My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, September 26, 2014

Why Is the Publishing Industry So Whitewashed? (Mailbox)

Why is the publishing industry so whitewashed? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Amazingly complex questions will be answered, but only rarely until I get a hookers and blow budget.] 

Diane writes:


Believe it or not, you are the reason I'm taking a literature M.A. instead of a Creative Writing MFA. After a particularly turbulent row with my mother, my sister showed me your MFA article [Writer's note: I'm guessing this one?]. Not only did you earn a fan that day but it was like you were talking right to me. I realized my mom was right but for all the wrong reasons, and an MFA was wrong, but for all the right reasons. I made a deal with my mom that I would take an MA if she would let me have a "ghost" class that was my own dedication to writing. She snapped the offer up like a crocodile. I take six units a semester and spend at least 2 hours a day writing with the extra time. If the MFA's I share lit classes with are to be believed, I owe you big time. Still have room on your staff for a groupie?

I suppose I should get on to my question though. In my MA, we've learned about CRT [Chris's note: Critical Race Theory], postcolonial theory, orientalism, feminism, queer theory, and linguistic deconstruction. I've read more Anzaldúa or Chakrabarty than Barthes, Derrida, or Fry. I'll be honest; I was hoping you were wrong or behind the curve by a few years on how whitewashed the literary and publishing world is. If anything, however, you've understated the magnitude of the problem. Beyond a couple of writers of color like Tan, Marquez, Walker, Morrison, or Cisneros, we are just doing the same dead white guys, and you're right that both literary and commercial publishing is amazingly whitewashed. And don't even get me started on children's literature statistics.

I know this is probably a hard question, but why does this happen? Everyone seems to have their heart in the right place, and it doesn't feel like a good ol' boys club, but then the books just keep being mostly straight, mostly white, mostly male.

My reply:

A position on my staff huh? When you pitch them slow over the plate like that, I almost feel like there's no honor in taking the swing. Must....resist..... Too....easy.....

So you seem to be aware that you've asked a very very very very very complicated question, and I have to admit that I'm wondering exactly how I'm going to get in all the threesome jokes while tackling this in an entry where the question alone is longer than most of my articles. (Oh HA HA HA. Isn't systematic marginalization just totes hilarious.... HA HA HA Ha Ha ha....ha....~sad sigh~)

But I'll try.

And I want to emphasize "try." In the end you could probably get a PhD analyzing data about publishing and eliminating X factors.

First of all, you have to understand the "Feedback Loop™." There are a few factors that feed into a whitewashed publishing industry, but taking any of them in a vacuum won't really do this explanation justice because the feedback loop works to amplify each.

It's like using a sonic screwdriver to amplify another sonic screwdriver. Except with whiteness.

Feedback loops rule.

In broad brushstrokes, if an art form largely excludes a demographic (their culture, their experience, their voice, their interests), that culture is probably less likely to have an interest in that art. This is never always true, as many people enjoy artistic expressions of different cultures, but it can be generally true enough to affect how young, creative people choose to channel their artistic impulses. (The line between culture and race gets negligee thin in these issues, but both are important.) White people are culturally very well represented in literature and consequently there are a very large number of young white people who want to be writers.

If the only movies in the whole world were about Welsh nationalists, most people uninterested in Wales wouldn't go to the movies, would never fall in love with film, would never want to make films themselves. Film would be seen largely as "A Welsh Thing."

True distopian horror.

To a huge degree, writing is whitewashed because writing always has been whitewashed.

But before you file that under circular logic or "D" for "Duh," hear me out.

Writing lacks the voices of everyone who never fell in love with reading because they didn't really experience books that resonated with them. They go and channel their artistic impulse into art forms their culture values and is represented in (until, of course, white people appropriate it and make money off of it and make it "legitimate" but that's probably its own article). The absence of their voices means that they are not represented in writing. Which means it's less likely for someone of their culture to take an interest in reading. Which means....

Okay, you can see where this is going without being a brain surgeon, right?

Before you jump on any "those-people" bandwagon, understand that there are tons of voices out there dying to be heard.  But the publishing industry has tamped those voices down. And the skill of literacy is very, very different from the appreciation of literature (especially the whitewashed canon literature). AAAAND...it would be stereotyping to consider this as the only factor when in fact most of it is the publisher's fault, but it amplifies and intensifies many of the other factors.

Like giving a megaphone to an annoying person. It's not the megaphone that's making things so annoying.

At each level, this feedback loop sifts out would-be writers. It's not that no one can punch through–because obviously there are some brilliant authors who aren't white–but the conditions themselves work to filter out non-white voices and leave a more and more homogeneous (white) product.

This is critical to understanding why publishing and the literary world can't seem to just change even as their awareness of the problem grows. The absence of non-white voices in literature is based on a feedback loop that began when there absolutely, positively, unquestioningly WAS a deliberate, conscious, and organized effort to silence them.

Let me write that again (all in quotes text and bold and shit):
The absence of non-white voices in literature is based on a feedback loop that began when there absolutely, positively, unquestioningly WAS a deliberate, conscious, and organized effort to silence them.

For many of the middle managers and book-loving gatekeepers in the publishing and literary world, the whitewashing is probably mostly invisible and unintended and unconscious because it's mostly unexamined. It's kind of like "authentic" high fantasy. Ask white people why everyone in a fantasy novel (except the swarthy bad guys, of course) is white and they'll tell you it's based on European history and blah blah blah, and never once realize that they are actually perpetuating a pure, lily white Europe that NEVER EXISTED.

However, even when the problems of today are invisible to many, they are based upon a time when they were in your face, come-right-out-and-say-it visible. Many may love Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien was many things, but racially progressive was not one of them. The publishing industry is not some strange cultural artistic preference phenomenon that has been whitewashed because it always was whitewashed in perpetuity and no one really knows why....

The publishing industry has been whitewashed because non-white voices have been silenced throughout history. Deliberately. By racist hemorrhoid flaps. And even if we were "over it" (we're not) we would not be beyond it enough for its influence to not live on.

When these voices stopped being silenced simply because they were non-white, they were still silenced because they threatened the power and the status quo of the kind of people publishers tend to be. This goes to the very heart of the postmodern literary theories you have been studying so much of, Diane–that marginalization doesn't have to be burning crosses, racial slurs, and white hoods to be marginalization. Sometimes it is cultural elitism, lack of relativism, and failing to redress deep seated grievances that have set modern day power dynamics at an imbalance.

And, Diane, you must never forget this if you go into the literary world. This is about power, and it's about who gets to say what is beauty and what is "reasonable" and what is "normal" and what is worthy of our cultural attention and what MATTERS.

Published writing is a VERY POWERFUL medium, and it is controlled in the same way so many other media are controlled not by outright propaganda but by limiting who has access to a voice within the medium.

[You recently watched this power struggle unfold in Ferguson as written words like "murder," "thug," or "innocent" carried extreme power to change the perception of the narrative. A narrative that was so important for the police to control that they lied about why they were releasing security footage of the drug store and never really seemed to get that story of the demon charge to quite jive with the forensic evidence. When so many talked about "controlling the narrative" this is exactly the power to which they were referring.]

And publishers amplify the messages they deem worthy, important, and pleasing while the marginalize their opposite. Never ever forget that.

What are the factors themselves?

Let's start simple: The foundation of literature is racist, sexist, and heteronormative.

Woah! Did you feel your anal sphincter tighten up? Did I just dis the Billies Lit (Falkz and Shakez) in one line?

Put as bluntly as I possibly can, equal rights are a new concept. "Colorblind" hipsters might roll their eyes at the suggestions that equality isn't an innate state of being, but you don't even have to leave Living Memory Lane in order to get back to Jim Crow or pre-ERA.

The vast, vast majority of literary works we hold up as great, canonical, brilliant, were from before concepts like racial or gender equality (never mind unexamined privilege or language deconstruction). Not only was equality not a given, but inequality was a given. And even the most progressive authors were products of their times. So when non-white people look back through the canon, they find mostly white men writing about mostly white men at a time when inequality was accepted. There are few women (mostly love interests), fewer characters of color, fewer characters of non-straight orientations. And those that exist are not portrayed very well. And while you can probably think of exceptions from every group and things are definitely getting better lately, those exceptions are few and things aren't even close to equal today.

It's not like there's a shit ton to relate to. I mean seriously have you ever actually read Ethan Frome?

You don't even have to go back more than a couple hundred years before just being able to write was a matter of elite status. Consider literacy rates prior to the Gutenberg press (or more sinisterly how slaves were forbidden from being literate) or the fact that making a living writing (outside of possibly journalism) is mostly a modern era phenomenon. It paints a picture that writing was sort of a rich white men's art. A thing that most people did because they didn't need a real job and could afford to sit around the house in bunny slippers and a chiffon robe for a few years and futz on a novel that probably wouldn't make much money. While the literary world has opened somewhat, that gravity well is still exerting pull. You can still feel the effects today when people try to tell writers they should not write for money.

So while there are, of course, exceptions, it is no wonder that the fountainhead of this art form resonates less with people who are not a part of that rich white male vibe. They're not in it. It excludes them–in many cases conspicuously and consciously. And they can't get in it because the gatekeepers want that rich white male vibe.

[So, I was totally going to break the seriousness here with a joke about how few white people have seen Soul Food, Crooklyn, This Christmas, Sparkle, and The Wiz, but not liking black movies just really holds no candle to being written out of other media as a part of systematic marginalization. I sure could use John Oliver's help making this fucked up topic funny.]

Ask 100 English majors what are the most important 100 books in English and you will probably have mostly works by dead white guys. Especially if most of those English majors are themselves white (which....is, by the way, statistically very likely). It's not that English majors are racist motherfucking assholes who want to exclude other voices, it's just that they can't bear to think of whether they should edge out Shakespeare, Faulkner, Joyce, Woolf, or Fitzgerald in order to make room on the curriculum. When they finally reluctantly push a few Hemingway novels to the side to get some Maya Angelou in there ("but you'll only get 'Hills for White Elephants' from our cold, dead hands!"), it is only after much gnashing of teeth, wringing of hands, and some very ironic school board meetings about how this work "might not resonate with young students."

By which of course they mean young white students since that is considered the default.

Oh you want an Asian author too? And then a Latino author? Jesus when will it end? Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

It turns out that writing is not just an art form (it's more of a skill). But literature as we know it is an art form. And those who act as arbiter over when writing the skill crosses the Rubicon and becomes writing the art....those people wield the power of that delineation with what they think is aesthetically pleasing. What they think is pleasing is based on a rich, and profound foundation of whitewashed European, Anglo Saxon, racist, sexist, heteronormative literature. What they think is pleasing is literature that doesn't challenge them too much or threaten them too much. What they think is pleasing is literature that never makes them truly uncomfortable.

East Asian metaphors are "too ham handed." Latin storytelling is "too recursive." Post colonial literature is "too whiny." Black literature is "too angry." So what gets through is only what they decide has worth according to their yardsticks.

"Is it racist to acknowledge that only white people can write?"
-Harold Bloom probably
Even when you have gatekeepers who are themselves in marginalized groups, they are often trained in the traditions of the whitewashed canon. So even when the modern era escapes some of the attitudes themselves, all the old systems and values are still in place. Books by authors of color are considered "niche." They are put in different parts of the library or bookstore and less often on prominent display like those white guy books.

This is a bigger issue than just writing. The bedrock of everything we do in our culture is founded on grotesque inequality. Our education system is whitewashed. Our history is whitewashed. Our film is whitewashed. Our culture is whitewashed. Our arts are whitewashed. Academia is whitewashed. Literature isn't particularly awful in this regard. It's just floating down the river of unexamined historical oppression along with all the other jetsam.

Let me offer up a few more factors, but don't forget The Feedback Loop™.

There absolutely, positively is a good ol' boys club. Sorry Diane. I know you want to think everyone means well. Not every publisher is racist, but saying that NO publishers are racist is the purest naïveté. You may know some swell gatekeepers or someone who works management at Penguin who isn't a racist, but that doesn't mean everyone on the board of directors feels the same way when they're telling upper management what kinds of books they want to publish. And if you think some of those guys aren't racist (and I mean really, for real, in-deep-dark-places-they-don't-talk-about-at-parties would-be-Nazis-if-they-could racist), you haven't been paying enough attention.

[2018 edit: And now they're marching in the streets because they were always there, all along, no matter how many moderates wanted to think they were just a few drunk uncles.]

The ability to control what is written is phenomenal power, and to give legitimacy to other voices would be to relinquish that phenomenal power. People don't have to twirl their mustaches and use the N word to be racists. Overtones about the "right kind of literature" that exist today are chilling echoes of white neighborhoods' housing associations (we want the "right kind of owners in our neighborhood"). The very best, nicest, most generous, thing that can possibly be said about them is that they are breathtakingly ethnocentric.

Consider how long it takes to become proficient enough to be accepted by the publishing industry–or even longer to be accepted by the literary world. You probably have to spend thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, of hours writing your emo poems and your Stephen King rip offs without being published to develop the skill set where a publisher would take notice of your wordsmithing. Not only is that an awful lot of time to devote to an art that marginalizes you, but it takes a lot of free time that most people don't have. The GOP's transparent euphemisms for "blacks are lazy" aside, that kind of sit-around-and-be-creative free time is usually found among affluence.

Sadly, my story about a sentient big rig named Christina
that runs around killing people in a pastoral New England town
has not been accepted by Harper Colins. They say they fear it might be "derivative."

Consider the factors which contribute to the ease of writing like writing materials, a desk, alone time, to say nothing of "a room of one's own." All of these things tend to be products of existing financial privilege. The idea of buying a desk to put in the sewing room to write on is redonkulously lavish for most people on Earth.

Consider who gets training in writing. Here in the U.S., our education system is failing the poor and people of color (and especially poor people of color). Going to college is increasingly something only affluent people can afford, and high school graduate proficiency in writing and reading skills correlate with income. The kind of writing most publishers would consider "good writing" almost always involves some measure of formal academic training.

Consider who buys books. The bourgeois ability to spend significant chunks of money on books is largely found only among whites. Literature that caters to their culture, their stories, their perspectives, and their values will have a larger consumer base. Publishers know this and publish accordingly. There are markets for other books, of course, but they are considered niche and are held to much harsher standards.

Publishing is expensive. Consider who has the money to publish books, and what their aesthetics are likely to be and what messages they want to perpetuate. What are the values they are likely to reflect when they take a chance on a book they think won't make money?

This is why academia (which has its own issues) can be aware of the problem, but it doesn't get any better: follow the money.

While some of these factors might be more socio/economic on their face, income inequality and certainly wealth inequality are racial issues. The easiest way to succeed at being a writer is to have a lot of wealth already. In the U.S. people of color command six or seven cents of wealth for every dollar that white people do.

None of these factors is an insurmountable barrier to a love of reading or writing. A determined bibliophile can get to a library. A dogged artist will work anywhere they can. It's just that each of these factors act as filters, peeling away a few of those - who might otherwise be interested - in ways they don't tend to do to most whites.

A lot of good writers of color never make it. And a lot of mediocre white writers punch through.

While most of the individuals involved are not excusing racism with a wink and a nod, they are part of systems that perpetuate themselves. As long as the publishing and literary world are not taking extraordinary pains to incorporate other voices, things will stay whitewashed. As long as they do not, I've opted out of traditional publishing.

And in case you're taking notes, when they DO take such efforts, pay attention to the reaction. They suffer extraordinary backlash for promoting diversity "for diversity's sake," are accused of reverse discrimination, and face a deluge of recriminations.

That's also why I'm so excited about non-traditional routes, like blogging, because so many voices can bypass gatekeepers and find their own audience and get better while they make money and sidestep so many of these issues. [Edit 2018: And why I'm so terrified about losing net neutrality.] The playing field is far more level when you take out the rich white guys who get to decide what and who gets published.

Funny how that works.


  1. Wow. Bravo. [standing ovation] So well said.

    1. Glad to hear you say so. This was a difficult piece to write.

  2. The Race/Gender Card: Evidently, you can't do ANYTHING without it being played. How lovely.

    1. Oooh, I just saw a Deep Space 9 episode about this. People will stop playing the race/gender card as soon as people stop pretending systematic oppression doesn't exist.

    2. Yeah, doesn't it suck? I would like to do, literally ANYTHING without my gender being the primary thing people see about me.

      But people have to categorize me based on these stupid stats like I'm merely a Magic Card. "Wild Female Attacks" so they have to tap their bullshit misogyny mana for one and fight me off using Privilege Artifact.

    3. Yes, it's almost as if race and gender still matter.

  3. As a female author I hate to say that men have told me to my face that they won't read my books because I'm a woman. They don't read books written by women. That's why many women don't write under female names. Instead they pick male names and write as men. However, the men reading their books have no idea that the books were written by women.

    1. I admire the guile so much, but fuck the fact that you have to do that.

  4. Well said. Also true. Also I am a Black woman who is an author, and I have big plans. :)