In Defense of Dead White Males

by Christopher DeFilippis

DeFlip Side, Vol. 1, No. 18
(First Appeared: September, 2000; First Light E-zine, Issue #95)

Has the publishing industry become so devoid of balls—both figurative and literal—that the only way a book can be considered for publication is if it’s a potential candidate for the Oprah book club? From all the evidence I see around me, the answer is a resounding “YES!”

I recently read an interview with Stephen Ambrose in the September 2000 edition of BookPage. In the course of the interview, he discussed his runaway bestseller Undaunted Courage, which chronicled the Lewis and Clark expedition. It was a great book, and one I highly recommend. But the sad fact is that had Ambrose not had such a long career as an author, the manuscript would likely have been dismissed out of hand. Why? As he said in the interview:

“I wrote books that got very nice reviews, but it used to be I’d be lucky if they sold 20,000 copies… And then Undaunted Courage is the one that just burst. At first, my editor… didn’t want me to do the book. She said, ‘Nobody wants to read about dead white males.’ I said, ‘I do…’”

When I read that I had to put the article down and walk off my anger. At first I thought I was angry at the editor’s gall. Who the hell is she to say what we do and do not want to read? And what kind of stupid criteria is that? If the book contained the same information but was about dead black males, would that make it worthy of publication? How about dead white women? But it dawned on me that this attitude was bigger than one editor, bigger than one book. It’s indicative of a trend that’s been sweeping the publishing industry.

They have found a new god, and it is called Dysfunction.

I get The New York Times every Sunday and always make a bee-line for the Book Review. I don’t know why. Week after week, page after page, book after book, be they fiction, nonfiction, memoir, what have you, it’s like a never-ending parade of misery, child abuse, incest, depression, repression, rape, insecurity and whining. I don’t mean to single out the ladies here, but it seems that unless a book has something to do with fucked up women leading fucked up lives these days, no publisher wants anything at all to do with it.

The reason I specifically bash Oprah is because she exploits the trend to no end. Between her banal show, her vainglorious magazine and her book club, she has half the country believing that they are victims in dire need of therapy, justice, closure and daily affirmation. It’s an exercise in bleakness and self-pity that’s clogging the arteries—and bookshelves—of America with bullshit.

The root of all whining...

Anyone who frequents bookstores has seen racks, tables, sometimes entire sections, that prominently and proudly feature that insidious “O” that symbolizes Oprah’s book club. And its malignancy has spread to the publishing houses. Who can blame publishers? They’re in business to make money, and if Oprah features a book on her show, it’s an instant bestseller. So they publish more of the same types of books. And Oprah recommends them and they sell a gazillion copies. And so the publishers put out yet more of the same and pretty soon that one voice gets so loud that it drowns out every other.

Now, you might say that this trend is only fair turn-about. And you’d have a point. After all, ‘history’ as we’ve been taught it, has been largely shaped and shaded by the perceptions, concerns and prejudices of white males. There are undoubtedly countless important stories, important lives, important points of view that have been lost forever because they didn’t make a blip on the radar of the white male mainstream.

But to rectify the situation by making a blanket judgment that anything a dead white male might have to teach us is worthless not only flies in the face of common sense, but borders on dangerous. It’s no different than endorsing a revisionist view of the Holocaust. In order to know where we’re going as a society, as a people, it’s vitally important to know where we’ve been, whites and all.

I have to give Ambrose credit for sticking to his guns and writing about what he thought was important. To quote him further from the same interview (this one is a tad lengthy, but stick with it; he puts it far more elegantly than I’m able):

“I want young people in America, now and in the future, to understand that freedom doesn’t come free, that the blessings they’ve got by being Americans were paid for. And I want them to know who paid and how and what they did. For a quick example: I want them to know more about Thomas Jefferson than [his relationship with] Sally Hemmings. I want them to know that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty, and I want everyone else—be they Muslim, Buddhist, Rainbow People, Protestant, Catholic, or whatever—to know that their right to believe what they want to believe and worship as they choose to worship comes from Thomas Jefferson.”

I’m with you, Stephen! What I want to know is when the importance of any of this came into question. What happened to all those truths we held as self-evident? We’ve become so collectively obsessed with over-analyzing our motivations and second-guessing our every move through a lens of political correctness and liberal guilt that no one has the courage to take a stand any longer. And it’s that deficit that has led to the crisis of empowerment that fuels the Oprah-centric-let’s-have-a-pity-party-and-lick-each-other’s-wounds-and-all-try-to-feel-better-about-
ourselves-through-collective-misery mindset we’ve devolved into.

Real empowerment comes from taking a stand and sticking to your principles, come what may. It comes from taking what you have and turning it to your advantage.

I say we need to remember those dead white males now more than ever, because above all they represent the idealism and determination that forge great achievements. Without those elements, you’ll never find what you’re looking for in life. Gender and ethnicity are inconsequential to that simple truth. It’s one of the few things that’s bigger than Oprah.

That’s why I get so angry when entire groups are singled out as either more important or less important, based on the fickle whims of political correctness. Good and bad can be found in all quarters. We should focus on the good, no matter its source.

By this point you’re probably asking what in the hell any of this has to do with Science Fiction or Fantasy. It’s simple. At heart I think the reason many of us embrace these genres is because they, too, are built on idealism and determination.

When the hero takes up the quest in a Fantasy novel, does he or she complain? Do they stop to question why they’re doing it? No. He does it because he must. She does it because no one else can. Above all, they do it because they believe in something bigger than themselves. Sure, we enjoy these stories for their sword play and sorcery, their fantastic creatures and escapist settings. But I think they touch us so deeply because they are terrific metaphors for life. They tackle complex, seemingly insurmountable problems with simple solutions: courage, faith, perseverance.

Of course, none of those things make for very good daytime television. You get much better ratings when you have pregnant teens throwing chairs at their parents, or self-proclaimed experts droning on and on about how society is to blame for all of your woes.

But if that’s the “reality” they’re proffering, I think I’ll stick with the fantasy.

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