I’m not interested in a literary fiction versus genre argument, because that argument is basically dead and lovingly illustrated by Edan Lepucki: literary fiction is a genre with its own rules and conventions just like any other genre. The overly-long title and adultery are litfic’s version of the YA love-triangle and chosen-one narrative.
But what I do want to do is use this example to talk about cis straight white guyness. For a long time, genre was genre and literary fiction was literature. It was the sort of neutral category. Hell, it basically is. Go to a bookstore. There’s the literature section, which takes up much of the store, and mystery and scifi and whatnot have their own little sections. But it’s changing. Surely but slowly, those lines are blurring and good. And all the better that we continue to define literary fiction as its own genre.
The problem that’s been bouncing around my head lately is how that’s a great analogy for what’s going on with social justice movements and discussions of privilege. For a long, long time now, we’ve had the privilege of our society treating us a neutral, as normal. Cis, straight, white, maleness is the literary fiction of culture. We’re just literature. Everyone else has been relegated to the sides of the store.
But now, people are actually starting to have conversations (and really, have been having these conversations for a long ass time, but some of us are just finally starting to listen) about the privilege we get from not being “genre.” Just as Lepucki outlined the conventions of litfic, the conventions of cis, straight, white, maleness are starting to be defined, outlined, discussed. And so far, the results have not been pretty.
Sure, there’s been some good rib-tickles, like Stuff White People Like, and we laugh. HAHA, I *do* like camping and Moleskines! But when men as a group are discussed, suddenly we have #notallmen belittling women’s lived experiences. We get GamerGaters doxxing and sending death and rape threats to women gamers, developers, and journalists. When discussing the very real danger black people face just leaving their houses, white people have to hedge the criticism of institutional racism with #alllivesmatter.
There’s a part in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions where Kilgore Trout goes into the bathroom and someone has written on the stall door, “What is the purpose of life?” And Trout writes underneath, “To be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator if the Universe, you fool.” Which has always invoked to me that I should be mindful about what I’m telling the Creator of the Universe. Because we are defining ourselves and the kind of world we live in every day with every decision. Every word, every action, every stupid, insensitive tweet, defines the Universe and tells the next humans in line what kind of a culture we have here.
So when I see cis people being shitty to the non-cis or gamer dudes threatening women, or white people shitting on black people for daring to speak out about how our culture has been shitting on them, I can’t help but think, “What the fuck are you doing? What are you telling the Universe?” Really? At a time when being white, being straight, being a man, is finally being defined in and of itself, and not generally accepted as neutral or normal, this, THIS is how you’re choosing to define yourself?
Listen up: we are not neutral anymore. We don’t get the best placement in the bookstore anymore. We’re sharing with genre now, and it’s about goddamn time. We were never special except by our own often violent insistence. Culture is renovating, redefining and we can help or we can see what’s left when all is said and done. Because if we don’t start defining ourselves now, in a positive way, in a way that doesn’t reinforce the imbalanced status quo, we’ll be left with the scraps.
So If you don’t want “white” to be synonymous with “racist” then do something to stop racism and stop making excuses for it. If you don’t want “male” to be synonymous with “sexism” then stop being sexist and stop making excuses for sexism. If you don’t want “straight” to be synonymous with “homophobic”. . . then start sharing your shelf space.