A few weeks ago, in a university creative writing class that I teach, I was leading a discussion about a student’s story and someone asked, “Wait, is the narrator a man or a woman?” I realized that I wasn’t sure. I had assumed it was a man, but several students pointed out lines that clearly indicated it was a woman. So I began scanning the text, looking for words or phrases that might have pointed me in the wrong direction. There weren’t any. The language and details were clear. The confusion stemmed from the fact that the narrator slept with girls. Several students correctly pointed out that assuming that this character was a man was an example of heteronormative thinking. (If you’re not familiar with that term, as my spell checking software clearly isn’t, it’s the idea that heterosexuality is the baseline and everything else is different and unusual.) I felt pretty dumb. I had misread the story because of my own inherent bias.
This was a humbling experience and a reminder that I must continually monitor my perceptions. Just because I want to believe that I’m unbiased doesn’t mean that I actually am. And my biases almost certainly aren’t confined to gender.
Daniel José Older addresses such biases directly in his excellent essay “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing.” It was first published at BuzzFeed and included in the timely and necessary anthology from Milkweed Press, Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century.
Why We Need to Become Better Readers
Like most educated people, I like to think that I’m thoughtful and open-minded. As a reader, writer, and teacher, I’ve tried to educate myself about race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. And so my wrong assumption about the workshop story bothered me a lot. I came up with excuses for my mistake, like the fact that the student had turned in the story at the last minute—as a result, I’d read it much more quickly than I normally would. If I’d had more time, I would have caught and corrected my own bias.
But this is life, especially in publishing: from top to bottom, there isn’t enough time. Journal editors are flooded with manuscripts, as are agents and book editors and marketers and booksellers. We believe that our decisions are made based on aesthetics and craft, but, in my case, I’m still a straight white guy from rural Kansas. It’s not at all surprising that I make assumptions that are more grounded in bias than reality—and, for that (for leading a class discussion without understanding that the discussion was slanted based on my own biases), I owe my class an apology. I need to do better, and I’m not alone.
Most people in the publishing industry are, like me, white, and, like me, most probably carry with them unacknowledged bias.
Recent research by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reveals just how white the industry is: nearly 80%. Whitest of all are book reviewers at nearly 90%. The decisions that these white industry professionals make about books inevitably reflect unacknowledged bias. This is precisely what Older talks about in “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, and Publishing.”
Older tells a story about how “a few years ago, someone in the publishing industry crossed out a line I wrote in a novel.” In the scene, “a Latina character feeling uncomfortable in a shnitzy part of Brooklyn because all the other women of color had little white babies and all the white people were looking at her sideways. The note beside the crossout said: ‘Doesn’t happen in this day and age.’”
Older explains that his personal outrage isn’t the point. Instead, he writes, “I want to take a moment to recognize a more unspoken consequence of having a mostly white industry dictate mostly white standards to a mostly white author-base: the stories that won’t get told.”
Some agents and editors get it. But some don’t. Older describes a panel where agents were asked “what they could do to help shift the troubling lack of diversity.” One agent said, “I think the change is going to have to come from within those who are affected,” meaning writers of color. Another, when asked why “less than 1% of her submissions were from people of color,” said, “This seems like a question for an author to answer.”
Older succinctly puts the problem this way: “The question industry professionals need to ask themselves is: ‘How can I use my position to help create a literary world that is diverse, equitable, and doesn’t just represent the same segment of society it always has since its inception? What concrete actions can I take to make actual change and move beyond the tired conversation we’ve been having for decades?’”
It’s a terrific question, with a couple of surprisingly simple answers. First, the industry needs more diversity: in publishing houses, in agencies, in book reviewers and book buyers and marketers. Second, industry professionals (book editors, agents, journal editors, reviewers, and reading series coordinators) must go out and find diverse writers. This is something I’ve tried to do at Read to Write Stories. Early on, I realized that, when I was coming up with writers I wanted to feature, they were mostly white and mostly men. This was partly due to my own bias and partly due to the industry that I relied upon for book suggestions. I was almost certainly excited about authors that I’d been told to get excited about. I needed to be proactive—to search journals for writers and to return to journals, like Boston Review and Guernica, that seemed to be publishing more writers of color.
Does this search take work? Sure. But it’s been some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. (I say work, but, in truth, it’s a community effort. I’ve discovered many, many terrific authors just by paying attention to what books Roxane Gay and Nina Swamidoss McConigley are talking about on social media). I’ve read authors that I may have otherwise missed—Kiese Laymon, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Michelle Serros, Bae Suah, and Daniel José Older to name just a few—but who I now find myself returning to again and again because of what they have to say and because of their astonishing craft.
As writing teachers and members of writing groups and workshops, we must read more diverse stories. It makes us better readers for our peers in workshop, better members of the literary community, and better writers because we are engaging with terrific work that will inspire and challenge us. Challenge is perhaps the key word. Because I love Kiese Laymon’s work, I teach it often, and the response is often mixed. Some people find the language difficult—or the structure or the plot. Certainly, everyone has different tastes, but it’s also the case that there are many “difficult” writers who have been canonized, not just deceased ones like Faulkner but also living, breathing, award-winning writers like Jennifer Egan, whose great, structurally-challenging novel A Visit from the Goon Squad was deservedly praised. And, of course, not all writers of color are writing “difficult” fiction. Some, like Daniel José Older, are smart, writing terrifically entertaining genre works. His novel Half-Resurrection Blues is a paranormal detective story and has one of the best monsters I’ve read in a long time.
So, start reading. Will it inoculate you from criticism, remove all biases, and make you always correct about matters of diversity? No. I can attest to this personally. But it’s a place to begin.
An Exercise in Better Reading
Let’s expand our reading, using Daniel José Older’s essay “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing” as a primer:
- Find a book written by a person of color, a woman, a disabled person, or someone identifies as LGBTQ. There are many included here at Read to Write Stories. You can also look here: We Need Diverse Books, Lambda Literary, the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Asian American Writers Workshop, The Mixed Experience, Huizache, and Authors of Color. If you’re a teacher or student, consider checking out VONA Voices. If you’re at AWP this week, here’s a panel that speaks to these concerns: Reimagining Literary Spaces.
- Read the entire book. Don’t give up, even if the book seems difficult or dull. Personal aesthetics are malleable. Our sense of what is good changes based on what we’ve read. We are, in effect, continually holding whatever we’re reading against the models in our head. So, in order to hone your aesthetic, you must add more models.
- Find another book by another writer who isn’t a straight, able-bodied, white man and read it. Don’t stop with just one book. Don’t make an author speak for his or her race/ethnicity/gender/sexuality. Don’t let one writer’s style become The Style for Everyone Who Looks Like Him or Her. Most of us are guilty of this. Whatever book has grabbed the nation’s attention overshadows many other excellent books. Give yourself the opportunity to find them.
- Recommend the books to others. Unless a book is getting the gold-standard marketing push from its publisher, its success will depend upon word of mouth. So, tell people about the book. Give it to people to read. Share reviews of the book on Facebook and Twitter. Review the book on Amazon. (Even if you don’t like Amazon’s business model, the presence or lack of reviews on its site affects a book’s sales in all venues.) Books only get read if people know about them, so spread the word.
The goal is to discover the many wonderful books that are being written today. By reading books we might otherwise not find, we become better readers for ourselves and for our fellow writers.