Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Imagination is the Ultimate Diversity

Earlier this month in Minneapolis, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs held the largest annual literary conference in North America, with more than 12,000 writers, teachers, students, editors, and publishers gathering for four days of networking, readings, panels, and lectures. The social news and entertainment website BuzzFeed decided this was a good opportunity to stir up antagonism and resentment toward the predominantly white publishing industry.
An annual salary survey by trade publication Publisher’s Weekly last summer quantified the lopsided racial numbers in publishing: of the 630 respondents who identified their race, 89% described themselves as white/Caucasian, 3% Asian, 3% Hispanic, and 1% African-American. Most seemed to agree that this near absence of minority employees directly affects the types of books that are published, and that more needs to be done to address the imbalance.
BuzzFeed asked conference participants if they had any messages for publishers in response to these numbers. The resulting article was titled “23 Writers with Messages for Straight White Male Publishers,” though it’s unclear why straight males were targeted. It featured photos of 23 participants (none of whom was a white male, straight or otherwise) holding up handwritten signs that ranged from the sensible (“Hire women. Diversity makes you strong”) to the belligerent (“Grow up”; “We owe you nothing”) to the illiterate (“Read less straight white men”; “Plz stop”) to the threatening (“Sit down and let us abolish you”). In one pic of a pair of female writers, one holds a sign that reads “She’s coming for you” while the other woman gives the viewer – straight white male publishers, presumably – a middle finger. Maybe not the best networking strategy.
The overall point seemed to be summed up in the top message on the list, which read, “Diversity is not publishing the one story. It’s publishing multiple stories from people of diverse backgrounds.” Come on. Granted, industry employees lack diversity, but one story? Are Buzzfeed and these writers seriously suggesting that the publishing biz promotes only a straight white male worldview, whatever that is? Are they denying that bookstore browsers and online shoppers have a dizzying, virtually limitless variety of authors and perspectives to choose from?
In terms of diversity of writing voices, one thing to consider is the demands of the marketplace. Publishers are perfectly happy to provide underserved audiences with tales from a diversity of writers as long as the writing is of worthy quality and, more importantly, the sales numbers justify it. If you are a minority writer and your work is amateurish and your readership is limited to friends and family, you can’t fault publishers for not welcoming you with open arms and a big book advance. The same goes for straight white male writers.
Sure, if there is enough demand, even books with no discernible literary quality can get published and become bestsellers. But the point is that publishing is a business. To turn one of the messages in the Buzzfeed article on its head, publishers owe you nothing. Whether you are talentless or brilliant, if there isn’t enough demand for your work, publishers don’t owe you a living, regardless of your color or sexual orientation.
But there is a larger and more critical point to address here than just getting published, and that is the right of writers to their own imagination and individuality, unbound by skin color, gender, or sexual preference. The article suggests that there should be fewer white male voices in publishing and more that are black, female, LGBT, etc. But what Buzzfeed and the writers with chips on their shoulders are getting wrong is that people are individuals. Their life experiences, perspectives, ideas, attitudes, and imaginations are not, or should not be, limited by whatever physical category they were born into. The assumption that, say, white male authors can or should speak only to the white male experience, or blacks only to the black experience, is the very definition of sexism/racism/bigotry. Do all Asian-American female authors share the same experiences and worldview? All lesbians? All Arab-Americans? What if the characters and themes of a book don’t conform to the author’s own demographic – does that de-legitimize him or her?
This Balkanization of writers according to such limiting categories underestimates the transcendent power of the imagination as well as the ability of good writers to empathize with those who aren’t like them. “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” straight white male Flaubert said of his famous female heroine. Straight white male William Styron won a Pulitzer Prize writing as a black insurrectionist in The Confessions of Nat Turner. Straight Jewish-American novelist Michael Chabon is so successful at drawing three-dimensional gay characters that he is often assumed to be gay.
This is not to defend only the straight white males Buzzfeed picked on. Authors of other colors and orientations are successful at creating characters outside their own categories as well. The point is that all writers should be defined by their talent and creativity, not their demographic. The human imagination is the ultimate diversity.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 5/1/15)