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.

Snow Blindness: A Follow-Up To Nicola Griffith’s Analysis of Book Award Demographics

I think I’ve mentioned it here before, but by training I’m a statistician. I don’t live off my writing, and in my day job, I work as an analyst for a large urban school district crunching numbers. Back in grad school, I taught stats to undergrads who would really rather be anywhere else, bu I like stats. Always have. So I read Nicola Griffith’s post “Books About Women Don’t Win Big Awards: Some Data” with great interest. The first thing I thought of when I read is was I bet this replicates with other marginalized identities. I bet it’s not just gender; I bet it’s race and sexuality and class and everything else, too.

I had some time this weekend. Not much, but enough to do a little digging. I did what she did–mostly–but for race. I looked at four out of the the six prizes she looked at* for the same time span she looked at (2000-2015) and coded whether the author was White or a Person of Color. I dug up what I could on the book in question to try and figure out, if I hadn’t read it (and I hadn’t read most of them), if the protagonist(s) was White or a Person of Color**. And then I crunched some numbers. Here’s what I found:

  • Lit awards are exactly what you would guess: blindingly White, White as the purest arctic snow. Generally, over 80% of Pulitzer, Man Booker, National Book Award or NBCC prizes went to White writers.
    • Also, unsurprisingly, intersectionality matters. When you look at both race and gender, that arctic snow is full of dicks. Big, pasty dicks. Women of color and men of color made up 9% of the award winners apiece. White men were five times more likely to win an award than people of color. White women were three times more likely to win an award than people of color.
  • Griffith found that even when women writers do manage to win a prestigious award, they tend to do so when they’ve writer about men. Race in writing seems to be of a more peculiar character:
    • Writers of Color, the ones who won these awards at least, wrote exclusively about People of Color. Who knows; maybe they were bored of the absolute blinding whiteness of the narratives they see day in and day out and felt no compunction to contribute to that.
    • White writers mostly wrote about other white people, but a few broke the mold and wrote about People of Color and were awarded (probably by a panel of White people) for it.

That’s the high-level TL;DR summary, there. I’m going to roll up my sleeves now and dig into the data now. Stick around if you’d like! To start, here are the four awards I looked at:

POC=People of Color WP=White people

POC=People of Color
WP=White people

You can see that the trends are remarkably consistent across the awards. The NBCC is the only one coming close to bucking that trend–NBCC was more likely to give the award to POC authors and to books featuring POC protagonists written by White authors. The Man Booker Prize, on the other hand, was the most blindingly White of the bunch. This mirrors quite closely what Griffith found with regard to gender: Man Booker had the highest number of awards given to men who wrote about men, and NBCC gave a relatively wider spread of awards to men and women writing about men and women.

pie1

The pie chart above collapses all the awards I surveyed across the award giving body to get an aggregate sense of race trends. There are two main points of interest here: first, that over 80% of awards for the last 15 years of these four major awards have gone to White writers. 80%–FOUR FIFTHS.

The second point of interest is that the flexibility of writing gender that Griffith found–men writing women, women writing men–isn’t present to the same extent here. Some White people are writing People of Color, but People of Color are interested in writing their own narratives, not adding to the already bloated collection of White narratives. And yet, the preponderance of awards are still going to White narratives written by White people–or narratives of color written by White people.

note that the women author's pie graph is smaller. That's on purpose: men (regardless of race) won 60% of the awards in the time span looked at.

note that the women author’s pie graph is smaller. That’s on purpose: men (regardless of race) won 60% of the awards in the time span looked at.

For my final trick, I overlayed Griffith’s analysis and my own. I coded my set of data for both race and gender of both the author and the book’s protagonist to see how the two pieces of demographic data interacted (because, you know, intersectionality matters).

The graphs above split out the combination of the author’s race and gender and their book’s protagonists’s race and gender. The graph on the left shows the proportions for the men winners (60% of the dataset). The graph on the right shows the proportions for the women winners (40% of the dataset). What the above data tells me is that White men write about anything and everything and get awards for it. Mostly they write about other White men, yes, but they are the ones crossing gender and race lines most in their writing and get awarded for it.

I would have liked to do more. I wanted to add sexuality into the mix, but it was very hard to determine author’s LGBTQ status with just a cursory internet search. Only two of the winning books, Middlesex and The Line of Beauty, were book that I knew dealt with LGBTQ themes. I would expect similar patterns to emerge should that data become available, though.

*Griffith also looked at the Hugo Award and the Newberry Medal. I excluded these from my analysis due to time constraints which is a fancy way of saying ‘then I had to give my kid a bath.’

**There were some cases, like The Road, where movie adaptations of an arguably non-race-identified protagonist was cast as White, which I then used as essentially canon evidence of Whiteness.