This little piece came out of a comment-thread rant, which leads me straight into Rule 1:
- Don’t waste your words. If you spend any real time & effort on it, even if you don’t think it’s great, it’s too good to be flushed down the pipes of the Facebook-newsfeed-to-nowhere an hour after you turn it out. If your work serves the same people to the same extent as clickbait, you are working too hard on it.
Anyways. The thread was in response to a literary journal’s call for submissions, which made it very clear that “we are committed to publishing a variety of new, emerging and established voices. Further, we are committed to inclusion and equity in publishing. We highly encourage submissions from underrepresented voices.”
Let’s forget for a minute that the journal doesn’t pay contributors. Let’s also forget the missing Oxford comma above. There is something here in this welcome message to diverse writers that, apparently, is deeply unsettling and threatening to a certain percentage of the white hetero cismale population. It was they (not all of them, but one or two at least) who misread the welcoming of others as a hostility toward them, and were offended by this, and were certainly vocal about their defense.
The advantage of Facebook being a newsfeed-to-nowhere is that their writing on this matter is now dead; there’s no need for me to resurrect it here by quoting it. It’ll be shunted out of human memory by adorable Turtle vs. Cat videos within 24 hours, which is fine because there’s no shortage of it. What I will say about what was said, is that some of these gents are under such perceived pressure that they’re pondering pen names to exploit what they perceive as a bias—when, more than likely, what editors and agents are jumping at is simply content that they haven’t seen before.
They don’t seem to understand that a pen name does not come with content built in. If I write a novel under the name Leo Tolstoy, it does not, in itself, come with the voice of Tolstoy. I sure as hell can’t write an Alice Walker novel, not even if I strongarm a publisher to put her name on the cover.
As a writer of great privilege myself—not success, necessarily, but privilege—I’ve long intuited that the welcoming of diversity is good for all writers, including me. Yet I’ve never really been able to articulate why. And so I’ve tried to sit down and do a little bit of mansplaining that I hope is actually warranted. What we have are a bunch of very threatened men who see the world a certain way (let’s call them, “passively bigoted white male writers”), and the rest of us who struggle to understand why they have an immense problem, why they perennially cry foul with allegations of “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism,” and above all why they are disinterested in what should be the priority of every writer who doesn’t want to get boring: increasing the richness and variety of our literature by any means possible.
What emerges is a pretty dull, but hopefully helpful account, of why I don’t feel my privilege is threatened in the slightest by this whole business, and a mansplanation of some of the flawed thinking behind those members of the Old Boys’ Club who are hostile to inclusivity. Hopefully, this will serve as a tool of understanding people who make no sense—understanding why they make no sense—and an encouragement for those who are struggling to get their work heard. Hopefully, these words of encouragement will help every writer from every walk of life…but especially of course, for the delicate white hetero cismen who are maybe more fragile than we think they are, if kindness to others is actually enough to threaten them. Do I say that half-facetiously? I don’t even know. Maybe a few despairing white men genuinely need to hear that they still can succeed in a world of diversity. Maybe that would help them be less hostile to it and more committed to pitching in for it. But maybe a few despairing white men also need to hear the real reasons behind their struggles, so that they stop looking to the healthy rise of diversity as a convenient excuse for their own failures as artists and people. So, onward…
I’ve never had a problem getting published with a super-white-male name. I’ve had many, many, many people not be interested in my work, though, “because reasons.” That’s what publishing is. If you didn’t know that, you haven’t been trying to publish for very long.
Now, it’s all very nice for a cynic, being a white cisman who submits to places that say “we welcome diversity,” because then when we’re inevitably rejected 90% of the time (just like everyone else), we get to make excuses for ourselves, imagine the scary spectres of reverse racism and affirmative action, and all the rest. But that’s never why we’re rejected. There are already so many reasons we’re not batting 1,000 with our submissions that we hardly need to invent another. But that’s the one we cling to, because it lets us keep our egos unbruised. It lets us presume if our work isn’t successful, it’s someone else’s fault rather than ours—or worse, nobody’s.
It’s very telling that almost every time, people who complain about all the chips stacked against them end up pointing out that this is why they never bother submitting, why they don’t like to perform anymore, why they seek or construct any excuse they can as to why they’re not pushing and supporting their own work in the public as consistently and fiercely as we need to do if we ever hope to find success. At its best, it betrays an immense lack of confidence in the work that ultimately becomes contagious. At its worst, it betrays the laziness of privilege, the refusal to believe that this is how hard ordinary people have to work all the time to get ahead—the resentment that we, too, must encounter hardship; and if we do have to work as hard as anyone else, and suffer the same failures, there must be some crooked political reason why.
At the end of the day, I can’t tell why the judges choose one Miss America contestant over another. The beauty of our swimsuit models, like the beauty of our individual writing Muses, is painfully subjective. But I can sure tell you why the stunningly beautiful blonde woman who sits at home grumbling “lousy pageant, lousy brunettes, probably all rigged anyway” never even seems to make the primary cut for her home state. The frowny lines show in her face the same way they show in our cover letters. Editors may not consciously see them, but you can always sense them, just under the surface, frowning away.
It doesn’t really matter that I’m not “neurotypical,” and it doesn’t matter in this context that I identify as queer: on the surface I remain a white cismale with a ton of privilege, and a name that broadcasts this privilege to anyone who reads my manuscripts. But I made sure to submit something to the journal that inspired this blog post. My submission will probably be turned down, because that’s how trying to get published works. I’ll expect a form letter from a very overworked editor, just long enough to say my work is very interesting, but just not right for them, and they’ll wish me the best of luck elsewhere.
I start every calendar year aiming to get 50 of those rejections. This is something I call Maynard’s Rule of Rejection, though your number may vary somewhat.. If I don’t get to 50 rejections in a year, I have no business whining about my lack of literary success, because there is nobody out there, no biased editor, no blasé agent, no reverse-racist boogeyman, who is sabotaging my career half as thoroughly as I’m sabotaging it myself. I’m either not producing enough, or not pushing what I produce hard enough, or with the right indomitable spirit.
Anyone I’ve ever known who consistently pushes for 50 rejections a year—whatever their gender, race, class, sexual orientation, blood type, shoe size—yes, even IQ—seems to find success before too long, no matter how much professional baggage it is to be privileged (or marginalized).
There sure are a lot of guys who find monumental success in writing with WASPy names like Dan Brown, Stephen King, John Green. Most of them spent a long time fighting for recognition early on, the way people who write pretty much always do. But they pursue publication with tireless optimism, quietly confident in the quality of their work (even when, as with Dan Brown, it’s not much to write home about), and secure in their knowledge that the success of every writer in the world, no matter what their ethnicity, is not a loss to the competition but a victory to our allies—one that makes this TV-loving world a little bit more receptive to the written word, and makes the world a little bit better for everybody, white males included.
So let’s cheer up, white men. Let’s dry our male tears. There’s plenty of room for us on the page. We just have go about it with thick skins, open hearts, and an equal measure of the hard work and patience that are demanded of the people who are much more used to struggling through with hard work and patience than we are. Keep at it, and you’ll outlast the people who give up and go home because the world is out to get them.
Which brings us to Rule 2:
- If the whole world being out to get you is enough to stop you from pursuing publication, maybe it’s not the right line of work for you anyway.
I’d like to offer special thanks to Glass Poetry Press, whose mission of inclusion is clearly an important one, and one requiring some degree of courage in the case of the antagonists they’ve had to deal with over this. I’d like to thank the incredibly diverse group of authors I’ve had the privilege (the good kind) of working with in the past [particularly in the new and highly cosmopolitan Martian Migraine Press anthology, Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis, which you should buy right away if supporting women, LGBTQ+ people, and visible minorities who write weird-cosmic-horror genre fiction is important to you.] Writing is a co-op game, not a deathmatch; it’s up to you to decide whether the other writers you share this planet with are your allies in creating a new and highly variegated world of literati whose triumphs you all share in, or hostile competition whose every victory means some kind of defeat for you. I, for one, am hoping for the former: we struggling writers of all shapes and sizes need all the friends we can get.