What really got people worked up, I believe, is that Sherman Alexie, in his editorial essay, spoke what many to feel be an unspeakable truth. He admitted to taking a special interest in minority writers. He gave voice to what everyone already knows, expects, or fears, which is that “diversity bias”–as the commenters are calling it–is real, that it’s at work in some, if not many, publishing venues, and that a lot of people, myself included, think it’s a good idea.
Why do I believe diversity bias is real? For the simple reason that if I were editing a magazine, I myself would be biased towards greater diversity. Alexie speaks of a kind of ethnic “nepotism,” a special sympathy on his part for what he (somewhat strangely) calls “brown” writers. But why should we worry that Alexie, an American Indian, feels unduly nepotistic toward a Chinese American? I suspect Alexie feels what many of us feel: that diversity is preferable to monoculture; that people read in part to be surprised by the unfamiliar, in part to be consoled by shared experience; and that a poetry collection purporting to be a mainstream anthology, which turns out on publication to be a mostly-one-kind-of-person anthology, will be an embarrassment to its editor and a less interesting book.
Why is all this so hard to say?
Because of a slander that has often been used to defame so-called minority writers: the accusation that they get published “only because” of affirmative action, or tokenism, or cynical PC politicking, or some preferential treatment that (as the complaint always goes) “isn’t about the work itself,” and that therefore their work shouldn’t be taken very seriously.
It seems to me this complaint ought to be ridiculous on its face, at least as it applies to literature. After all, who are the original beneficiaries of what we now call affirmative action?
One of my famous authors is F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was a lazy, procrastinating alcoholic, a lousy speller, a burden to his friends, and an academic failure who flunked out of college. How did he get published? How did he get to be so famous? Why do we still read his novels in school, make movies out of them, and (I hope) even read them for fun?
There are many possible answers to that question. Fitzgerald was handsome. He had a flashy wife. He worked hard to suss out and exploit the literary fashions of his day: a lurid fascination with louche kids and fast women, a robust short story market that paid high rates for formulaic potboilers, and a nascent film industry that tried to build its cachet by throwing cash at prestige novelists. His early career also coincided with an economic boom, which couldn’t have hurt his prospects.
But most importantly, Fitzgerald got published because he parlayed his Princeton connections into an advantage with editor Max Perkins at Scribner’s, who not only gave him his first big break (for a pretty awful novel), but helped to shape and refine his best-known works. Fitzgerald wasn’t even a model Princetonian. He spent all his time sucking up to the in-crowd and blowing off his schoolwork. It didn’t matter. Anyway, it didn’t matter much. In his day, Fitzgerald belonged to the right race, the right sex, and to a lesser but still meaningful extent, the right class and faith. He was a white, Christian, middle-class male.
For that matter, even with all his advantages and lucky accidents, Fitzgerald’s career still tanked. It was revived by his literary friends, foremost among them Edmund Wilson, another pal from his Princeton days. That’s why most of us have heard of The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald was lucky enough to be friends with one of the most influential critics in the country.
Is Fitzgerald’s status as a novelist somewhat diminished by this history? Yes. Does this mean that his writing is worthless, fraudulent, a disposable artifact of racist favoritism, nothing but page after page of manifest privilege? Some might think so. I persist in believing his best works are truly moving, engrossing, and inspiring, and I insist with all the authority of lived experience that they have moved, engrossed, and inspired me.
Another author I like is Ernest Hemingway. How did Hemingway get his start? By piggybacking off the reputation of celebrity novelist Sherwood Anderson. What was Hemingway’s big break? He was friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I also admire Faulkner, another troublesome and difficult person (and in this case, also a troublesome and difficult writer). What was Faulkner’s big break? He also knew Sherwood Anderson, who did him a once-in-a-lifetime favor by (so the story goes) arranging for the publication of Faulkner’s first novel–without even bothering to read it.
That last bit of lore is surely exaggerated, but it’s clear that the connections among our literary forefathers were dense, nepotistic, and utterly premised on a dozen varieties of exclusion and insider dealing. Forget about white privilege–these guys were prejudiced against Italians. Forget about sexism–they thought writers shouldn’t spend much time around women, much less actually be a woman. And forget about editorial bias–it was frankly acknowledged that the best way to break into print back then was to have a well-connected friend, preferably one from an Ivy League school.
By modern standards, the whole system was not only racist and sexist, but virtually incestuous. How many black women writers might have conquered the Saturday Evening Post, if only they’d been given a chance to compete? We’ll never know.
But we do know what those white male authors wrote, and speaking for myself, I think it’s pretty darn good. Why not just say it? I think their stuff is Great: capital-G great. I think everyone should at least consider reading these authors, and that people of lots of different backgrounds can find something of value in their work.
All that, despite the fact that the books in question are by well-connected white men–the original, and by far the luckiest, beneficiaries of affirmative action.
But yes. I know what people fear. People fear that there will be a quota system. People fear that editors will cease to read every work with respect and patience and deep attention. People fear that great writing will be overlooked in favor of mediocre writing.
Here’s the truth. There is no quota system. Editors will never read every work with respect and patience and deep attention. Great writing will always be overlooked in favor of mediocre writing. That’s how it goes.
Those who raise these kinds of objections always seem to have in mind some infinite, time-insensitive, library-of-Babylon style publishing system in which panels of priest-like editors carefully read through every single work written, apply a universal rubric of excellence (or use that numinous, telepathy-demanding yardstick, “the writer’s intentions”), and then, putting aside all personal experience, judiciously rank every piece from best to worst. Indeed, when I tell people outside the writing/publishing world about controversies like l’affaire Michael Hudson, their responses always evoke this kind of misty fantasy:
“Shouldn’t they just have blind submissions? That way an author’s identity wouldn’t matter.” (As if a byline alone is the only clue to an author’s identity.)
“An editorial decision should be based solely on merit.” (But try to nail down any precise definition of merit, and you’ll quickly be accused of elitism.)
“When judging a book, people shouldn’t be influenced by outside factors.” (As if all readers don’t make decisions and judgments based on recommendations, prize lists, reviews, social media, and other extra-literary factors.)
“An editor’s job is to give each work equal attention.” (As if this would even be possible.)
The fantasy of unbiased judgment is onerous for editors and other gatekeepers; it asks them to do an impossible job. It’s irksome to writers, because it implies that every setback and rejection must reflect artistic failures, when any writer who’s been around a bit knows how random and unpredictable publishing (self or traditional) can be. And personally, I think this fanciful view of publishing is bad for readers, since it plays into the consumerist illusion that civilization as a whole should be conceived of as some sort of giant, supernaturally precise mechanism, tirelessly grinding and chugging away to provide every citizen with happiness on demand.
But now methinks I hear complaints from another quarter. If I believe diversity bias is real, how do I explain the overriding whiteness and maleness of the upper echelons mainstream publishing? How do I account for the VIDA numbers, for instance, which reliably show that white men still have a tremendous edge?
Again, I think the seeming paradox speaks to important issues in contemporary publishing. First, let’s not overstate the case. What I see, when I look at current literary culture, is a two-tiered world. In the short fiction markets, the academic markets, in the indie and self-publishing markets–in all the vital underlayers of publishing–we’re seeing much more diversity, with many more opportunities for formerly marginalized groups. But those opportunities, for whatever reason, rarely translate into long-term success. The result is a kind of literary sundae: varied and multi-hued on the bottom, but mostly white whipped cream on top.
Is that because the kind of multiculturalism I’m defending ends up undercutting its own ambitions, flooding the market with underwhelming PC pieces that can’t compete in the rough-and-tumble, Darwinian struggles of the bookstore aisle–and that, worse, end up driving readers away from the very journals and presses striving hardest to make a difference?
Is it because a laudatory interest in diversity ends up softening into a preference for sentimentalized “message fiction” that ticks off acceptable political positions without ever managing to be daring or interesting (a problem, it’s worth noting, that, if real, can actually end up excluding minority writers who produce angry, provocative, challenging work, while ironically giving a lift to white allies who politely mouth anodyne talking points)?
Is it because American literary culture, like any nationwide culture, is simply slow to evolve?
Is it because the reading public at large is hopelessly, irremediably prejudiced?
Or is something else at work?
I don’t know. I do know that however this strange moment in publishing shakes out, the system that emerges is going to be brutally unfair, because anything to do with art is always brutally unfair. Hopefully the publishing system of the future will be less unfair than the one we have now, or at the very least, unfair to different kinds of people. Maybe, as the worst paranoiacs of the present moment fear, it will be grossly unfair to white men.
If that comes to pass, I’ll certainly be sad about my own prospects. But I can’t say that I’ll be gloomy about the future of literature overall. As someone who reveres many works from the classic, Western, white-oriented canon–heck, as someone who enjoys reading Rudyard Kipling–I have to believe that even a savagely biased, unfair, cliquish, bigoted, and frequently dogmatic culture can turn out works of value and beauty.
If that’s true of the culture that gave us The Great Gatsby, it certainly must be true of literary culture today.