Recognizable Minority Names… Really?

About a month ago, writer Claire Light blogged about the dearth of writers of color submitting to mainstream magazines and publishers and proceeded to make a pretty interesting (and to my mind, kind of crazy) statement with regard to writing that I’ve thought about and thought about over the past several weeks and haven’t been able to forget.

She wrote:

Please note, this is my experience and that of many folks I’ve talked to or read stuff from, not a universal experience.) that the submissions from women and poc are often disproportionately sucky, which is sometimes why even the proportions of women and poc who submit aren’t reflected in the proportions of women and poc actually published.

Now, there are many things that can be said about the slush pile, but in my experience, this is not one of them and furthermore, I know lots and lots of editors and I have never once heard the complaint that the writing of women and POC is measurably worse than the writing of white men. The only complaint I consistently hear is that dealing with the slushpile can be overwhelming. Now, it could be that the editors I know are afraid to discuss this subject with me because I’m a woman of color, but anyone who knows me personally knows that I’m not crazy and that they can discuss anything with me so I think maybe Light is talking to the wrong editors.

What’s interesting is that she precedes this statement with a statement that this phenomenon is true and people simply don’t want to talk about it, that we’re too wrapped up, I assume, in political correction to just admit what she believes to be true.

When I read submissions, I don’t think about race and I rarely think about gender. Sometimes, I will notice I’ve read 84 submissions and only 14 of them have been from writers with noticeably feminine names and I’ll think the discrepancy is troubling but it doesn’t influence an editorial decision and the quality of those submissions from women writers is in no way different from the submissions from male writers.

Light then asserts that women and POC writers don’t make the leap from niche/ethnic/community publications to mainstream publishing for many reasons including that they think their work will not get fair consideration at the mainstream literary magazines and publishing houses.

As I read the post, I couldn’t help but feel that I live on a vastly different planet from the one where Light is residing. I understand many of the points she raises with regard to the barriers women/POC face in publishing but there was a tone of… condescension, perhaps that has me unsettled. I have discussed the real lack of diversity in publishing and there are indeed writing communities of POC who don’t participate in mainstream publishing but when Light starts talking about knowing the rules etc etc etc, as if there’s some sort of secret handshake required to break into mainstream publishing, I really feel like she jumps the shark completely. I don’t think that its that women/POC writers don’t know the lay of the land.  I do think they know about Writer’s Market and Poets & Writers.  I knew about the Writer’s Market when I was a teenager at boarding school in New Hampshire and found a copy in the library. It is the first book that writers from any community go to. It’s like the Bible. It’s not some secret document for white men only.

Light ends her post with some helpful hints for encouraging more women/POC writers to submit to magazines and publishing houses and as I read the list I felt my irritation growing. Some of the suggestions, like highlighting submission guidelines clearly and explaining what a successful submission looks like are great ideas to help any writer but she also suggests that editors should also state explicitly that submissions from women and POC are welcome, and should send encouraging feedback to “minority” writers and put some “minority” folks on editorial boards. I really feel like the crazy just builds at this point. How on earth can you know someone’s race from their submission? I have no idea, save for a poet who is a friend of mine in real life, who is or is not a person of color amongst the PANK writers.

What takes the cake is when she says:

When you go through your back issues/backlist for the big names to list on your website, be sure to put the names of women writers and poc front and center. A publisher/magazine that has a lot of recognizable “minority” names on its website is basically putting out the welcome mat for “minority” writers. This is a subtle language you must learn to speak.

I find that a little insulting. I do. Am I alone in this? These are difficult issues and Light makes some interesting points and is encouraging a useful discussion about the diversity problem (and it IS a problem) but if these sorts of ideas she’s setting forth, ideas I find simplistic, short-sighted and condescending, are the solution, I worry for the writing world. I’d love to hear what other folks think about this, about her ideas, and about what we do to encourage more diversity (of all kinds) in modern letters.

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7 thoughts on “Recognizable Minority Names… Really?

  1. Ms. Light doesn’t seem too short of suggesting that minorities’ submissions come with little armbands or something to identify themselves.

    Like you said, Roxane, it’s a topic that needs discussion, needs exposure, needs examination. But it also needs intelligence, and from Ms. Light’s post I fear she’s, uh, er, a little light on that…

    I don’t know how we solve this problem. But I do believe education is a part of it. And I mean exposing children of all genders and races to work of all genders and races. This is what I am most thankful to my parents for in their raising of me. I’m so white people called me “Powder” in middle/high school, after a movie I refused to see because of it, but my favorite poet is Langston Hughes. Has been since the moment my mom introduced me to his work. And maybe that sounds simplistic, but I think to a degree part of it truly is as simple as exposure.

    And another part of it is being conscious. As an editor that doesn’t mean changing your standards, but being conscious of the writers you are putting together. Putting together the first issue of Sententia we tried to be so, and 10 of our 24 contributors are women. Now, I have no way of knowing beyond that, how many may or may not be minorities, but I feel proud of putting together a fairly even issue gender-wise, and reading through the proof, every single piece we selected I think is magnificent.

  2. her post was kind of appalling–i took her to task for it on aqueduct. Hey Claire, What Gives?

    Kelly Link and PNH pinged to say that’s not their experience of the slush, and I also named others who have made opposite statements.

    I was talking to someone who works with CL, who says what CL meant was not that the works submitted by minorities and women suck in comparison to works by pale males, but that they suck in comparison to work submitted by minorities and women to niche magazines.

    I don’t know if I buy it based on CL’s arguments so far, but if CL were to come and clarify that that’s what she meant–well, it would be odd I think, but less objectionable.

    BTW, you’ll be happy to know you’re derailing. :-P

  3. thanks for posting this, and giving it some thought.

    i think the whole area of comparing submissions is a bit difficult to evaluate, and leaving a lot of questions: how to compare quality of submissions to non-niche magazines to the quality of submissions to niche magazines? which magazines would you compare here, and how?

    reading through this made me ponder on a whole row of editor/author issues.

    first, my experience as editor of blueprintreview:
    when reading submissions, my main focus is the story quality, and when editing, i try to put together issues that include a wide array of styles and approaches.

    one element of this wide array is that i try to include submissions from abroad, and that i try to reach a balanced ratio of male / female contributors for blueprintreview. which now seems to effect the submissions, too, and their gender ratio. i guess it’s only logical that the theme and style / atmosphere of a current issue of a magazine influences the submissions for the next issue. but i don’t put those aims up as a specific note on the starting page, and i think it’s up to each editor to set their outlines for their journal / magazine. (and discussions like this one are surely helpful when it comes to defining those outlines).

    “How on earth can you know someone’s race from their submission? I have no idea, save for a poet who is a friend of mine in real life.” – that is a good question. it’s also a point i ran into recently, too, with the book blog i started, Daily s-Press – http://dailyspress.blogspot.com/

    the concept of Daily s-Press is to feature books from small presses, and parallel to that, to explore the landscape of small and indie publishers. there are some search functions up already, mainly about the books themselves (fiction/poetry – style – format etc). but there are more options planned. one that is up already is a geographic search: authors / editors by continents – later, with more books up, this will move to the level of countries.

    the next tag-search to be included will be a gender search for authors and editors.

    but how to include a poc search option? or other options that might be interesting, and also tell about the landscape of authors and editors, for example: age, education.

    working on this, i wondered if the gender theme sometimes is in the focus of discussions as it is more visible than other characteristics of authors. not sure. on the other hand, it’s interesting to see that the internet tends to level certain factors: the place where an author lives, the “part of town” or social level he or she belongs to, the ethnic background (including religion), etc.. – all these factors aren’t visible in submissions if they aren’t explicitly stated in the bio. and even the gender aspect can be removed, either by using initials, or by creating an abstract.

  4. In looking over the stories accepted for the first issue of Fractured West, I noticed that the writers are exactly 50% female and 50% male. This was in no way planned.

    I have no idea how many of the writers I’ve accepted are poc and how many are white because I didn’t think to ask, but I know that many have “non-white names” (though I’m not sure what that even means) and are from countries other than the US or UK. I never set out to make a women-inclusive or poc-inclusive magazine; I just accepted the work I loved. To me, that suggests that women and poc ARE submitting work, and it IS quality work.

    I have never felt that my own work was rejected or accepted based on my gender, and I’ve never felt that I shouldn’t submit to a magazine because of my gender either. I tend not to submit to magazines that publish a lot of ‘young white American male MFA-style’ writing, just because I’m bored of that style. I should add that not all young white American men write in that MFA-style way, and I’ve read women and poc who write in that way too.

    But then, perhaps I’m not a minority writer, because I don’t even really know what that means.

  5. The “dearth of writers of color submitting to mainstream magazines and publishers” can probably be blamed on economics. Do most writers of color earn money for mainstream magazines and publishers? Or are these writers of color just token elements in the mainstream publishing industry, an industry that’s savvy in using political correctness as another revenue-generator, because of ‘ethnic studies’ departments, in the US? I’m sure agents and mainstream publishers are very, very careful who they want to be under their wing; thus, this dearth.

    Indeed, this dearth is not applicable to White-women writers, in the context of mainstream magazines and publishers. A visit to one’s public or neighborhood library is proof of this. White-women writers generate a lot of money for publishers. A case can be made that the agents who represent white women writers are white women as well.

    Now a name does say a lot. That’s why there are non-white writers out there who have changed their names or have used pseudonyms, to trick editor’s or reader’s eye away from recognizing the name as non-white. The imagination plays a lot of tricks with equating names with actual faces and ethnicities. One look at the name Tess Gerritsen, and I wouldn’t even think of assuming she’s Chinese-American. But no doubt she puts money in the back for her publishers and those publishers no doubt protect her from endangering that ability to make money for them, such as not being included in hot-topics in the publishing industry that concerns one’s ethnicity. Of course this is not true with Chinese-American Maxine Hong Kingston and Bengali-American Jhumpa Lahiri who both have made money for their agents and publishers as well; and as they make money, they have also exposed to the world a lot of their background in their writing. In some ways, you could say their ethnicity, in their case, is capital, both culturally and financially.

    Non-mainstream magazines and publications will continue to exclude a lot of non-white names in their roster of published materials; but the idea of exclusion here doesn’ t necessarily mean discriminating those writers, because of merely being a person of color or that their writing is not good enough. This exclusion, I think, functions as a form of guarding the reputations of many editors and publishers of being categorized as too ‘minority-friendly’, which probably isn’t a nice thing to be viewed as.

    But the issue of publishing materials in non-mainstream publications becomes a bit more tricky when the publication itself is edited by a predominantly or exclusively non-white staff. The situation becomes reversed, in terms of what or who gets published; in many ways, the editor must include some token non-white authors to include, whether the writing is of quality or not, to encourage non-white readers to visit their site and/or to play the highly-complicated and complex game of political correctness.

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