A Response to Colten Hibbs and Maggie Stiefvater on Writing the Other

Like Colten Hibbs, I followed the twitter explosion surrounding Maggie Stiefvater’s decision to participate in a conference panel on Writing the Other with great interest. Many of us were. That news of Steifvater’s decision broke at the same time as I followed a live-blog of a particularly inspiring diversity panel featuring Roxane Gay, Saeed Jones, and Daniel Jose Older only made the timing that much more stark for me, personally.

I know little about Mr. Hibbs. I know little about Ms. Stiefvater. I do know, however, that it takes an immense amount of work and humility to engage authentically in diversity in any institution. I say this as a person who lives at intersections of both oppression and power, as likely, both of them do. I have floated by on whiteness, and then in second, been literally smashed into the concrete by homophobia. Life is a rich tapestry. Intersectionality means that power and oppression shape our lives in intricate and complicated ways.

I used to be a researcher. When I was in academia, I studied people’s perceptions of power and privilege. I left academia for a lot of reasons–in order to parent well, in order to continue with my burgeoning love of fiction writing, in order to be able to breathe without having a panic attack–but mostly I left because the institutions I worked within were too staunchly rooted for me to make much of an impact all by my lonesome. I learned a lot, and I tried hard, and god bless those brave and fearsome folk who are doing activist research and pushing the Ivory Tower from within, but I couldn’t keep doing it. It felt too much like being the cameraman on a nature show and watching the zebra get mauled over and over and over.

Now I’m creeping into the publishing industry after being on its fringes, and I see, sadly, the same thing happening. It’s another institution largely controlled by people of privilege who (sometimes on purpose, mostly unknowingly) replicate the same reification of privilege. There are so many white writers in the Big Five houses. So many straight writers. So many cis writers. So many MFAs–and holy shit it takes, for most, an immense, staggering amount of class privilege to get an MFA. So very few writers with physical disabilities. Women are present, but still so very pushed to the side.

The publishing industry is and always has been racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist as fuck. That is true. What is not true is that marginalized people–people of color, women, people in poverty, QUILTBAG people, trans people, people with disabilities don’t have stories to tell. Or don’t crave stories written by them and for them with their whole hearts.

I have no doubt in my mind that Colten Hibbs, Maggie Stiefvater, and I all firmly believe that there is a dire need for diverse books in literature today. I think that the three of us differ on the tactics we think it takes to get there. And I think we disagree on what diversity actually looks like in practice.

I won’t put words in their mouth. They’ve already spoken for themselves anyway. So here are my responses to them.

On Maggie Stiefvater:
(quotes are from here)

I assumed I was asked to be on the panel because I’m write about magic and mental illness, and magic that sometimes is a metaphor for mental illness. As someone who is tired of seeing OCD and suicide treated flippantly in novels, I’m looking forward to talking about how I’d like to see writers who don’t have personal experience with those things tackle them respectfully without making the story an Issues story.

But I also assumed I was asked to be on the panel because I, like every writer, write about things that I don’t know firsthand. Yes, the Other can mean race. It can also mean gender. It can mean sexuality. It can also mean writing about someone in a profession that is not yours, from any economic background that is not yours, living an age you have yet to be, possessing a skill that you know nothing about, dwelling in a city or country you’ve never visited. I wrote about horses and Irish music because I knew horses and Irish music, but I remember being a reader who ripped authors a new one because they got either of those complicated elements wrong in a novel — they clearly hadn’t lived it or researched it well enough and yet they tackled it anyway.

Ok. So. The first part is fine! That is fine to write about dis/ability from the lived experience as a person with mental dis/abilities! Yes, the world needs more of that, please go forth and prosper!

But the rest is where I feel that Stiefvater is slipping from the hard and often (purposefully) invisible work that makes allyship allyship into using the platform of diversity to center her own desires as a comparatively privileged writer. Because the point of #WeNeedDiverseBooks and other such platforms currently driving things like the panel she has been invited to participate in is actually not to discuss random life experiences people just happen not to have had yet. The point is to interrogate the systemic exclusion of specific voices and experiences from mainstream literature–along axes of power and oppression. Which is why there has been such a tight focus on race/sexual orientation/gender/class. Because those are the main axes through which resources and access to resources are divided up in American society, and publishing, as an industry, mirrors that.

So “writing the Other” is not about learning about Paris even if you’ve never been to Paris. The reason Other is capitalized here is because it’s drawing on a very specific construct about appropriation and dehumanization of marginalized people by privileged people–which I am sure Stiefvater has been exposed to. She goes on to say:

But we also need to get people like me — white bestsellers — to write racially diverse novels.

Which I also disagree with. And this (along with some questionable conduct on her part I won’t even get into here) is largely what spurred the outrage on twitter. Because the thing is that no one needs a white woman to write POCs. She probably is doing a bad job at it, no matter how hard she tries, because white people (self included) are going to have an incredibly hard time capturing the lived experience of racism. Because we don’t have to deal with it.

What she should actually be doing if she’s serious about supporting the diverse books movement is…support diverse authors. She should step aside and promote the work of authors of color who can write those racially diverse novels authentically. Because, for structural reasons, she (and I) probably can’t.

That she said this and still is going to sit on the panel struck many, self included, as an example of white entitlement.This kind of white entitlement is exactly what has propped up the exclusionary gatekeeping tactics that keep so many voices of color on the outside of traditional publishing for literally centuries. And with people like Stiefvater as the apparent “face” of the diverse books movement–participating in panels about diverse books–the prospects for real and effective change in terms of dismantling those gatekeeping practices looks bleak. I see her do this, and I do not see allyship. I see someone who may mean well actually stepping on the backs of POCs (specifcally WOC) to keep her spot on top. I see someone unconsciously using ‘racially diverse’ as a new cool selling point for her books. That is oppressive. That is appropriation. That is the opposite of helpful here.

I do not see diversity work being taken seriously. That often requires people in power–in this case a prominent white author–stepping back and shutting up.

On Colten Hibbs:
(quotes are from here)

Now, one of the things that REALLY irks me about Twitter-Outrage is that people will kick and scream all damn day long, but no one follows through with steps to fix the problem. I’m not going to do that today. This isn’t just me telling those people that they’re jackasses. I’ll go the extra mile and offer a solution to the perceived problems at hand.
As for racism in the publishing industry – BUY BOOKS WITH DIVERSITY BY DIVERSE AUTHORS.
It’s really that simple.

The thing is because of the factors I mentioned above (gatekeeping, systemic racism, etc, all of which Hibbs does touch on in his post) it’s actually not that simple to buy books with diversity by diverse authors. You have to look for them. You have to hunt for them. Even when they manage, against all odds, to make it past all the gatekeepers, you still have to really hunt for them.

A case in point: Laura Lam’s Pantomime, which had a ton of buzz when it first came out, which I totally ignored. I didn’t actually even pick it up until I learned through the queer writer grapevine almost a year after it dropped that it featured and intersex and genderfluid protagonist. If that had been highlighted in the marketing around the book (say, right there in the damn blurb) then I would have snapped it up when it first dropped. Another example: the consistent whitewashing of covers. We all know we’re not supposed to judge books by them, but we all do, and that’s exactly why they get whitewashed: to presumably make the books more marketable (to white people). But in the doing, they also make it that much harder to identify diverse books as diverse.

I read explicitly with an eye for diverse content, and it’s still hard to find it. I trawl for recs. I read a ton of indie books. That’s where I find most of it. But that also brings up the issue of Big Five gatekeeping all over again.

So many people – Allies, the oppressed, those who just like to be mad about something – shine a spotlight and give some egregious headline, blogpost, book, or author 15 minutes of hate-fame. But it is so. very. rare. to see “I read _____ by _____, and it’s quality (LGBQT, PoC) fiction!” or “_____ wrote about _____, and it’s going to be so amazing, you guys!” or “This (NYT bestseller) is _______ done right! GO BUY IT NOW!”
And on the occasion that those affirmations of positive change are spoken into the twitterverse I have NEVER seen it take up a person’s entire timeline. People don’t do 20-tweet dissertations on all the things the author/book/agent/publisher did right. It’s a mention. It’s a rec in someone’s direct message inbox…it’s not enough. There’s not enough joy when we get what we want. Like spoiled brats at Christmas (or holiday of your choice) we open the next present and SCREAM for HOURS AND DAYS about how it isn’t what we wanted.
Tired. It makes me real tired.

I get where Hibbs is coming from. I do. I get tired, too. I do rep hard, though, for books I love, that do get it right. But here’s the thing: I’m allowed to have dignity. I will not beg for scraps at the table. I will not read another Tragic Queer Love Story, and I will not applaud an author/book/publisher and shower them in tweets simply for affirming that me and mine don’t maybe have to die at the end. Just doing it right is too little too late. That’s not what this is about for me. It’s about change. It’s about seismic shifts. It’s about new goddamn norms.

So, yeah, I’ll keep screaming until I’m hoarse when it’s wrong. And you can take the vaguely contented silence when it’s palatable as your kudos for treating me like a fucking person. That’s what makes me tired.

As for Ms. Stiefvater…
I have seen thousands of instances where authors have been criticized for erasing PoC from their books/worlds. It’s literally happening right now. RIGHT NOW on twitter.
So a bestselling author DOESN’T erase PoC from his/her work, and then they get dragged through the shit because they didn’t do it “right”. Or they don’t have the right because they’re not _____. When their books receive attention and praise the bitter voices in the marginalized community say “it’s not fair”, “that’s not my experience”, “they’re just doing it for ___”
YOU CAN’T HAVE IT BOTH WAYS.

They can and they will have it both ways. Because marginalized people deserve to be represented well. There is a thing I have seen (I wrote about it most recently in my review of The Windup Girl) where white writers use diversity as a backdrop or an extra bit of spice. Sure POCs are in there, sure the book is diverse, but it’s shitty diversity. Surely readers of color don’t have to just settle for that? Surely readers of color can demand fair and nuanced representations of themselves? Literally one paragraph above as a queer reader I demanded a fuller and more nuanced representation of myself! I want to be both represented and represented with fullness, so why can’t people of color demand the same? Yes. They can have it both ways.

Fine – then here’s where I offer you a solution: DO IT.
All that wind, all that energy you waste whining about something that is completely outside of your control. Being nasty, negative, and destructive when you could be creating, building, refining a book that your agent can sell; a book that tens of thousands will read, and will garner the success that you know you deserve.

Hibbs here essentially takes his ball home with him. I hate it when people do this. ‘FINE. You don’t like what’s out there? MAKE YOUR OWN. FINE.’

It’s not fair to people who can’t or won’t or simply don’t want to create. Not everyone is a creator. It sidesteps completely the systemic issue of gatekeepers. As someone who has produced two published and largely unread books–which, hey! I think they’re great!–let me tell you, success isn’t just out there waiting to be plucked by your nubile and dewy young fingers. It’s a hustle. Even if you do know the passwords and the handshakes to get a Big Five deal, it’s still a hustle. And even then, no one will read your book.

But the whole point of this is that it’s not about a failure of the authors but a failure of the system to engage diverse and authentic voices from the get-go in a meaningful way. And that’s what both Hibbs and Stiefvater are refusing to acknowledge here–Stiefvater by her staunch entitlement to maintain the system as it is and Hibbs by insisting that if marginalized creators are just good enough they can break it.

Marginalized creators are already good enough. It’s the system that isn’t. It was built that way on purpose.

24 thoughts on “A Response to Colten Hibbs and Maggie Stiefvater on Writing the Other

  1. I couldn’t have said it better myself. And believe me, I tried so many times yesterday. It gets tiring. Thanks so much for writing this!

    Like

  2. The thing is, perhaps Stiefvater was the event organizer’s first choice for this panel, and choices two, three, and four were white too. Or perhaps she was the fourth choice, and the first three choices were writers of color who had scheduling conflicts. We just have no way of knowing. The point is, if she’d said no to the panel invitation—even if she’d said no and explained to the conference organizers that she wanted her spot to be taken by a writer of color—they would have been free to replace Stiefvater with whoever they wanted, because it’s just not up to her, and there could just as easily be another white writer in her place.

    Writers accept event invitations because writers need to sell books. Going after writers for accepting event invitations strikes me as misdirected; if you want change, talk to the conference organizers instead. It’s a little less splashy than launching public attacks on bestselling writers, but the organizers are the ones sending out the invitations.

    Like

    • You point that we don’t know how the conference itself was organized is a good one. That’s true. I’m honestly not trying to crucify Stiefvater here–my point is less about her and her choices and more about a pattern that I’m seeing; that is that diversity panels at writers’ conferences are being populated/dominated by white authors. These “Writing the Other” panels are growing in popularity, but I, for one, am not sure we’re at a point where as an industry this is something we should be encouraging wholesale when the established folks are still marked by privilege.

      Yes, the conference programmers should be called out, too. But it’s also on the people (like Stiefvater) who accept the invitations to think through their actions and the message that sends if they are serious about diversity work. That’s what I’m trying to get at here. But you’re 100% right that a large amount of fault here lies with the programmers

      Liked by 1 person

    • This reply is missing the point. (And why is it always white people who come roaring to whitesplain to us about why what they do is just fine, and we are wrong to be upset?)

      She still could have bowed out, and her reply to the Tumblr ask in the first place shows she doesn’t understand what writing the Other means or what her own privilege is blinding her to.

      The onus is on both the organizers and the authors invited. She’s not qualified to speak on this subject, so she shouldn’t have been invited to, and since she was, she should have graciously declined and explained why.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this. And I’m saying that as a white person who has a book out with a black female MC.

    It’s not a book about being black, but it’s absolutely a story about intersectionality. She’s bisexual, as am I, and mentally ill, as am I, and when someone asks for a book with those things I have no problem throwing my hand up in the air and shamelessly going “ME ME ME!” And if someone wants a book with intersectionality discussed, I’ll do the same, because as a queer Jewish female I have experience with that conceptually as well.

    But if someone wants a book with a POC main character, am I suggesting mine? Not on your life. And I’m not going to pretend that I haven’t–pathetically, inappropriately–begged a few PoC to tell me that writing this book was okay.

    I’ve been thinking lately, and I think the issue isn’t whether or not it’s okay, but whether or not it’s at all important whether or not I do.

    I am not the voice of black women. I’m the voice of this one fictional girl whose life I know inside and out, because she’s been in various drafts of various books for five years now. I am the voice of one person of color who is not even real.

    So one of my favorite points in this post is that the world does not need books with minority main characters from non-minority writers. And I think that I can speak for my book to say that that’s exactly right. The world did not need my black main character. I am not a white savior for the cause. I’m one white girl who, out of her nine published books, has one with a black main character. I’m not a hero.

    I’ll lead revolutions for Jewish women and queer women all day long. And I will retweet the hell out of tweets by WoC, because, as a white person, that is my place.

    And I’ll be proud of my clunky last name on my spines, and proud of my publishers who put a black girl front and center on the cover, and proud of every single WoC fighting infinitely harder than I had to to have that same cover.

    tl;dr: I think, maybe just because I’m not going to go against my own book, that it’s okay that I wrote a black MC. What I don’t think is that it was my responsibility to do this, like publishing needed my voice writing her. The last thing I want to do is drown anyone out who has more right to write these characters than I do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes! I am not saying that white writers can’t or shouldn’t write characters of colors. I’m saying that WHEN WE DO write characters of color that we need to do so realizing that we are doing so from a massive position of privilege, which means that we don’t know what we’re going to get wrong. And that we need to be super duper extra supportive of writers of color (esp WOC, QTPOC, QTWOC) whose voices we are likely silencing just by being present.

      That’s privilege. That’s how it works.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Right on all points. I’m an African-American writer of romance who has been in this game since ’93. And I’m sure you’ve never heard of me. But I’ve been writing longer, and better, than some bestselling mediocre White authors. I was on the verge of giving up many times after each disgusting correspondence from an agent, editor or publisher of the Big 5. Back then one simply tucked the rejection slip away in a drawer, had a good cry and went to work the next day. I survived because I love writing and knew I had something good to offer and decided that that was more important than “landing that contract” with a big publisher. I kept working at my 9-5 and kept writing. Finally after a gazillion years, a small press picked up my paranormal series and my historicals. I am ok but my royalties still don’t pay the light bill. There’s the rub. You think that is the reality of some Regency-writing Mediocre White Writer with one book out with an “Othered” character? Naw. I’d hazard a guess that it’s selling hand over fist ‘cuz, ‘cuz it’s so edgy. Yes. Diverse books by diverse authors! But I shudder because so many budding writers, with fantastic tales, who are of color/bi/trans/gay/disabled will give up because of gatekeepers and because readers still believe a book is legit ONLY when a Big 5 pub deigns to pick it up. The cry is there but are the gatekeepers listening. You bet they are. They are listening and trying to wait out the cries of the “rabble.” Personally, I hope their ears are bleeding non-stop.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. This is a great, thought-provoking post and I agree with almost all of it. However, I’d like to raise some counter-arguments to what you said here:

    “Because the thing is that no one needs a white woman to write POCs. She probably is doing a bad job at it, no matter how hard she tries, because white people (self included) are going to have an incredibly hard time capturing the lived experience of racism. Because we don’t have to deal with it.”

    There’s definitely truth in this statement. As a Chinese-Australian teen, it irks me when I see white authors saying “Yeah, it’s natural for me to include diversity in my books, because I have friends who are diverse.” Having friends who are PoCs makes someone – at most – recogise them as decent human beings. But without interviewing multiple people, they’re never going to get the full picture, because they’re seeing their friends through the lens of white privilege. There are plenty of things to do with systemic racism that have deeply affected me, that I’ve never told anyone about before – not because it’s a secret, but because it’s hard to talk about in our world unless I was asked.

    But I personally feel like we *do need* white authors – i.e. authors with privilege and power in the publishing industry – to go against the current norm of all-white books and write PoCs. Diversity is REALITY, and by not writing them as protagonists, white authors are contributing to this systemic oppression of PoCs. As for the issue of authenticity – of course, writers of colour are ultimately the ones who are going to be able to depict PoC experiences with the most authenticity. Can white authors? I’m honestly not sure. But I’d personally much rather see a white author write a PoC protagonist, and make some mistakes, than stay in their personal comfort zone and contribute to this erasure of PoCs. (I feel like white authors wanting to write diversely but being afraid to step outside of their own experiences is one of the reasons white saviour complex still props up in stories)

    Maybe I’m being idealistic, but I believe all of us are capable of the empathy needed to write about people of another race, who experience the oppression we may or may not experience ourselves.

    “What she should actually be doing if she’s serious about supporting the diverse books movement is…support diverse authors. She should step aside and promote the work of authors of color who can write those racially diverse novels authentically. Because, for structural reasons, she (and I) probably can’t.”

    I 100% agree with your first two statements. White authors supoorting diversity should prioritise supporting writers of colour. But – and, again maybe I’m just being idealistic – I don’t think white authors writing about PoCs and the publishing industry giving greater support to PoC writers are mutually exclusive things. Writers of colour need greater support than white writers – definitely! But if more existing white authors had written about PoC protags in their stories, maybe I wouldn’t have whitewashed and rejected my own identity in the first two novel manuscripts I wrote. Maybe if more white authors embraced the fact that our world is diverse, I wouldn’t have felt so conflicted about writing a Chinese character in one of my manuscripts who naturally appeared to me that way, because the concept of a PoC existing outside of an ‘issue’ book was so foreign to me I couldn’t even comprehend the idea.

    It takes effort to find books by writers of colour, and these books are often hard for kids and teens to access without them going out of their way to research it. This needs to change, but the books we’re naturally immersed in as a result of the system need to change as well.

    I hope I’m not focusing too much on one tiny aspect of the post, when I agree with everything else. Feel free to raise rebuttals to this! I’m open to more discussion. And thank you for writing this. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m white-in-my-country, so I’m saying this from a place of ignorance of the lived experience of being a POC, but this reply makes sense to me in the way the post didn’t (on this specific point). I can’t see how white writers don’t have the duty to try and write diverse characters, and to try to do the best job they can at it. I don’t think they should pat themselves on the back about it, I don’t think they should play along with praise about it, and I don’t think they should let their voices be valued higher than those of diverse authors. But I do think they should write diverse charactes, and do their best to get it right, and accept that they’ll get it wrong sometimes, and consider that one more part of ‘the least that I can do’. As a reader, I consider it one part of the least that they can do.

      I don’t think gender and race (and the experience of them) are comparable, but it seems relevant here: so many male writers get their female characters so very wrong, and often I feel suspicious of them even when I’m not sure if the character really feels off to me. But I don’t want male writers to only write male characters. And I don’t think they should get any kudos for writing female characters, or for trying to write them well. I tend to just shrug and think, ‘well, good job doing what you obviously should have, and not failing miserably at it’.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I don’t think it’s impossible for a white writer to write a POC. I am concerned (as a black woman in the US) that the experiences brought forth by white writers will be limited to what’s sensationalized in the media. With the black experience (and I’m sure many others) being so varied, that just doesn’t work for me.

        That said, my biggest fear is that when white writers write about POC, make them integral parts of their stories, it will deemed enough by the publishing industry. The gatekeepers will say “Look what we’ve done. We are so proud of how far we’ve come.” And still, the WOC of color will remain outside of the gate watching as someone else writes their stories and speaks for them.

        So, go ahead. Write POC because it’s the truth. It’s the actual world we live in. Just don’t do it in place of a WOC. Don’t silence my voice with your own.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Who Tells the Story | educating alice

  7. Pingback: Privilege in Action: Who Gets Listened To And Who Gets Harassed | Clatter & Clank

  8. Pingback: Sunday Select, September 13, 2015 | Fairrosa Cyber Library

Comments are closed.