Recently, there has been a surge in pitch/query events for “diverse” books. Some of these were specifically aimed at marginalized* writers; some were open to anyone writing “diverse” stories. I did not participate in any of these events, but I did observe some of them. Below are some thoughts I had in the aftermath. I’ve organized them around a few broad statements for the sake of clarity, but they’re pretty interrelated.
Nonwhite agents/editors continue to call for “diverse” stories over marginalized voices.
- I’m not in the publishing industry, so I can only speculate, but I imagine many factors go into how/why agents/editors select their clients. I imagine at least some of those factors don’t necessarily align with the agent/editor’s personal beliefs.
- I wonder if there are any nonwhite agents/editors out there who would prefer to receive material ONLY from marginalized voices, but are prevented from doing so by factors beyond their control.
- I wonder if there are any nonwhite agents/editors out there who KNOW it is bullshit to privilege white voices telling nonwhite stories OVER nonwhite voices telling their own stories, but go along with it anyway.
- I wonder how many nonwhite agents/editors out there are thinking of ways to destroy the abovementioned bullshit practices.
- I don’t expect nonwhite agents/editors to be paragons of anti-racism. Like nonwhite authors, bloggers, advocates, and artists, they are human – and susceptible to prejudices, white supremacy, ignorance, etc. If, like me, you follow a lot of nonwhite voices online, you’ll see we call each other out from time to time – because none of us are perfect. A nonwhite person doesn’t become the be-all, end-all arbiter of race representation simply because they have “agent” or “editor” attached to their name. At the same time, BECAUSE they have “agent” or “editor” attached to their name, they do become holders of privilege. Gatekeepers is, I think, the popular term these days. They have at least some power in determining who gets published – or even who makes it past the slushpile. And, as we all know, with power comes responsibility. In this case, the responsibility isn’t to be the All Knowing Super Creature regarding race representation, but rather to constantly expand the borders of racial/ethnic/cultural understanding and to encourage those around them to do the same. In other words, the industry cannot and should not stagnate at the level of understanding of the “most” racially aware among its nonwhite representatives. Nor should it stagnate at the (sometimes staggeringly low) level of understanding of the “most” racially aware among its top (mostly white) people. The industry needs to expand its boundaries – and to do so, it needs people to lead the way. We’ve already seen the consequences of letting white people be those leaders. Now it’s time to see if nonwhite people can do better.**
White agents/editors continue to call for “diverse” stories over marginalized voices.
This does not surprise me (nor should it surprise anyone familiar with the state of US publishing today). I have yet to see a white agent/editor say outright, “white writers should drastically cut back on/stop writing [insert nonwhite culture] and make room for #ownvoices instead.”
I have seen a few white agents/editors say they recognize #ownvoices should be privileged over white voices in the telling of nonwhite stories – but this is NOT the same as actually telling white folks to step aside and stop erasing nonwhite voices.
While no one can (legally) prevent someone else from writing whatever they want, simply saying, “write what you want” is both privileged and naïve. Here is why:
o Consider the audience of this statement. If they are white (and privileged in other ways as well), they have probably already spent their entire lives in environments largely supportive of and governed by some iteration of this statement.
- Example: Be yourself and don’t let anyone stand in the way.
- Example: You can do whatever you want with your life.
- Example: No one can stop you from achieving your goals.
o On the face of it, good advice for anyone of any background, right? But add to that a system already designed to privilege you and everyone who looks like you (institutionalized racism, cough, cough, white supremacy, cough, cough), and the result? Entitlement.
o And not simply entitlement, but entitlement so deeply ingrained into every aspect of your life that you probably don’t realize it’s there. Entitlement so cleverly, unintentionally taught to you by your parents and the other white people who taught you how to be white, likely without saying the word “white” more than a few times, if at all. Entitlement fed to you through all five senses, thanks to the white blanket of dominant “American” culture. Entitlement that causes you to look nervously at your nonwhite friend whenever a race-related joke comes up, to see if they’ll teach you whether to laugh or not. Entitlement that teaches you TO look at your nonwhite friend, instead of figuring out for yourself where you stand on the joke and how you contribute to the sociocultural forces that spawned it. Entitlement that makes you ask your nonwhite friend, in a low voice, when no one else is around, “do you think I’m racist?” Entitlement that encourages you, if your nonwhite friend answers, “no,” or “not really,” or “maybe sometimes,” to take that answer and throw it in the faces of other nonwhite people who call you out for your racism. Entitlement that doesn’t require you to think beyond the validation of one or two or a handful of nonwhite people because you have now earned the Good White Person card. Entitlement that keeps you from seeing the ridiculousness of the Good White Person card – how much do you think the credit card of that nonwhite person standing over there affects THEIR understanding of race? Being an ally is not something you whip out to pay your toll when you reach the Race Bridge.
o Entitlement is what causes white people to continue writing nonwhite stories with the expectation they will be heard. Entitlement is what causes white people to continue writing nonwhite stories with the expectation they can “get it right” – while never realizing or acknowledging their actions erase insider voices from the very place they are struggling so hard to “get right.” Entitlement is what causes white people to discuss this struggle at length – rather than questioning whether they need or should be engaged in it to begin with. You should not be asking, “am I getting this right?” Instead, try asking, “why am I writing ‘this’ in the first place?” FYI, the answer, “because I can write whatever I want” is circular logic – you are right back in the entitled place you started from.
Unfortunately, when you have white agents/editors with the same entitled perspectives offering advice to entitled white writers, the status quo remains. White writers continue to “write what [they] want” – i.e., nonwhite stories, and white agents/editors continue to acquire them. Nonwhite voices continue to be erased.
White agents/editors, I think a little rephrasing is in order here. Instead of encouraging your white clients and prospective white clients to “write what you want,” might I suggest one of the following:
o “Write a story only YOU can tell”
- Hint: If it’s a nonwhite story, there are LOTS of nonwhite folks to tell it. And FYI, that “retelling” of a Japanese myth has already been done several times over by #ownvoices, so no, that’s not a story only YOU can tell, either. If you feel the need to “bring” a Japanese myth into western readership, I recommend BOOSTING Japanese voices, not just jumping in and whitewashing***/westernizing the story to make it “accessible.”****
o “Write YOUR world”
- As in, the world you inhabit on a day-to-day basis. If you do not interact with Asian folks on a daily basis, on more than a surface level, and if you have never been to Asia or have only gone as a tourist/student, I don’t recommend writing Asian cultures or characters.*****
o “Write what YOU know”
- Yes, white people can write about race. But instead of trying (and failing) to inhabit nonwhite perspectives that seem to be beyond comprehension for most of you (or is there some other reason you fail so spectacularly?), why don’t you just write it from YOUR perspective? Uncomfortable? Good. Let’s talk about it. Better yet, why don’t you write about it?
- Remember when you talked to your nonwhite friend about whether you were racist? Maybe you felt kind of uncomfortable. Maybe the conversation ended, but you kept thinking about it. Maybe you talked to some other nonwhite folks, or did some reading about race. This is you. This is your experience. This is your race-related experience. So why not write about it? Too scary? Too close to things you’d rather not consider? Congratulations, you are confronting your white privilege. Don’t worry, it’s good for you.
- I would actually like to see MORE books by white folks written from the perspectives of white characters confronting their white privilege – but without the whitewashed/stereotyped nonwhite “friend” character whom the MC uses as a sounding board for their own development. I think interracial/intercultural collaborations could be a highly effective way to achieve this, with the book becoming a conversation between its creators. I’ve seen a few examples of this, but we need more! (And considering white folks tend to listen to other white folks first and nonwhite folks second, hopefully this might pave the way toward broadening reader perspectives.)
Some white agents are extremely vocal about supporting “diversity,” but their words indicate they aren’t or don’t know how to be allies of marginalized voices.
Even though I’m currently not considering querying, I still read agent interviews/blogs/FAQs here and there. Back when I was seriously considering querying, I read them all the time, with an eye to agents who openly supported “diversity.” Sadly, most of what I found contributed to my ultimate decision NOT to query at all. Below is a breakdown of some problematic trends I observed – again, specifically regarding white agents.
o Their clients and the queries they identified as “diverse” were mostly white – some who identified with other forms of marginalization, like disability or sexual orientation, others who were not marginalized but were simply writing “diverse” stories.
- Why do you feel white folks writing nonwhite stories is an appropriate substitute for #ownvoices stories? (because it most certainly fucking well is not)
- Why, in your world, is it only white people who can be marginalized in ways not pertaining to race/ethnicity? Why are there no disabled Japanese people? Where are the LGBTQ+ Black people?
- Do you believe nonwhite folks feel comfortable submitting their work to you? If not, what might be stopping them?
o Their lists of recommended reads were white, white, white – again, sometimes including marginalized white writers, and sometimes not.
- Why do you champion “diversity” and that white author writing (a much critiqued) China but no ACTUAL CHINESE authors writing their own stories?
- Who are the last three nonwhite authors you read, when did you read them, and how did you hear about them?
- If nonwhite folks submit their work to you, can they feel confident you are well-versed in the existing body of published nonwhite work? Can they feel confident they will not be treated as unicorns or universal narratives?
o Their responses in the FAQ section of their website or on their blog strongly reflected a, “write what you want” attitude toward white writers.
- See my above remarks re: entitlement.
- If nonwhite folks accept representation from you, can they feel confident you will not then turn around and support a white writer who represents nonwhite cultures in disrespectful ways? If a Korean writer accepts representation from you, can they feel confident you will not also sign a white client who writes like a Koreaboo?
o Their recommendations of resources on “diversity” – assuming they had them at all – consisted of only a few, big-name websites and organizations. More often than not, most of these websites/organizations were centered on marginalized white people.
- Did these agents actually make an effort to look beyond We Need Diverse Books?
- Do these agents know a number of Published Nonwhite Authors (seeing as “Published” seems to be an important standard in these situations) maintain social media platforms containing insightful critiques on race representation in writing?
- Even going by their (seemingly) limited standards of What Is A Good Resource, I think they could do better.
- If nonwhite folks accept representation from you, can they feel confident you will sign other nonwhite clients in the future? Can they feel confident they are not just filling the single “Asian” slot on your list?
o Their comments on social media reflected white privilege, white supremacy, and lack of understanding about how to connect with nonwhite communities.
- Yes, you will get the side-eye if I see you promoting the shit out of nonwhite stories written by white people.
- Saying nothing and doing nothing is still political. It sends the tacit message you are OK with the status quo. It shows us nonwhite folks you are not willing to stand up and say something about all the wrongness in the industry. If you’re silent now, I have to wonder if you’d continue to be silent if you signed me or one of my peers as a client.
- Funny how you can promote “diversity” while hardly using the word “race.” Very funny indeed.
- If most of your RTs are of other white people championing “diversity” – no, you get no cookies.
- If you revert to the “quality” argument to “justify” why all your clients are white – nope.
- If you encourage nonwhite folks to attend predominantly white events organized by white people in order to promote their work – don’t. Instead, see if you can receive an invitation to a nonwhite event organized by nonwhite people. If you don’t know how it feels to be a minority, I don’t think I trust you to represent me. And yes, my work is inextricably linked to my identity. You don’t get one without the other.
As a final point of clarification, the purpose of this post is to outline some of my doubts regarding the US publishing industry. I don’t expect this post to encourage or discourage anyone’s decision to query (seriously, if you can be swayed by a single blog post, you might want to rethink your commitment to writing). I personally feel that, in its current state, the US publishing industry is too uncertain for me to try to break into it. I don’t know who is an ally. I don’t know who can be trusted. I don’t know how to go about determining who is what.
I have always supported and will continue to support #ownvoices in writing, whether they choose to get published or not. These are stories worth having in the world. These are voices worth hearing. Good luck to my fellow #ownvoices writers. I hope you find what you are looking for.
*If you’ve read my previous posts, you know I use the term “marginalized” in various contexts. For the purposes of this blog, my use of “marginalized” will predominantly be associated in some way with race/ethnicity. It may also be associated with other forms of marginalization, including, but not limited to, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and religion. As previously stated, this blog focuses on issues of race/ethnicity because these are areas with which I have personal experience. I am not qualified to discuss most other forms of marginalization from a firsthand perspective. If you’re interested in blogs which center forms of marginalization other than race/ethnicity, please see the Resources page!
**And hey, white folks in publishing, taking a backseat should NOT equal sitting back and waiting for change to happen. SUPPORT your nonwhite colleagues. We already know you-all have power and resources. We would like to know if you can leverage them without centering yourselves in the process.
***In this situation, I use “whitewashing” to mean, retelling a nonwhite story through a white lens – this does not necessarily mean changing the race/ethnicity of the characters. A white writer writing nonwhite characters is still doing so through a white lens. If you’re white, this is unavoidable. You can’t stop being white. That’s not your fault. But don’t use the “I-can’t-help-it-so-what-the-hell-I’ll-do-it-anyway” excuse to erase nonwhite voices or to market your work as “diverse.”
****I have more thoughts about outsider “retellings” of cultural stories and the power dynamics at play in these situations – not sure if there’ll be a post.
*****Full disclosure: I’ve seen shitty (as in, horrendously horribly horrible in the cultural rep department) books with Asian settings/characters written by white folks who DID live in the country/culture they depicted for multiple years, so…I’m not your market if you’re a white writer writing Asian cultures/characters. Don’t worry, I’m sure the weeaboo crowd thinks you’re hot stuff.