Thoughts on Race, White Despair + 20-Something Readers in Fiction

Here's a small compilation of responses about race, publishing + fiction that I wrote to my readers (most of who were smart, interested, fiction writers themselves) from my former Live Journal blog :

1. It’s easier for someone to step into the narrative arc whose cultural perspective is either similar or compatible with what s/he "knows," or thinks s/he knows. That's really the problem. So, for example, let's say the editor is vaguely liberal, but doesn't have any Indian friends, and he reads a story about an boy from Punjab that wants to be the QB for Arizona State. Some editors will unconsciously reject this premise because it doesn't jive with what they think they know about Indian culture. Others will embrace the premise--all other things being equal--because they're charmed by the novelty. The point is, either way, it affects the biases of the editor, negatively or positively, but what it doesn't do, is fit right in. That's a bizarre privilege actually, to have the dominant cultural perspective to tell your story.

2. When I say white despair, this doesn't mean it doesn't actually exist or that it's homogeneous, or that it shouldn't be written about, it just means that so much solid, technically proficient writing these days comes down to paralysis, drugs, abuse + despair. Of course there's variations, but despair in its umbrella concept has become a hackneyed theme in fiction generally And statistically, that despair is overwhelmingly told from an upper middle class, educated, white perspective, so much so that I know some editors that sigh when they come across another story in that subgenre.

3. When you talk about Black despair or Asian-American despair, that's based on the assumption that we've already reached the cultural saturation point with that narrative where someone can just drop that term and everyone will know what you're talking about (the way they do when you say white despair), and we haven't reached that point yet, minority despair is still on some basic level different, ethnic, non-white, non-traditional, exotic, whatever post-Orientalist word fits, which is why there's so much overcompensation when non-white writers succeed.

4. I probably need an agent in my corner to fight some of these battles, and I'm not knocking an editor's taste because though profoundly subjective, and subject to immense bias, I know this is absolutely normal + I can't think of another process for evaluating manuscripts either. But race + culture, or what we think we know about those two factors, deeply affects how we evaluate manuscripts. We make a series of judgments + analyses based on our own experience with that cultural framework. And most editors think they're the smartest fuckers in the classroom (sometimes they are too), so they're not approaching manuscripts like "I'm looking to learn something." I remember one classmate in one of my workshops telling me that it was absurd to have a black character speaking in ebonics + then making a reference to the Great Gatsby. To me, this isn't inconsistent because I have friends that do shit like that, but to him it was unrealistic: either you were educated, in which case, you sounded educated (read: young sounded white, a perception that still exists in black culture), or you weren't educated, in which case you sounded uneducated (read: non-white). Now my classmate isn't racist at all, but you can see the implication there a mile away. And there are a thousand of them, most of them, unconscious.

5. I do think my manuscripts get rejected for technical reasons, or for reasons of taste. I have no doubt about that either. But it's not absurd at all to wonder when race + culture play a factor in the evaluation of manuscripts, because inevitably they will--albeit unconsciously--even in the example you gave, where maybe an editor says, this is well written, but I don't know what to make of this story, or it's a cultural point of view that I can't relate with, or it's once I don't understand, so I'll reject it but give the author some nice words. In that example, the editor isn't holding the cultural point of view against me, and yet because it's one he's not very familiar with, it's still getting in the way of his evaluation. That's usually all it has to be, and usually that's enough to stain a submission. Really, that's all I'm saying. And you're right, white despair isn't necessarily the common narrative in journals right now (at least not the ones that get published), nor is it homogenous, but it's very very common thematically in stories, and I think it fluctuates in journals. Julianna Baggot was telling me months ago how many stories she gets at FSU each year for their PhD + MFA programs that take place at parties, with lots of drunk, white kids going through their own paralysis + despair.

And even the really good Benjamin Percy stories have lots of white kids beating the shit out of each other, often to feel alive again. What I do see are a lot of very competent workshop stories, most of which don't affect the reader in anyway, and most of these stories are by white writers (which follows vocation trends), and we can take that narrative for granted in a way that's just not possible for non-white narratives right now. That, in a nutshell, is what I'm getting at.

6. As someone who reads manuscripts himself (or least used to), I try to evaluate manuscripts according to their literary merit to the BEST OF MY ABILITY, but I'm blinded by what I know and don't know and by what I think I know and don't know. We all are. And the culture narrative of non-white writers are files in editor's brains, not real life experiences for them, which affects their ability to understand and even engage writing that doesn't feel familiar to them. Many editors pass on stories they just don't "get" for whatever reason, and the point is, when you're talking about class, inevitably you're talking about race since there's a relationship between class, culture, economics and race, and the vast majority of editors tend to be of the same race, class and culture as the writers submitting those stories (i.e. white). It's changing slowly, but that's still the reality. That's why there are organizations like Cave Canem and Vona, to support writers that bring different experiences + different cultural tools to their narrative. So, whether race/culture becomes an advantage for a writer who happens to write in a so-called "exotic" narrative compared to the dominant cultural (and therefore, socioeconomic, racial) paradigm, or whether it becomes an obstacle to being published, ultimately the point is, either way, this affects the way a writer's ability to get his story (read: his cultural narrative) published, read + disseminated.

6.5 Another thing, which sounds argumentative but isn't: the fact is, most white writers don't think race has anything to do with getting published, because the truth is, for them, it doesn't: they're allowed to believe that their manuscripts are being evaluated solely on literary merit alone because they belong to the dominant cultural paradigm where their race ceases to be a factor and literary merit becomes the yardstick, but many times non-white writers don't have that privilege, their class affects their narrative, their narrative sticks out as being non-traditional, and they don't get that privilege of being just artists. It's changing, but that privilege isn't there yet for them. Their race becomes a negative and positive factor. It's like, when you're part of a sea of other writers, most of them, sharing the same socioeconomic + racial background as you, it's easy to feel that the reading of submissions is a technical process, based exclusively on literary merit, judged almost in a vacuum, but that's not it. It's a question of taste, and some editors like narratives they're not familiar with, and others don't, but we read stories contextually, and when that context is less familiar, it affects our analysis of it. But whether the results are good or bad, in neither circumstance will that manuscript be read exclusively as just another story. That's a weird privilege, but one that non-white writers don't have.

7. One of the real problems is this: the average reader for a university-affiliated literary journal is a twenty-something, upper middle class white student, until recently, usually male, with less life experience and more cynicism than a world-weary editor, and what do these fuckers know about almost anything? Most of them have been in school for most of the lives, and race is an abstract entity, a topic in a classroom discussion, but the world isn't a college campus. Not only do many of these readers not know shit about publishing since few are published, but many don't know shit about different cultural perspectives. And these deficiencies will absolutely affect how a manuscript is read. Anyway, that's all I'm saying.

8. In response to your question: yeah, you're probably right. An agent won't even bother with anything except the glossies + the top-tier journals. But, for many writers, they won't get an agent until they've published something in a second (or if they're lucky) first-tier journal, that's the rub. Journals like Nimrod you have to do it all by yourself. But obviously when you're talking about The Paris Review, I honestly think that the odds are absolutely miserable for talented unknown writers. Agents won't guarantee that our shit is accepted, but they clearly make the process easier. I have one friend who accomplished almost all of his big publications after snagging an agent. It's astonishing, but not surprising.

9. I think the question of race + ethnic voices in fiction works both ways in terms of its appeal: some readers will notice your story more because the voice uses a different cultural narrative, but they are also more likely to treat that voice as a construct, or judge the verisimilitude based on much more limited personal experience (e.g. A Chinese person would never say that!). Also, being different with short stories changes the standards. When your story uses a different voice, you have to answer the question why, a question that traditional white narratives never have to answer. No one says, why are you writing about a boy living in the city who parents are getting divorced, but the question will be used ad nauseum when someone submits a story about a black intellectual that likes opera. I promise you, if that story was about a white dude from Princeton, New Jersey, that question would never be asked. Beyond that, our relationship with exotic narratives is superficial: it can't/won't last, especially since so much of it is based on what it is that we don't recognize, so the instant this so-called exotic narrative starts to feel familiar in any way (i.e. there are normal human issues going on), non-traditional narratives lose their exotica. Beyond that, some of the stuff I'm submitting right now isn't the standard traditional narrative (i.e. stories told from the POV of a Chinese-American graffiti artist), and many readers + editors aren't going to "get it," which isn't a type of discrimination exactly, but they will end up rejecting what they don't get, so the end result is the same, and since what we "get" depends on what we think we know, it would take an exceptional editor to accept the stuff I'm submitting right now, and yet, it's what I'm most interested in writing. It's not about being a good writer, it's just that many editors wait--consciously or unconsciously--until a trend has been formed for them to be audacious: when the Latino or the South Asian voice becomes a popular narrative, then suddenly, stories with that voice will start popping up all over the place. But it's not like Desi writers weren't submitting short stories before Jhumpa Lahiri, we just didn't see them.

10. There's way too many 20-something readers who frankly just don't know shit about writing or publishing, and they're the front line of university journals. Meanwhile, many of the editors will publish stories that they can, on some basic level, already recognize, and you can see why this can be a problem for writers using so-called ethnic voices. It's changing, but never fast enough. Culture is always a light year ahead of publishing.