I’ve been reading Roxane Gay’s recent posts this week on HTML Giant about race and the publishing industry. The first describes the “profound sense of absence” she felt when reading this year’s Best American Short Stories, where “[a]lmost every story “ was about rich or nearly rich white people.” At the end of the post she asks:
How do we talk about race, class, and gender and increasing the representation of the Other in the writing being published today, without alienating each other or being hysterical and reactionary?
Of course, there were hysterical and reactionary comments that followed ??? but also some good conversation. Her second post addresses some of the points raised in the comments section. Both posts bring up relevant issues about the ways that people of color are badly represented in the publishing industry and begin to talk about some reasons of why that is.
Coincidentally, a link to this great essay by Manijeh Nasrabadi came through my inbox yesterday. Detailing experience of being pushed by an agent to write her memoir in a way that would allow her to ride the Iranian-women-memoir wave, it demonstrates one of the issues that Gay brings up in her second post:
If you write about people of color, some editors want you to write about people of color in very specific and stereotypical ways because they’re simply not interested in those stories that diverge from the cultural narratives most publishers are comfortable with.
One of the points that Gay brings up is that the stories in BASS (and many other similar annual anthologies) cull their work from journals ??? and those journals are publishing people who are sending their work out. The question then is, who is submitting, and what does that pool look like?
Gay makes the point out that the time to write and send work out is a “luxury,” which is true. I know some wonderful writers who hold down full-time jobs as community organizers, health care workers, teachers ??? and take care of their families. They squeeze in a bit of time to write when they can, but rarely if ever send work out. Their work should have just as much chance to be read as work by those of us who have the privilege of being able to spend time sending out submissions.
And even when we do send work out, writers of color are vastly underrepresented as a whole in the publishing world (see Gay’s second post if you want some stats).
Historically, women and writers of color have found ways to get their work out there by creating collective presses and community-based journals.
And, as many people have already pointed out, the internet has created new opportunities for ways for writers to be published. While online journals are becoming almost as well respected as print journals these days, I think the question remains of how seriously alternatively published work is being considered by the literary establishment. How many stories or poems published in DIY presses or as eBooks end up in the “Best of” anthologies?
Also, there’s the fact some writers are wary about being pigeon-holed (going back to the ways that writers of color are perceived single dimensionally). This makes them reluctant to send their work to journals or contests specifically aimed at/for writers of color.
There aren’t any easy answers or solutions for any of this. The truth is we live in a society held up by institutional racism, and as long as that is true, all aspects of life, including publishing, will reflect that. We have keep talking about it, even though – keeping it real – as Gay says at the beginning of her second post: “It is difficult to talk about race and stressful and awkward and exhausting.” It’s the work that needs to be done.