginalized people, those who’ve always enjoyed that access start to panic. They interpret the conversation as a personal attack, like the whole world is mad at them for being born straight and white and male. Positioned in the center of their own personal universe, they focus on how the situation will affect them, and—without a trace of irony—start positioning themselves as victims.
The truth is that the world is already unfair, and it has been so for some time. Allowing brilliant writers who are Black, brown, Asian, women, gay, or trans to take some of the seats previously occupied by straight white men is an effort to stamp out unfairness, not the opposite.
And guess what? The writing will be better, too.
Allow me to say a few words to the white men who feel personally threatened by progress: I get it. Everyone has been telling you your whole life that all you had to do was work hard, and you would succeed. Now, you wonder if your hard work will be enough. It’s natural to feel worried when things seem to be changing.
But please be aware: the moment you label it unfair or reverse racism or cast yourself as the victim of the story, all anyone else can hear are your fears about your own mediocrity. So if that’s not the message you want to send, you might be better off getting to work, improving yourself, and earning that place at the table. ▼
Eric Peterson co-hosts a podcast called The Rewind Project about old movies and modern times. His first novel (Loyalty, Love & Vermouth) is available online and at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach.