Are Readers Biased?

Great American Novelist? photo from the Stranger

Posted by Jessica Anderson

An article in The Economist asks readers, “Will an Asian-American author, or an African-American or a woman, ever be credited with writing the Great American Novel?”

At first, I thought this question was a little harsh on society. After all, these female and minority male authors commonly top lists of great American authors:

  • Amy Tan
  • Ralph Ellison
  • Richard Wright
  • James Baldwin
  • Alice Walker
  • Zora Neale Hurston
  • Maya Angelou
  • Virginia Woolf
  • Edith Wharton
  • Willa Cather
  • Toni Morrison
  • Ayn Rand
  • Harper Lee

But then I got to thinking—does a list composed by the academic elite really represent readership by the general American public?

The Economist says no, and elaborates that it is a rarity for white men to read books that are not written by other white men.  Looking at my father’s Tom Clancy, John Grisham, and Nelson DeMille books that fill the bookshelves of our home library, I can’t really disagree.

In addition, the article claims that books written by female authors, regardless of their topic or theme, are too often marginalized as emotional works describing the female experience.

This time I don’t agree. I love browsing at Barnes & Noble, but I’m constantly irritated by the frivolous beach reads that fill the bookshelves. And I must admit, white males are not writing these books. I don’t believe that harsh male critics are trivializing female authors for sport (besides look at J.K. Rowling!). I think that many female authors put themselves into this emotional, playful box of writing.

How many books written by women, Asian Americans, or African-Americans have you read? Do you think there is a Great American Novel that has already been written by one of these groups? Do you think readers are biased?

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3 responses to “Are Readers Biased?

  1. This is really interesting. I feel that I an different, as I am very into Asian culture, obviously, given my extended period of living in China. However, I know that there are many amazing Chinese-American writers. However, I feel that people assume that an author who is a minority is writing with a purpose or to portray something that is only of interest to people of this group or interested in learning more about this group. For example, many of my favorite Chinese authors write about America or Western traditions in some way, however heavy Chinese influences are still present. Here are a few examples of some very well-known Chinese authors with there most popular works:

    Eileen Chang – author of Lust, Caution. This novel was so popular that it was made into a wonderful movie by director Ang Lee. This book was about Japanese occupied Shanghai.

    Gish Jen – has written many well known short stories and novels. One of her most popular, and my favorite, novels is Typical American. This book is about a Chinese immigrant who is in search of the American dream.

    Also, there is an interested Time article that talks about the possibility of Chinese authors to move out of China to continue their passion of writing. You might find this article to be interesting, as it does relate to your topic, I believe.
    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,409644,00.html

  2. I agree with your point about minority authors who write with a purpose to portray something of interest to their group or those interested in learning about their group. Like in Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club,” she draws heavily on her unique experiences as an Asian American in the United States. However, her book is still interesting to those who aren’t Asian American. I find it interesting that most books written by minority authors remain in this minority niche. If you look at books written by popular white authors, take Dan Brown for instance, you cannot say that he is writing about the white American experience. Anyone can relate to or enjoy his writing. I feel like that is where minority authors are really lacking–in tackling mainstream media, outside of their unique niche or academic reading.

  3. “How many books written by women, Asian Americans, or African-Americans have you read?” At first, I feared I would be ashamed of my answer. But as I mentally drew up a list of recent reads, I realized I was reading more widely than I thought.

    Some favorite recent reads:
    “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” by Junot Diaz
    “Never Let Me Go,” by Kazuo Ishiguro
    “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” by Murakami Haruki
    “A Fine Balance,” by Rohinton Mistry

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