The line between progressive cultural criticism—book reviews, film reviews, television reviews, etc.—and progressive political commentary has been thinning noticeably. As the American critic Lauren Oyler noted, there’s a growing cultural pressure on creators to justify their work as “necessary.” Published critics and social-media commentators trend toward assessing new novels, movies, and TV shows according to whether their creations represent correct political arguments. They more often judge art as bad if the artist ever had objectionable politics or behavior in their personal lives. They might even equate the appreciation of a work of art with an endorsement of any dated ideas from the time or place it came from. Guided by contemporary criticism, we might easily assume that a bigoted protagonist indicates a bigoted work. Even if we share the belief that art should be inclusive, both in the range of artists people can appreciate and the diversity of lives their work can represent, should it also be so exclusive?

The London-based writer Hannah Williams noticed a discrepancy between what she likes to read and what, in the progressive literary world she belongs to, women are expected to read—or more importantly, not to read. And she discovered that she wasn’t alone. In an article for Mel Magazine, Williams shared the accounts of several women whose reading habits diverge from these expectations. The article was a response to a social-media meme about white male writers and the bad ex-boyfriends women associate with their books. According to Williams, getting past the idea that white men’s experiences are somehow the most universal doesn’t have to mean imposing restrictions on readers who aren’t white men. If fiction is an opportunity for anyone to gain a special insight into the human experience from authors of all kinds of backgrounds and identities, Williams says, then it doesn’t help anyone to insist that only people who share the same race or gender as canonical authors should read them.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: Can you describe the social-media phenomenon that got you thinking about all this?

Hannah Williams: It’s a trend, most popular on Twitter but getting big on TikTok and Instagram as well, to talk about certain books or authors as belonging to bad-white-straight men. Either the authors themselves are bad-white-straight men, or their readers are, or even the books themselves belong to bad-white-straight men. You see it in “controversial opinion” tweets, where people ask, What’s your controversial take? What book does everybody else love that you actually hate? En masse, people will say things like, I hate The Catcher in the Rye, because it’s a book that my ex-boyfriend loved, and it’s shallow.

There’s an analog with a lot of other forms of media. There was a piece in The Guardian that was like, All my ex-boyfriends have tried to make me watch There Will Be Blood—as if this was this very negative thing, this thing she didn’t want to see because it belonged to ex-boyfriends.

Bovy: Who participates in this meme? Millennial women? Gen-Z women? Men?

Williams: I have this theory that a lot of trends that have become really big on the internet are actually from Tumblr five years ago. So I think that partly the people involved in this meme were millennials from that kind of scene, who haven’t really moved past it.

With the Gen-Z crowd, I see them picking this up a lot more on TikTok—and removing even more nuance from it. So I don’t think it’s anything that’s going away—or that they’re rebelling against the millennial mindset on this. They seem very into the idea that we should castigate these authors. I’m thinking of this girl who did a TikTok about Joan Didion. It was like, If you like X male author you should instead read Didion—as if this male author is a bad version of that female author: Philip Roth is for men who are scared of Joan Didion.

A lot of it is women, but surprisingly, I see loads of men doing it. I guess it’s a kind of brownie-point, not like other men way of differentiating yourself.

People think the meme is a radical opinion on literature. But it isn’t; it’s actually regressive.

Bovy: Do you think there are implications here about how art functions in society more broadly?

Williams: A central tenet of fiction is that you are experiencing a different viewpoint and a different narrative than your own, and you may find moments of distance and moments of intimacy with the subject or the narrator of the book. This is a central, core tenet of why we read fiction, in particular.

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