Yes, Your Writing Is Shaped By Your Identity—But What You Publish Is Too
Rachel Charlene Lewis
These days, the lit world is spending a lot more time thinking about the role of identity in writing and publishing. With recent shifts toward a greater acknowledgment of the role of identity and the influence of privilege on what we write, read, and publish, more and more think pieces are spanning the web.
Many of us are asking the same question: How on earth is the lit world going to support people of marginalized identities in a society that has shown itself time and time again to be incapable of the same task?
Over the summer, Electric Literature posed the question “Should White Men Stop Writing?” on The Blunt Instrument, its monthly advice column for writers, with an answer that can be boiled down to, “No, don’t stop writing; just work toward good writing and don’t cast yourself as the white savior. Oh, and stop doing the weird white guy thing of submitting work over and over again . . . even after you’ve been told your work is low-quality.” (Get more of the column’s author in a Q&A over at Vulture.)
Many responses followed in the lit world. The Atlantic’s June 6th response piece, “Letter to a Young (White, Male) Poet,” gave a different set of advice that largely suggested the idea that white male poets shouldn’t stop writing, unless, of course, they’re bad at the craft.
But we’ve come up with no solution. And why? Are we looking in the wrong places? At the end of the day, maybe the responsibility to publish diverse perspectives falls onto publishers and editors.
Where are the diverse writers?
Let me be straight with you: I am a giant feminist, and as such, I’ve followed all of these conversations pretty closely. I regularly read diverse publications, like THEM, Plenitude, The Fem (disclaimer: I work with them), Blackberry Lit, Quaint, Kalyani, and Two Serious Ladies. I keep up with campaigns that fight for inclusivity in the literary world, like #WeNeedDiverseBooks and the VIDA Count. And it’s really interesting because, at least from the outside looking in, these publications don’t seem to be having the same massive struggle of not being able to find diverse writers that some editors claim is the reason for the whiteness, the straightness, and the maleness of their publications.
What I am frustrated about is the lack of responsibility that editors themselves seem willing to take about the maleness and whiteness of the lit world.
If lit mags are publishing problematic works, they’re unlikely to have diverse writers vying for the chance to get their work in their now misogynistic/racist/ableist/classist/homophobic journal. Editors can’t be shocked when women don’t want to submit to their magazine when they just published a misogynistic piece last week. The same can be said for other marginalized identities.
Editors—learn the meaning of diversity
If we publish in terms of talent and actively seek diverse voices, we'll even out the playing field—but first, this requires a basic understanding of what diversity is, what inclusivity looks like, and how identity influences writing.
Our identities shape our perspectives, making all of us privy to the majority perspective per media (and literature’s) constant re-tellings of what it is to be straight, white, and male, and leaving only those of us with identities marginalized in our current US context (people of color, queer folks, trans people, people with disabilities, etc.) with access to certain perspectives.
For writers not to acknowledge the role that who they are plays upon how they move through the world is to make their experience seem as if neutral, as if their writing is just about the “human” experience, not about the experience of any individual and their identities.
We need diverse editors
On July 1st, @MizCaramelVixen, creator of #BlackComicsMonth (with comics being another overwhelmingly white space within the art world), tweeted, “We need MORE editors of color as well as creators of color. Period.”
And they’re not the only one having this conversation. The Twittersphere, especially Black Twitter, has hashed this issue out via tweets on many occasions, both literary and not.
We can talk in circles about the role of identity and who should and should not write, but what’s become clear to me from the many think pieces spanning the Internet about the topic is that there’s no single solution. The fun part about focusing instead on the role of editors is that there is an answer—we need more diverse editors, and we need editors who do the work.
How does an editor select a piece? Do they look for something that makes them feel something? Do they look for something that speaks to the human experience? We can act all we want as if 1) editors are totally objective creatures by the nature of their craft, or 2) that the human experience is not often a cover for the straight, white, cis, able-bodied, male experience.
But what does it mean that the people looking for something to connect to so often share so many of the same characteristics? Those of us involved in chats about diversity often talk about the businessman who pulls aside a fellow straight, white, male, able-bodied young businessman and say, “You remind me of myself, son.” Lookie there—privilege.
And this isn’t just an issue in business. What does it mean if editors are imagining their past writer selves in writers whose identities match up with their own? What does it mean if reading and the ability to enjoy a piece is tangled up in being able to see oneself in the main character or narrator?
Buzzfeed published an article in 2014 by Daniel José Older titled, “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, and Publishing” that discussed this issue in terms of the book publishing industry. When presented with a story headed by a person of color, one agent said, as quoted in the article, that they couldn’t relate to the character.
Again—we end up in a sea of, more or less, the same perspectives.
But can’t we just look for talent?
If what we seek is a world of invisible identities where everyone somehow has an equal shot without effort on the editorial level working to make our publications more diverse, we are completely failing at our task.
There is a lot to “talent.”
I remember sitting in my sophomore year English class and learning about the debate about whether rhetoric could be taught or not. I thought, wow, it must be fantastic to be able to convince people that you carry a skill that you, and only people like you, are capable of being born with.
I’ve found so much solace in the literary world in these past few years. I’ve shared pieces that rubbed me the right way with my closest counterparts as a means of discussing everything from newfound queerness to sexual assault. I’ve laid in bed with these pieces on my phone at 5:00 in the morning and been like, holy crap, this is what not being in absolute solitude feels like.
But I shouldn’t have had to feel so grateful to find writers like me. It shouldn’t be so difficult to stumble upon a piece by a queer, biracial woman. But, goodness gracious, be sure to tweet at me if you have one to recommend. If talent is the only thing holding these people back, then we must seriously be terrible writers.
It’s too easy to push the blame on the writers
White male writers disappearing isn't necessarily the answer to leveling the publishing playing field, because it's not as if all white male writers think the same way and have no perspective to offer—here, I do agree with the author of The Atlantic piece. And, again, being white and male says nothing about talent.
What I want to talk about more is the editor. How do we switch up the editing game to make it more accessible? How do we include more voices?
If there's any question to ask, it's how to regulate the seeking and publishing of diverse voices—not whether certain people should stop writing.
Editors, it’s on you
There are a number of journals who commit to publishing the works of diverse authors and to being inclusive in their publications. These are the spaces where editors take a step back and say, “What are we doing wrong?” when the only submissions they’ve selected are those of straight, white males, instead of saying, “Welp, guess they are just the strongest writers!”
These journals do not all go about their work in the same way. Apogee Journal, “a literary journal specializing in art and literature that engage with issues of identity politics: race, gender, sexuality, class, and hyphenated identities,” does not read blind. In a July letter from the editors, they say, “Blind submissions don’t actually protect writers from the existing prejudices of editors, and they alone do not contribute to editors reading inclusively.”
Vagabond City, a small quarterly literary journal that seeks to publish poetry and prose that fits outside the mainstream literary scene, asks writers to list their identities along with their submission. (Disclaimer: I edit this journal, so I’m biased.)
Other spaces don’t necessarily shift their reading practices, but instead make their commitment to inclusivity, diversity, and social justice obvious in their social media presences. The Offing is an excellent example of this. They are continually taking stances on social justice issues like police brutality and mental health in POC communities. Whether their publication is diverse because of their social media presence or vice versa, whatever they’re doing is clearly working, as they’ve continually highlighted the voices of marginalized writers.
It’s the little things and the big things. It’s having submission fee-free periods. It’s promoting your reading periods in spaces beyond expensive magazines. It’s making it clear that you’re a safe space for marginalized voices.
And it’s worth it.
I crave a world where I don’t have to scroll or flip through page after page or publication after publication to find a queer woman of color. And I’m not the only reader craving this. I am not the only writer terrified for her future. I am not the only person fearing for the moment when the trend to include diverse voices from the literary world passes and we’re left floating in the same sea with no solutions in sight and few editors left to fight the good fight.