Writers live with blandishments of great failure running through daydreams. You’re a terrible writer. The voice is wrong. Your story is trite. It’s the work of a dilettante. No—a misunderstood artist! But when you’re a writer of color, whose voice did you internalize, the one telling you that you’ll never be good enough to get published? That voice is not the same one that Claire Vaye Watkins channeled in her much-discussed essay, “On Pandering,” which floats out self-recriminations at her habit of pandering to the “white male literati,” and ends by calling out to (white) women to “burn this motherfucking system to the ground.” Them’s fighting words. Why did writers of color refuse to answer her rallying call? To marginalized ears, those words weren’t a fierce cry to feminist solidarity. They sounded like more pandering — pandering to institutional whiteness, which sustains the business of publishing.
When Lee & Low Books released the results of its Diversity Baseline Survey in publishing, the statistical picture that emerged confirmed what writers of color have understood for a long time: the publishing industry is overwhelmingly white, and the system is designed to keep itself that way. The surprise was that the industry also turned out to be predominantly female. That particular statistic exposed fault lines among women who write, setting the emotional delicacy of white feminists against the real-world harsh faced by writers of color. Even when, in her essay, Watkins acknowledges her privilege as a white woman — in a scene in which tries to smoke a joint with an “Eskimo” — responses were divided. Kavita Das explains, in a beautifully precise essay, “On Parsing”:
While Watkins honesty about her discomfort at her own privilege is to be lauded, it also gets to the heart of one of the fundamental problems with the piece and many people’s reaction to it: when a white woman writes about the experiences of people of color especially in relation to her own, acknowledging her privilege, she is usually heralded as courageous and compassionate. However, when a person of color writes about their experiences relative to the mainstream population, it is often viewed solely as a grievance.
How an Eskimo woman might view Watkins' writing is never considered, for the approval that she is seeking comes from “Tom McGuane or Lee K. Abbott or Jeffrey Eugenides or Christopher Coake or Chang-Rae Lee, all of whom have offered me guidance and friendship for which I’m tremendously grateful,” she stated. For her words were still being written for them and directed to them, as well as to white women who might legitimately hope to be mentored by them. But for too many writers of color, it’s a herculean task just to get into a crowded auditorium where just one of those men might lecturing, let alone being able to publicly claim those five literary lights as your professional support system. Merely getting to the point where your writing consciously panders to those kind of men would represent a victory of sorts. From the margins, the sound of writing sounds like nothing at all. You’re a mute in a black hole, hearing nothing but braying in your head.
The critique of institutional whiteness is everywhere now. However reluctantly, there is a growing awareness that it’s not just one professional venue but an entire cultural system that’s softly seeding doubt bombs in broody crevices where dark thoughts coalesce and swirl. A glass ceiling would be an improvement on this feeling of running everywhere into invisible electrical fences shrugged off as paranoid delusions by those who aren’t shocked every time they attempt pass through them. We regret that your manuscript is not a good fit. Of course we welcome the work of diverse writers, but please don’t revise and resubmit. We’re sorry, we already have one Black writer on our list. You’re Ojibwe? But we already have one Black writer on our list. How many times must I repeat this?
Your eye is twitching. What’s wrong with you?
“Diversity” has been predicted to be the next big publishing trend, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that very much will change on the structural level. Maintaining the status quo is easily accomplished by decoupling characters of color from writers of color, ensuring that well-intentioned white writers still control the narrative.
One hears whispers of white editors commissioning white writers to burp out Young Adult series set in India, Egypt, anywhere in China. “Write what you know” is now spelled “Fake what you can sell.” For example, this list of “best Asian fantasy books” offers up twelve books with “Asian feel” and “Asian flavor,” and all the authors are white. A fluke? Perhaps, yet in 2015, a librarian blogging for the New York Public Library offered up a list of recommended books for Asian Pacific Heritage month that offered up “Asian” novels written by white people. The list has since been revised, but the comments section keeps the infamy alive. “'Memoirs of a Geisha' is deeply inaccurate and Orientalist, fetishistic and sexist,” one commentator noted. “James Michener is not Asian and his book 'Hawaii' contains many inaccuracies….These Asian American Heritage picks include three white authors. This list is frankly embarrassing.”
Those books were also bestsellers, precisely because white-writerly depictions of Asian culture and fantasy are enthusiastically celebrated over stories written by actual Asians. For years, the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA) gave the bulk of its annual book awards to white authors, many of whom have Asian last names through marriage. (They just announced the award guidelines will be changed to support authors who are ethnic Asian and Pacific Islanders.) This institutional tendency to admire white writing about foreign others is how Adam Johnson’s “Orphan Master’s Son” won a Pulitzer prize for fiction, following in the footsteps of “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck and “South Pacific” by Michener. It’s not that those books lack literary merit, but the love consistently flows in only one direction. Hanya Yanagihara didn’t get nominated for a Pulitzer after writing one of 2015’s most critically celebrated books, which happened to be about a tragic quartet of white men. Over the years, Asian-American writers such as Susan Choi, Ha Jin, and Chang-Rae Lee have been nominated -- but overall, Junot Diaz, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison stand out inside an overwhelmingly white list of winners. In the coming months, will Alexander Chee carry off a Pulitzer for his ravishing historical novel, being consistently praised to the skies, about a 19th-century French heroine? Will it even be nominated?
Even acclaimed writers of color struggle to find readers due to both overt and subconscious devaluations of the work. Ellen Oh, author of the fantasy trilogy “Prophecy,” said in an email to me: “A reviewer once said of my book, ‘If you want a really good Asian fantasy don't read this, read 'Eon' [written by a white author] instead.’ And I just about died. It always happens. Arthur Golden’s ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ far outsold the real geisha’s book, and real Asian fantasy is pooh-poohed while fake mish-mosh of Asian fantasy is celebrated.”
Meanwhile, white writers popping Asian characters into their books—in the manner of Takumi in John Green’s “Looking for Alaska” (pointed out to me by Swati Avasthi) or Minho in James Dashner’s “The Maze Runner”-- has become so commonplace that Stacey Lee wrote a humorous but pointed open letter, “Dear Non-Asian Writer of Asian Characters.” As actor Constance Wu of the sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” said very bluntly, diversity “doesn’t mean we want the white people to write Asian stories.”
Asians are now also 21st century versions of your "one Black friend," a kind of moral cloak protecting white people against accusations of racism. However, my examples here aren’t exclusive to Asians, but are representative of the kind of insidious barriers faced by all marginalized writers, whether due to race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or economic deprivation. For years, Debbie Reese has advocated for Native and Indigenous authors whose cultures are routinely appropriated and misrepresented. An anonymous post on Lawyer Larrie’s blog is worth reading in its entirety, as the author details the “queerwashing” of a book acquired by one of the Bix Six publishers. By insisting on keeping a queer main character, the author was pegged as being “difficult.” Suddenly the PR and marketing for her book disappeared, the editor stopped talking to her, her book was “dropped down a hole,” and her agent punted her. It was an exercise in passive volition, where no one and nothing was to blame for her book’s failure to reach blockbuster status except, naturally, the author herself.
That the anonymous poster got a next time—new agent, new book deals--illuminates the larger systemic issues at work, for so many never get the perverse pleasure of being dropped by an agent in the first place, and often it is women of color who end up swept into the proverbial dustbin of history. It’s not due to lack of talent. It takes financial resources, physical stamina, mental strength and personal networks to keep writing when no-one is reading. To the politically disenfranchised, invisible class barriers and economic stratifications might as well be veritable geological formations blocking the road to publishing. The only tools that writers have to move those petrified obstacles are these capricious changelings we call words, yet words are the very things one is never supposed to use to criticize that-which-must-not-be-named. This is why the anonymous blogger refused to out herself as the difficult writer of queer books, fearing more retribution from a system that had already punished her for speaking.
Other writers have been refusing to play by the old rules, instead using new media to find readers. With exceptional clarity, Daniel J. Older has been voicing a trenchant critique of the white institutional default setting of publishing in general and young adult sci-fi/fantasy in particular. “That false neutral thing is killing us and it makes for really tepid, milquetoast ass prose and annoying characters. Wompington womp womp,” Older tweeted (read the Storify here.) His supernatural YA “Shadowshaper” not only provides a Puerto Rico main character but makes her culture intrinsic to the plot and its setting. Most crucially of all, his book has been a success. A sign of changing sensibilities, perhaps.
On Twitter, writer Hannah Gomez issued a challenge to agents to actively seek out writers of color, even as Beth Phelan of the Bent Agency just announced a call for pitches, via the hashtag #DVpit (Diversity pitch).
All the agents from Bent are participating in #DVpit, as are agents from several other firms. This is speed dating for a meeting of the minds; no guarantees, but a few matches will be made. On Twitter, everyone is an avatar, a virtuality greeting a virtuality inside an airless, socially ambiguous space. You cannot be judged for what you are perhaps not—this being normatively straight, white, able-bodied, straight-toothed, and comfortably bourgeois-- only on what you can convey in 140 characters. It's an ultra-compressed elevator pitch, but everyone gets the same access, and sees their competition.
And let it be said that nobody wants white writers to stop writing, not even about cultures which are not their own. Hey, some of my best friends are white! All of this talk of “diversity” is not about policing whiteness — it's about the fury of marginalized writers who want to stop their stories from being stolen, distorted and mutilated in the name of cultural imperialism. As hopeful YA author Kara Stewart says, she writes because she is determined “to get a Native perspective out there. To tell about my tribe, my people. To set the record straight.”
#OwnVoices. That voice in your head is the opposite of pandering. It’s the urgency of truth-telling. In the end, because no-one else will do it for you, you can only speak up for yourself. And sometimes, in the quiet, that voice ends up speaking for everyone who is clamoring to be heard.