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The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

I am, and almost always have been, an avid reader. It also happens that almost all my favorite books were written by white men. Additionally, many of my favorite authors are white men. This, to some degree, is my fault for not intentionally seeking for more female authors or authors of color, however it is also the fault of my Eurocentric education. Many authors considered to be “the greats” of modern literature are white men, so it’s really no coincidence that they wound up being the books I read the most, greatly influencing my taste in literature. It also seems that all the “classics” I was taught in high school were also all written in Britain by white male authors. Basically, it is pretty evident that the system sets us up to admire the style and voice of white male authors. 

Of course, which any critic of what I am about to say will be quick to point out, there are many unique voices within this diaspora. From Stephen King to Terry Pratchet to Nick Hornby to Ernest Hemingway, they certainly aren’t all the same. I am also not arguing that these books should not hold the status they do today. Many of these books are incredible, and have greatly influenced who I am as both a writer and a person. I just believe that their perpetual fame is correlated to their gender and race. After reading my latest novel by a white man, I realized there are some significant consistencies in white male writing that I feel I have neglected to allow myself to be uncomfortable with, simply because it was “good literature.” 

The book I just read is titled No.4 Imperial Lane by economic policy journalist, Jonathan Weisman. A frequent contributor to well-known publications such as The New York Times. I have a thing for fiction debuts from otherwise non-fiction writers, so I picked it up. The plot also intrigued me, as I love anything to do with history and a character driven plot. The novel centers around a falling aristocracy, as told through the lens of David Heller, an American college student looking to prolong his study abroad in 1980’s England. He takes a job helping quadriplegic Hans Bromwell, and his alcoholic sister Elizabeth. The family sells their valuable antique furniture, now vestiges of their bourgeois past, to cover their escalating medical expenses. The story of the family’s downfall coincides with Elizabeth’s retelling of the fall of Portuguese colonialism in Africa, a violent era that culminated in some violent wars, leaving the colonies “free” but deeply scarred. 

The Portuguese Wars in Africa being a historical event that I knew little to nothing about, I was curious. I was taught of the African Scramble in various history classes throughout grade school, but the details of its aftermath were fuzzy at best. The way colonialism is often framed in American schooling is as a thing of the past, an unfortunate blip on the human time line, with large disregard to the fire still burning across the globe due to colonial violence. However, colonialism is far from being a thing of the past, despite what our textbooks so desperately want us to believe. I find one result of this western supremacist mindset to be evident in the classic literature taught to us, thus conditioning us to subconsciously laud the British greats as the defining voice of humanity.

Upon reading about half of the novel, I decided to look up some reviews. Overwhelming positivity or neutrality about the book was what I found. All the negative reviews I managed to dig up critiqued the entertainment value of the subject material, saying it didn’t pique their interest, the story didn’t grip them, or that the political history lost them. Nothing about the narrating voice’s tone that to me, screamed white man. It was pretty hard for me to ignore, and got in the way of me enjoying the book multiple times. I will say, the novel did not receive a ton of attention upon its publication in 2015, which could excuse the lack of criticism on Weisman, however I was still impressed to find literally none.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with sounding like a white man when you write, especially if you are a white man, writing from the perspective of a white male character, but the issue I take with Weisman’s otherwise beautifully descriptive and captivating work, is the way he writes Elizabeth, and the way he describes what was known as Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau). Elizabeth was probably my favorite character, a sort of secondary narrator, with whom I connected most. I found her story to be heartbreaking and tangible, and her manner of speaking dripped with disenchantment, most evident in her languid way of story-telling. She had been beaten down, by her parents, by her circumstances, by life. Yet, she still managed to hook me in.

What took me out of the story was the unrealistic manner in which Weisman described certain events from her point of view. This brings me to my first question: why do so many male authors write about women’s breasts? We do not think about our breasts that often. Even when writing from Elizabeth’s perspective, or rather the omniscient narrator that followed her, there was a reference to some female character’s breasts. This occurred in almost every chapter, and nine times out of ten it was grotesquely unnecessary. Additionally, the way that Weisman described her unattractiveness was also painfully done, and not really in a good way. I am personally tired of reading and watching women be degraded based on their appearance not being up to a man’s standard.

In terms of Weisman’s description of Guinea, it only serves to perpetuate the notion held by many miseducated Americans that countries in Africa are all the same; a dusty wasteland racked with disease and hellish temperatures. While I understand that the particular location the characters were in was war-torn and poverty ridden, the needed nuance here left much to be desired. Why couldn’t any of the native Guineans be portrayed in a more positive light through Elizabeth’s eyes? Surely she would have some racism baked into her conservative, British upbringing, but I wanted more from her character. Development at least, to show that the undoubtedly intense experience of living in a colony amidst a revolt would provide some sort of mind-opening. If Weisman intended to do this, it did not come through for me. The contrast between the way the white characters are portrayed versus the Guineans is distractingly vast. They serve almost exclusively as background characters, which makes no sense considering the characters are literally in Guinea for at least a third of the book.

The women in the novel are inseparable from their frequently described appearance, which is either demeaning, objectifying, or both. The way the African characters are written does little to challenge a reader’s racist perceptions. The way in which the non-western world is described by Weisman shows a lack of empathy and imagination. I was deeply disappointed by this, especially considering the gems I found in the book, which were unfortunately strung together by what I’ve described above.

The male gaze is all too evident in literature, and it is exhausting. I expected more from someone as heavily entrenched in international affairs as Jonathan Weisman. I shouldn’t have to feel like I should excuse these shortcomings due to his literary skill. If anything, I hold him and others like him to a higher standard because of it.

As always, I want you to join the conversation. What has your experience been with classic literature? Has your education been more global than mine? If so, please share! My instagram handle is @a_lecroy and my DMs are always open. If you have any female or BIPOC authors I should check out, too, let me know!

Ali is the social media manager for the Buffalo chapter of Her Campus. She is a Political Science major with an affinity for crooked media podcasts and bad movies. She hopes she will one day learn how to take care of plants.
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