Monday, July 8, 2013

"White Publishing"

There’s a unique fear that I experience as an editor--which I imagine other editors experience as well--after reading a manuscript by and about a minority group I know too little about.

For example, I’m a Persian male who was born in Iran, and raised all over Europe, and then Oklahoma. So if you send me FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, man, I am in it. I lived that experience. Maybe not exactly as Boobie Miles lived it. But I played ball in Oklahoma. I get the lingo. My first manuscript was the story of that experience.

In the same way, if you write a novel set in Rome, if you want to sample some Farsi for a character, or French, then I’m good. I’m still with you. I have firsthand knowledge of the languages, the cultural nuances, etc.

Basically, I feel confident enough to judge whether or not the characters are exotified neo-colonialist tourism fantasies.

And—though some may disagree—I think one can have secondhand impressions of a culture. I’ve spent a lot of time in African American and African communities. I have a decent handle on the experience. I’m not saying I’m an expert. I’m just saying I’ve been a member of the churches you’re talking about. Girls I have courted, best friends growing up, authors I have edited, and mentors throughout my life have welcomed me into what I will call “their experience,” to indicate their personal experience of being Black in America and abroad. So that’s it. It’s literally the least I could claim. I have Black people in my life, whom I love, and whom I have spent a great amount of time listening to. What does that mean? It just means I know when you’re faking some version of ebonics you saw in a Wayans movie, and it’s the fastest way for your manuscript to hit my trashcan.

Let’s be clear: This is still an incredibly limited perspective from which to judge manuscripts. It lets me weed out the worst offenders. But the task remains to find stories that express the singular beauties of a particular character—a character often rooted in a specific minority experience.

That’s the difference between knowing a wine is corked, and a lifelong sommelier. At the furthest tip of the range, the smallest details make up the critical distinctions in quality.

Mmm, Shutou
I once had a Chinese friend spend an hour trying to explain the intricacies of how the puns worked in a particular hit Hong Kong film we had just seen. This was very likely over a meal wherein he took me to a packed Japanese restaurant to try shutou (raw tuna entrails preserved in salt and served with bits of cream cheese).

I’m a fan of Hong Kong films (certainly more than shutou), and I’m a fan of my friend’s sense of humor. But the style of humor, which he said went as far back as ancient Chinese satirists, was beyond me. Even after I understood how the the jokes worked, I wasn’t laughing. But at least I started to understand what all the fuss was about. The next time I encounter that type of humor, or tuna paste, then I’ll appreciate it a bit more. Eventually, I'll start seeking it out. At some point, I'll know enough about it to present it to others.

That’s the feeling I get when I read a manuscript about the slums of Mumbai, or someone living with a disease I'm unfamiliar with, and I just don’t vibe with it. This doesn’t happen every time, of course. I have some empathy. And some stories are universal. I’m only talking about the moments when I read something born of another culture, and it reads to me like a bad book. In those moments, I pause, and I try to imagine that perhaps my palate is wrong. Perhaps what I’m tasting as bland or off-putting may very well be the delicacy of another group. I spend time researching stories and folklore from other groups, modern memes and myths of subcultures I’m not familiar with, whatever I can find. I revisit the story. Many times, it still doesn’t work for me.

If you’ve ever had the experience of sending your work to an editor, and heard that it “just didn’t resonate,” then you know what I’m talking about.

Chances are good that the book was indeed missing something. Very few of them are so specific in their intended audience that only they could see its value. But even so, I experience fear every time I send a rejection in those instances. I think maybe I’m guilty of not recognizing beauty in a world that has precious little of it already.

And I think this is the danger of a monoculture among editors. This is why so many books read like they are for one particular group. This is why so many boys have found stories that resonate with them in other media. This is why we have a problem.

Thankfully, this is also why it doesn’t matter to me as much, if an editor is white or middle class. It only matters to me how interested they are in variety, how culturally and linguistically literate, how delighted by exploration, how curious and kind. It matters that they realize that some types of humor, some narrative forms, and some character traits are acquired tastes. It matters to me a great deal, if they want to know what all the fuss is about.


  1. This is an issue that I worry about too as a writer. I love learning about other cultures, but worry when trying to write about diverse characters, that they won't come out authentic, and in the end, I'll just do the culture a disservice.

    I went to a session on Native American Youth Literature at the ALA conference this summer, and a number of the presenters were frustrated with the inaccuracies and stereotypes in several books on the market. As a writer, the only thing I can think of, is that we need to be getting beta readers with experience in the culture to pull out inaccuracies before it ever gets into print.

  2. "I’m only talking about the moments when I read something born of another culture, and it reads to me like a bad book."
    I totally agree. I think sometimes people/editors/readers, read something that doesn't ring true because it's not within their cultural wheelhouse so it gets dismissed as not resonating or working. And then maybe it gets asked of "Do you do ____" to a representative and it all hinges on that... For good or worse. Great post!

  3. Wonderful! Thanks, Daniel. I remember that I loved hearing you at the SCWBI LA County Writers Day, and you just reminded why.

  4. I think in terms of diversity I think it may be necessary yo trust the author with their community if you don't understand it completely. I feel it's better to offer something than throw up our hands and offer nothing until that great black, Farsi speaking, lesbian walks through the door demanding to be an editor. We have to work with the tools we have not the ones we want.

  5. And I think this is the danger of a monoculture among editors. This is why so many books read like they are for one particular group. This is why so many boys have found stories that resonate with them in other media. This is why we have a problem.

    Oh, exactly. Wow, well said.

  6. Such a good post! I think implied in your writing is the importance of not just talking the talk, but walking the walk. To write, edit... to just understand all the diversity of the world, you have to get out of your head and experience it. Then, the reading or the writing will make sense because it's real.

  7. What a great post and I had never thought about diversity from the view point of an editor before. I really admire your passion and respect for children's literature. I agree that diversity is not a skin color solution but rather a purposful and respectful committment to understand and accept others. Thanks for sharing!

  8. A month later, I am still thinking over this post. Thank you for writing it.