Writer examines some lit mags' #OwnVoices policy and other editorial practices
Good afternoon. I just wanted to say that I'm so heartened by the many thoughtful and fascinating responses to the piece thus far. Also, thanks to those of you who included links to related articles, all of which were very interesting.
All I worry about is taking the desire for social justice to a point of absurdity. Imagine "To Kill A Mockingbird" without any depiction or mention of Tom Robinson or the black people of the community who are supporting his quest for exoneration. Should Mark Twain not have Jim talk about his family and how much he misses his wife and children in "Huckleberry Finn"? Should Jim just be kind of mentioned as an aside without any effort to show the man's humanity? Should black writers not be allowed to write white characters? Should gay men not be allowed to write lesbian characters? Should we Balkanize art altogether?
After a lifetime of standing for social justice, and in some cases losing relationships with family members because of it, I'm not going to change my worldview. But writers and artists should write and do their art. And if ever I get to the point where I can only write about 70 year old Polish-American men who were born in Chicago I'm moving to Mars.
And Henry James said we as readers and critics should grant each author their option. In other words let them write what they want. The question was, were they doing it well?
What an excellent, and thought-provoking, article. You've provided readers with much to ponder, nibble and chew on.
This is one of the reasons I write so much science fiction. It's hard to argue that my portrayal of a crab-like alien living on one of the moons of Jupiter is inauthentic.
Wow, well said!
Thank you Vivianne. The "plausibility factor" that you describe is especially irking. The biggest criticism (often justified) of writers depicting characters from underrecognized groups, when they don't belong to the group, is stereotyping. Yet, the editors complaining about plausibility do exactly the same thing. They label and reduce people to cliches - she can't have a graduate degree, the kid can't come from a 2-parent home ... This is toxic and further feeds the inequality these well-intentioned people mean to fight against. Humanity is complex, let's not stick it in a discrete number of boxes.
This is one of the most frustrating challenges of our current writing lives. I've literally had an agent stick his/her face in mine and tell me I can write only from the perspective of a white woman. As for the fact that I'm an immigrant, well, no. That won't work either because I'm a white woman and no one wants to hear about white immigrants. And so it goes. I have no desire to usurp the stories of others, but neither do I want to be told what to write. We have to get past this, somehow.
The editor's job shouldn't be to vet every story for plausibility and the likelihood of objection and cancellation. The editor's job should be to look for well-written and effective stories (since we're talking about fiction) that shed light on the difficulties and mysteries of human existence, no matter the subject or theme or the ethnicity, status and gender-multiplicity of the characters. Plausibility! If that were the standard, Kafka or Carson McCullers or Toni Morrison would never have been read or published. The writer's responsibility is to make the implausible seem inevitably real; the editor's responsibility is to recognize the goodness and greatness of that effort, courageously, if necessary.
By coincidence, I just posted a review of Yellowface on my substack: https://levraphael.substack.com/p/mystery-and-mockery
It's a brilliant publishing satire that deals with the thorny issues of representation and authority and how publishers try to navigate them.
Very thoughtful piece. Thank you.
This is a complicated set of issues. There are unquestionably historical and current biases that continue to affect the ability of voices that are not white, male, academic, etc. to be heard. It is absolutely a correct and needed initiative to give such under-represented voices real and equitable access to publication. It seems to me a pity though that a quest for equity extends to a restriction on what kind of character any writer is "allowed" to attempt to portray.
It seems to me that it comes down to a question of the quality of the writing. Tom Clancy was a white, cisgendered male. His white cisgendered males characters are cartoonish and implausible, speaking in ways that no actual human being ever did. This is not because Tom Clancy did not understand jerky right wing white guys like himself. It is because he was a very bad writer.
A character is plausible or not plausible by virtue of how well they are portrayed as an individual person, within the context of the world built by the story.
An important topic and astute attempt to break through the noise! As a white writer, I have often written Black characters, some as focal ones, others as secondary. In fact, I had a story declined by the Kenyon Review for just this reason, despite the fact the editor wrote in a long handwritten apology that she found the piece powerful and moving. (Ironically, the story was published by Callaloo, the journal devoted to works "by and about African-Americans" with no questions asked.)
Yet I recognize the need for under-recognized voices to join the discourse, and understood the KR editor's decision. In grad school, I studied cross-representations vis a vis whites and Blacks, and was, with only a couple of exceptions, appalled by the shallowness of Black characters written by white authors. (The opposite was, interestingly, not true: Black authors displayed a fuller understanding of the humanity of their white counterparts, a difference that likely traced back to our Black subculture living and working within the white-dominant culture, whereas whites rarely penetrated the inner sanctum of our segregated pockets of African-Americans.)
I agree with Henry James (thx Lev) that writers must be given license to write where their imaginations take them, as long as they do it well (at least, if they wish to be read). What it means to write well, and who gets to decide, remain thorny questions, with ever-changing answers dictated all too often by fashion and whimsy. For me, more than plausibility (which seems to address the situation more than the character), it's about credibility--not of the author but of the characters. In the context of the fiction being rendered, does a given character serve the piece's ultimate aim of revealing human nature? If it does, who cares who writes what characters? I am a fierce supporter of under-recognized voices joining the discourse, but there is also a need for the dominant voices to evolve. Isn't the fundamental point of writing to overcome, or undermine, convention, thereby using our imaginations--all of our imaginations--to forge new neural, and social, pathways?
The question of who gets to write about which groups/people/etc is tricky because in my view, it's not actually a writing question. It's really a question of, what is your relationship with this underrepresented group? And this isn't really a question easily answered on a lit mag submission. It's not always easily answered by the writer themselves.... witness the many examples of poorly written women by men, pretty much all of whom would likely say they have many relationships with women.
So #ownvoices, while well-intentioned, becomes a very awkward and not very accurate measure of those relationships.
The other side of this, of course, is the editor trying to look at a piece of writing and see if there's anything problematic in it, who similarly doesn't have deep relationships with every underrepresented community (who does) and is therefore in a really poor position to judge... It's an unenviable task.
I don't have a good answer to this problem.
In one of her online craft talks, the poet Ellen Bass quoted another poet, Chris Abani, on the topic of writing the Other. Abani's take, according to Ellen, is that we have every right to cook Korean fried chicken, but it has to be *tasty* Korean fried chicken. And if it isn't tasty, we deserve our bad reviews (or rejections).
Thanks for this piece which invites nuance into a topic that is rarely greeted with nuance. I have my university fiction-writing students read Kaitlyn Greenidge's 2016 essay from the Times, but would love to share this to them as well, if that's okay with you. (Not till Jan 2024.) I also note that this is posted under "Humor & Opinion" and, thanks to the Martian lead-in, succeeds at both.
(I was trying to link to the Greenidge piece but can't do a hyperlink in the comments, so here's the link: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/25/opinion/sunday/who-gets-to-write-what.html)
Thank you, Vivianne, for this thoughtful piece. I think about this a lot as well. I often write about my experience as a transracially adopted Korean person in America a fair amount and, frankly, am rarely impressed when non-adopted writers create characters with similar backgrounds. I’m not saying that it’s off limits but I think writers need to do their due diligence with thorough research and even beta readers if needed to make sure they are not flattening characters. On the other hand, I write White characters. I belong to a White family (and grew up in White communities). I feel confident about how I portray them in my work. Thanks again for starting this conversation.