“Many [books] were overlooked. Most are forgotten. This is not a tragedy. It’s realistic. It is ordinary.” – Claire Cameron, A Forgotten Bestseller: The Saga of John Williams’s Stoner.
Stoner, since entering American mainstream consciousness (or the literary fringes of it), has been on my radar as a book I want to read. I’m not sure why. On paper it does not strike me as something I would normally be drawn to; however, as I perused the sample I found the writing engaging. Yet, I’m still not sure I’ll ever read it. How will I get my hands on a copy? When I have money for books, it never dawns on me to buy it. However, when someone writes about it, I feel inclined to read it.
This post is not about Stoner. It’s about the above quote. It made me angry when I read it. I can’t read the full article, because I am fixated on the quote. For me, that quote embodies everything wrong with intellectual thought and the main quality of Western thought that is setting our country back. That’s a lot. Many may see what I see in the quote. Other may see it and think I’m overreacting. And finally, many may not get it at all. It’s mainly my perception, and this quote triggered strong feelings because of a pattern I’ve noticed for years that seems responsible for a lack of positive change in our society.
“This is not a tragedy. It’s realistic. It is ordinary.”
This statement creates a polarization between TRAGEDY and REALISTIC/ORDINARY, and hence also creates a synonymizing effect between REALISTIC and ORDINARY. This statement takes a lot for granted:
1) Tragedy is not ordinary; Tragedy is not realistic. This is spoken like a privileged person. Only someone growing up in relative comfort could assume that the opposite of ordinary and realistic is tragedy, that tragedy is defined by being rare in occurrence and is somehow beyond the “real.” Someone living in a country that’s bombed and raided weekly could not make this statement. Someone who has suffered back to back deaths in their family at a very young age also could not make this statement.
2) The normal should be accepted. This is the subtext of the statement. That if it’s normal for great books to be overlooked, then great books being over looked should not be judged. It’s not good; it’s not bad–it just is. All things that are as they are should just be viewed as they are–no more, no less.
This attitude is where society is falling apart. It’s apathy. It’s refusing to have beliefs, values, and convictions, because society does not reflect those beliefs, values, and convictions. People question freedom, because there is no freedom. They don’t believe in freedom in principle, they only believe in it to the extent they have it. That’s not how principles work. Being “realistic” has become an excuse to not be visionary. Visionaries form pictures of how the world should be based on values then work to move the world towards that picture. Its hard, daunting work to proceed from vision the further it is from reality. Realistic people apparently only create self-fulfilling prophecies where nothing changes because (warning: run on) a belief in “what is just is” keeps them from doing something when change requires movement and no movement happens unless something changes but nothing changes unless you do something which you aren’t going to do because “what is just is”…and on and on the merry-go-round goes. The point is that principles are ideas we hold of value based on abstract ideas; they shouldn’t be negotiations with how the world is. You believe in freedom because you believe freedom is right, not because someone outside of you has confirmed it by letting you say whatever you want.
Realists are defeatists. They acknowledge a problem and assume, since the problem is bigger than them, they can’t, and hence won’t, do anything about it. Then, so they don’t have to get angry, they deflate the importance of the issue with a kind of intellectual numbness: “Oh well, what can be done?”
Genius should be supported. So if we live in a world where that’s not the norm, then something is wrong and we should try to fix it. Even if we can’t help every genius, just helping the few we can is still better than none. It’s better for all of us. The individual that helps has good character. The person helped can pay their success forward and help another. And we as a society can progress. But people are so all or nothing. If they are not the saviors that create revolution then they’ll just be the followers who maintain the status quo. If they can’t be self-important; they’ll be self-deflating. Too many people act as if they can’t help everyone, then that makes them failures. I’m sure the people they help would disagree. Sometimes change is a nudge, but everyone wants to burn in revolt. A nudge hear and there will cause more change than waiting generations for a martyr.
It’s hyperbole to call undiscovered genius a tragedy. However, it’s a shame, a problem, something the publishing industry needs to actively work to resolve. I wish I could find the source to this anecdote, but I’ll just go it from memory:
A man wondered if a great novel could be recognized if not written by a brand name author. So he took an award winning novel, put his name on it, and proceeded to be rejected over and over again. When he told the agents the story, they just shrugged. It was the norm, and it happens.
No one cared. Apathy. Life is the way it is. Our country was founded in revolution and principle. Our founding fathers envisioned a new government, a new country based on principles, and all of this has culminated in ideological laziness and limp spines.
The quote starting this post does not feel thought out to me. It feels falsely poetic, like it’s more concerned with signifying truth than The Truth. There isn’t a sense the writer is aware of the levels and resonance the statement has–it’s actual meaning. That’s just my impression. So many people say things that are punchy and intellectual that only fall apart with just a micro-scalpel of scrutiny. People say things that are easy to say for ulterior motives, even if subconscious. They want to win cultural intellectual brownie points, or worse, they are deflecting attention away from an important discussion they don’t want to have. Most of the time, I get the impression they are justifying an emotionally reactive response. They have an opinion they haven’t actually though much about, but they try to quickly validate it with something that sounds intelligent.
The sentiment of the quote resounds in all aspects of artistic and cultural life. The underlying apathy is implicit especially in the lack of diversity in mainstream publishing and promoting. Ask an agent or editor why there isn’t more diversity, and they usually respond with “I just don’t know.” In personal life, a man can search the African desert looking for a scorpion under the sand, yet always have an excuse as to why he doesn’t see his own children. In political discussions, black people are called sensitive for being offended by offensive depictions of themselves by people who cause an uproar and cry for change when the umpire makes a bad call during the Super Bowl.
When people want change; change happens. People pursue what they are passionate about. If they say they want diversity, and there is no diversity, then it means, despite intellectually knowing its importance, their heart just is not in it. Then they’ll come up with a bunch of reasonable excuses to justify it after the fact. “I’m sorry, honey. I can’t come today. I have to work so I can make money and take care of you.” Yet he found time to find a rare beetle in a rain forest.
The lack of diversity is not difficult to understand. It can be quantified; yet people keep it complex and abstract so they can signify caring by talking about it just to justify doing nothing because it’s such a tough issue.
The entities involved in promoting diversity are the same ole entities that have always been there: writers, agents, editors, reader. I’ll be focusing largely on racial diversity; however I am referring to all diversity: racial, gender, sexual, stylistic and–including intradiversity, where there is yet and still diversity within each group: women writing post modern epics, Asian writers writing genre detective fiction.
1) Diverse writers. Writers of all races and nationalities and income groups writing about anything and everything. This exists. Many people like to say things like “Black people don’t write,” “Women don’t write anything but romances;” however, these people are thinking backwards. They are assuming the demographics of published authors is the end all and be all. But of course, I’m not talking about published authors. This is about the much wider and more diverse pool of unpublished authors, a messy muck which most publishing professional can’t be bothered to address and hence goes ignored to the point where people make the above statements. Sure there is the slush pile. But most minority writers have been conditioned by a lack of progress to not submit. So writers need to submit. Not to get published, but just for the principle of the matter. Also, publishing professionals need to reach out. If they care they will make the time. If two people hold their hands out to one another, they will touch. This leads to number two…
2) Agents representing diverse writers. Agents are the first gatekeepers along with small press editors. When it comes to sorting the pool, agents and editors often cite lack of commercial appeal as the number one reason for not taking on diverse works. This is an issue. First, the idea that not being commercial is a reason for rejection is clever but false. It sounds intelligent, and those who believe “normal is right” or “normal should never be judged and hence should never be challenged” are quick to jump on this reasoning and end the discourse. But there’s more than one issue: How many risks do agents take on? Quite a few. Every year literary novels with no obvious commercial appeal are published. Also, every agent I’ve heard speak will say that they represent what they love. So by this reasoning, if an agent does not have a diverse roster, it’s because they don’t love diversely.
Agents are readers who have a say in what gets published. They’re tastes and preferences form the primary pool of novels that move through the professional gates. What get’s published is now only a sampling of this pool. If this pool lacks diversity, then there is no chance that mainstream literature will be diverse aesthetically or culturally.
If writers have done their job by emerging from all groups and writing widely the baton of blame gets passed to agents. If agents choose to only follow their whims then make intelligent excuses to justify those whims, no one else can be blamed. Editors will mainly take on what agents tout, and the rest of the publishing professionals will have widdled it down from there.
If agents are like the common reader, then it makes sense that minority niches would form. Concerning African-American fiction, most white people view the black reader as a miner, excavating the caves of their history to deliver whatever gold nuggets may be found. The LCD reader does not want to read a black romance. The LCD reader can not identify with minorities, because they never had to. Minorities are “The Other” and the reader only wants works that helps them understand The Other as other.
So if agents just go by their personal reading tastes, then the typical agent is only going to want the oppression narratives, the S&M (slaves and maids) stories, the raped and pillaged African survivor stories. These stories are important, but unfortunately they’ve been rendered cliche by becoming fodder for liberals to look open and intellectual and hence reduced to niches. Black people as a community have become quite divided over these narratives. The question has become: Is black fiction exploitative?
I believe African-American literature (especially in the categories I mentioned above, is exploited, not exploitative. These stories are important and need to be told. It’s the society, the context, the culture, around these stories that has led to the exploitation. Black writers like myself who do not write in our appropriate niche feel burdened by the legacies of novels like Beloved. Young black writers have to ask themselves: Do I have to write these kinds of stories just to get published? The fault is not with Toni Morrison, the fault is with society. If doors have closed to publishing, it’s because the publishing professionals have closed those doors and they use the readers as a shield to defend themselves: “Readers just don’t read that kind of stuff.” And yet every year, uncertain if a book will be read, publishers publish books, agents represent new writers.
Simply put, agents say they care, because they know they are supposed to. And I believe many do genuinely care. However, I believe actions speak louder than words. And the truth in the actions suggest one thing: agents don’t care enough to do anything about the issue of diversity. Things are the way they are, after all. What are they supposed to do? It’s not their fault; they want to do something but the world just is the way it is.
Well here’s what agents can do, and it’s so professional and pragmatic it just may be cold and ruthless. If you are an agent, you are involved in the politics of literature. Agents need to own this. Recognize that you are not a reader, and if you want to be a reader then quit. You are a professional in a first world country. You are educated so you value more than just making money, but you want to make money. Art has beliefs and ideals that are not commercial. An educated individual has beliefs and ideals that are not commercial.
If you value diversity in race, gender, sexuality, income class, and aesthetic, and you believe that diversity is overall important to literature, than you don’t really get to ignore all this when choosing novels to represent. If you are so well read, then surely you already have a sophisticated palette for literature. So finding diverse authors who have written diverse narratives surely should be a wonderful adventure to embark on. Sure you may not have the editorial contacts for an easy sell, but you are driven by conviction and diverse tastes. The writers are out there and you are determined because you have conviction.
So you look over your list and you have to admit it does not reflect your tastes and values. Minority fiction is poorly represented in your list and the minority writers you do represent don’t have much diversity even amongst themselves. So what would be the common sense thing to do? Easy. Cut someone. And preferably someone who isn’t selling of course. Clean house, make room for new blood. Even if it’s just one person. Harsh, right? But agents make these decisions every day. It’s their job to decide who deserves the attention.
Unfortunately, nothing I’ve said is true concerning the character or conviction of agents. They, especially when viewing contemporary novels, are quite obvious and predictable in their tastes. Their redemption of artistic taste comes from liking classics and name dropping them more than from recognizing them in a slush pile. They are notorious at overlooking great books and don’t care enough to change. But it’s not a tragedy; it’s ordinary…realistic.
Ultimately, agents and small press editors have to be creative, intelligent problem solvers who understand they are involved in the politics of literature. They have to balance making money and cultural ideals. They have to care; they have to take the intelligent risk. They have to take responsibility for their part in forming literary culture. After all, “diversification” is part of any good investment strategy. Diversifying literature, diversifies the market–so you aren’t hinging on only one demographic, hinging your success for the year on vampires and zombies. Bubbles burst.
3) Editors. What can be said? As an editor you wait for agents to present you with a great novel. How can you do your part in creating a rich and diverse literary landscape when agents just give you the same book over and over. So until agents present you with something genuinely different, not just something typical with a few signifiers to thinly disguise it as different, you are reprieved. However, when that novel comes, you have to champion it. Will you?
4) Every other professional. Editors take the books they want to champion and send them through the rest of the house. The big decisions get made: Is this book worth the risk? And how much money will we put behind it? It’s easy to view this in monetary terms: people won’t buy it so we won’t publish it. But again, publishers take chances on works that defy mainstream LCDs every year. They believe in them, because they connect to them as readers. Usually publishing has two extremes: the commercial fodder, the artistic epitomes, and everything in between. Can the industry support a love between a Latina woman and a Japanese man. He’s the janitor; she’s the new CEO and she’s really afraid how it would look to be with a man who sweep the floor. In the end, love transcends class. Maybe it would be better if they both faced prejudice and at some point a gang of hatemongers threatened them. And for even better measure, have it take place in the 1940s against the back drop of prejudice and World War II.
The second story is much better than the first. Agents and editors could very easily argue rejecting the first on just being a poor story. And they would, only to publish the first story over and over (and over and over) again when told with white characters. It would be championed as a reverse take on the Cinderella story. “But obviously the white version would sell,” people would say. It’s amazing how everyday people generally speak out against the corporation’s oppression of people only to defend every particular decision they make. And again, agents and publishers take risks all the time. Most just don’t care enough about diversity to take risks on diversity. Rephrase: the kinds of diverse narratives they want to take risks on fit into an obvious one-sided category…oppression narratives.
So the professionals do their part. They become great readers. They develop the strength and character to intelligently and realistically find ways to take chances on new authors, new voices, different kinds of narrative. They cut the writers of generic, poor selling works to open up the occasional slot to promote new writers: a Mexican writer who tells the story of a young Mexican boy who travels through dimensions on an epic quest, a gay writer who pens the gay Gone with the Wind, the black writer who’s inspired by James Joyce, and the female writer who’s inspired by David Foster Wallace. On to the big question:
4) Will readers read it? Will they love it? Most readers never get the chance to prove their openness to nonwhite voices and traditional narratives with culturally diverse casts. Can romance readers love a romance story between two black people in suburbia?
Unfortunately, the answer seems to be “no” based on my experience. I hope my experience is too limited and not a reflection of general society. However, I find heterosexual white readers can appreciate diversity but not advocate it. By this I mean that they can “like” a novel with diversity, but it just never seems to grip them enough where they “love” it and will share it with everyone they know. This is a general comment, because I’m talking about the overall character of the culture. There are always examples, always people of all races crying for more diversity, but there voice is not loud enough. They are not gathered in enough numbers to seem like a demographic that can be marketed to. However, how can we ever become a market when publishers never create anything to market to us or if they do they don’t put enough money behind it so we know it exists.
Simply put, I think the public has not been tested enough to be blamed for a lack of diversity. It’s still too possible that the few heterosexual, white readers I’ve encountered who just couldn’t get enthusiastic even over their favorite LCD fiction told from another cultural viewpoint still have legitimate reasons not for liking one or two works. Only if book after book published and promoted by publisher goes ignored by society at large can a red flag go up. If the big six even made room for one book a month amongst themselves to advocate for, that would be twelve books in a year they can say they tried to promote. Most books are going to fail anyway; so why not at least go down in fire.