I've committed to making my blog free & open to writers who contact me. Writers wish to write about issues concerning diversity in writing, and this blog is a platform for their voices. Me posting this is part of honoring that pact.
(The author wished to remain anonymous for this post.) Since I'm writing a book concerning race, this post was powerful and frightening. We have work to do.
Mixed feelings. That's what I get when I see a "We Need Diverse Books" logo. Mixed feelings because I love the campaign and everyone in it, but I also get so frustrated with the campaign for many more reasons.
I'm a writer of color writing characters of color who deal with issues of color. My book's characters are almost all of color, and my book explores black culture, black family, black viewpoints, black frustrations with white society and racial oppression, and black truth.
In querying, I failed, drastically. Despite my beta readers' assurances, my crit partners' praise, I didn't get a single request from many dozens of queries. The personal rejections I got came around to, "This isn't for me, but please query me with your next project," or, "The writing is beautiful, but subjectively this isn't for me."
I'm aware, as I write this post, that I have to tread softly, for people will think of me as simply another writer upset at rejection and playing the 'race card'. Yes, I am upset. Furious. And here's why. A movement supposedly for me has failed me.
I am no stranger to rejection. I'm a constant member of the online Twitter community, I'm respectful and polite. I know how the industry works, I am not just an upset rejected writer. I've been rejected over a hundred times for past works - I have tough skin.
When I got rejected so constantly despite years of revision, I started to think - do I have to make my book less 'radical'? Don't get me wrong: there was no call for 'white genocide' or 'all white people are horrible,' but the book honestly reflected some of my own experiences and my friends' experiences, experiences that people that aren't black don't always understand and might be frightened of. The book reflected black individuals' frustrations with white society. I knew that if I watered the book down, I would not be writing the truth.
What should I do? And then I decided, let's research! I realized every single agent I queried was white. I need to search for black agents who might understand.
From the major NYC agencies, I could only find a few black agents - I can count them on one hand and still have many fingers left over.
Almost all are comprised solely of white agents. Here's a few: Wolf Literary, Laura Dail, Harvey Klinger, Donald Maass, Fine Print, Corvisiero, The Book Group, Curtis Brown, Writer's House, the Gernet Company, the Knight Agency, Waxman Leavell, and Folio. Some of these have over a dozen agents. But if you take into account the major agencies that have no black agents, the list goes on and on: Foundry, Fuse, The Bent Agency, just to name some (these three only have one non-white agent). The only agency that has many writers of color is Serendipity, and that agency was created specifically in response to the lack of institutional support for writers of color. (It scares me, though, that Serendipity does not accept submissions from currently incarcerated authors, since for many black people, the prison system is the greatest oppressor.)
The lack of diversity is a big part of the reason why truly diverse books - books with characters that people of color can relate to - haven't been on bookshelves as much as they should. Even if people write diverse novels, they must first be filtered through a very white institution.
"But how are you deciding if these agents are white?" you say! "That's racist, you can't tell if people are of color simply by their pictures."
I used a flawed system and I deeply apologize for that - there was no better way, but that is no excuse for my propagation of erasing the identities of people who identify with color but may not look of color. This erasure is a major issue (people of color needing to 'prove' their color) and I'm sorry for falling into this oppression. I used something called the Paper Bag Test. If you know the history behind this test, you should be horrified and appalled at the idea that I used something like this.
Only one of the fifty major/famous agencies I looked at (I did not look at every single agency out there - that would be impossible) had any agent that did not pass the Test.
This brings us back to my querying journey. My book is deeply concerned with black issues. The polite rejection from many agents, and my subsequent thought: "Should I make this book less radical?" was nothing more than the Paper Bag Test. My book was not 'radical'. It was Black. Blackness, sadly, has become radical.
"Should I make this book less black?" I wanted to pass the Paper Bag Test. I needed to make my book more white to get into the gates of Publishing. The only way I would be published, practically, was if I either wrote an outstanding classic of black literature that no one could deny as a powerful novel (I wish), or if I passed the Paper Bag Test. Although I'd like to think my book's a classic, let's be serious: few of us have written classics. So I needed to pass the Paper Bag Test.
This is through no fault of the white agents. They simply may not be able to relate to black issues and aren't subjectively interested in them, or wouldn't be able to faithfully or responsibly edit these books. It is amazing that agents realize they may not be the best for the book. But the trouble is, that leaves these books on the wayside. In the mainstream publishing world, those books have nowhere to go, only hope that those one or two black agents will take them on. There is a solution: get more black agents. (When I queried the few agents of color, I suddenly, magically, got requests.) Otherwise, we must always appeal to a solidly white audience.
Agents are subjective, but subjectivity doesn't just spring up. White agents, generally, will not be attracted to race issues as much as agents of color would be, because race is not a big part of the white life. White privilege is being able to live life not thinking about color. White privilege is being colorblind. When the entire publishing industry is based around the idea of 'subjectivity,' and when the entire publishing industry is so very white, race-related novels are left aside.
That's why #WeNeedDiverseBooks makes me angry and why I can't fully support it. I still love it, and the campaign has done some of the most beautiful things I've ever seen in terms of anti-racism work. That's where the mixed feelings come in: I love it, but I feel it has distracted from institutional change. #WeNeedDiverseBooks can't succeed due to two reasons.
1) It relies on grassroots instead of institutional change. Don't get me wrong: there are amazing books out there by diverse writers, about diverse issues. And #WeNeedDiverseBooks has been instrumental to getting them visibility. But there's little action trying to push the industry to change. It has given a free pass to the industry insiders. What if the true issue is that diverse novels have a harder time getting published in the first place? The campaign relies heavily on writers to make changes in their novels and agents to take on these novels, but unless there are a lot more agents and editors of color, all we will do is write books that will pass the Paper Bag Test, books that are 'diverse enough' for agents and publishers to applaud themselves for, books that #WeNeedDiverseBooks can promote enthusiastically, but books that are not 'too diverse' to make the industry uncomfortable, or unable to relate. These are books that don't make enough change. Having diverse characters in novels is great and a huge step forward - but to think it's enough is sadly mistaken. There are huge barriers that render it almost impossible for race-issue writers to get published in big companies. If literary agencies are so diverse-lacking, I don't even want to think about the racial demographics of publishing houses. Maybe institutional change isn't the campaign's purpose. That's fine. But that's why I can't fully support it.
2) #WeNeedDiverseBooks champions diverse representation in literature (which is great!) but doesn't champion diverse issues as much. The campaign champions authors of color, books of color, and does try to champion issues as well. But that last challenge has been secondary. It is like taking the knife out halfway and calling it quits. It assumes that the average person of color has the same access to libraries, money, family, books, time, academic freedom, independence, and quality education as the average white person does. A big way to support writers of color is to create more writers, agents, and editors of color. Support race issues, get more libraries in black neighborhoods, advocate for a better police force so that black and brown people do not fear white-looking institutions. We writers are humans, too. We don't live in a bubble separate from the world's racial problems. There are so many writers calling out for "books that aren't issue books," as if our issues aren't novel-worthy. Who are they saying that for? For me? For my friend's younger brother who is told to hide from the police? Who switches from "talking white" and "talking black" depending on who he's around? Who has the 'talk' at age seven? Not the sex talk, but the "Many people are going to treat you different because of your skin. Only because of your skin."
Who are these writers speaking for when they say they don't want issue books? Me? Or themselves? It is not me who is uncomfortable with 'issue novels'. The trouble is: whiteness is power. Whiteness has the privilege of getting its voice listened to over mine, and has the power to scoff at 'issue novels'. I want to ask, who is #WeNeedDiverseBooks for? What is the real point? To put on a facade of racial utopia in the publishing industry? Because that's what it's doing. When you 'write inclusively' or have characters of color in your books, do you really research and ask how the lives of people of color are? Or do you make a character black, have them deal with stereotypical issues, and call yourself diverse without ever understanding what you have written? Do you advocate for black issues, or are you content with only having a black body in your novel? Black bodies aren't here to lift up your novel. Remember: if your 'diverse' book gets published, you are profiting off of bodies of color. You cannot turn blackness on and off like a switch. You cannot cry out for #WeNeedDiverseBooks and then stay silent when the next innocent black child gets murdered by police. If you can't even send a Tweet in support of black issues, how can you even imagine that your novel will advocate for issues of color? What does diversity mean to you? What do you think its purpose is? Be brave. Advocate for us. It's scary, but if you can't be brave, reconsider using our skin.
But I can't get too angry in this post. I have to be careful every time I type 'white people'. Even here, I must pass the Paper Bag test so that you will listen to me, so I won't lose you as an audience, so I won't be denounced. Just like my book must appeal to the industry, I must appeal to you.
I shouldn't have to.
Will writers use our skin and make it theirs without asking for our permission, and then expect us to be grateful? Will white writers let writers of color lead this movement? Will the community listen to us? (I think they will. This community is...a Godsend. Seriously.)
Agents, editors, publishing industry: before you so happily cry out "I'm looking for diverse books!" ask yourself if those books you represent (the books you pride yourself on) depict reality or depict some racial utopia. In your diverse books with 'race-related' subplots...do those subplots have a "happily ever after"? Why? We people of color rarely do. Ask yourself if you feel proud about having a diverse book on your roster and why you feel that pride. Are you willing to represent inclusively, take on gritty issues of color instead of shrink when a query saying Black Lives Matter hits your inbox? Are you willing to back up the only non-white agent in your agency (if you even have a non-white agent) when they're pushing an editor to take on an 'issue' novel? Are you willing to be a true ally to the movement and push your agency to hire more black agents? Are you willing to put aside your own hopeful ideas of race and listen to a person of color's ideas? You don't know race as well as we do. Listen to us. Be allies. Let us through the gates. We deserve it.
I am not alone. There are a lot of diverse authors out there. But the same cannot be said for the publishing industry. And so I, and many other writers, face something we've seen all our lives: we, a racially-diverse group, look up to a totally white institution for a fundamental right - the right to be heard. We compensate by making our books 'not too diverse' and by erasing all our truths. We don't publicly advocate for our community in fear that Publishing will scoff at us and turn its back to us. We display our color only as much as Publishing will tolerate. We silence ourselves to join. And the thing is, we know there are amazing writers in the community who are such amazing allies and listen so well! We've seen them. We love them and appreciate them so much. But all unpublished writers have very little power to change Publishing. There needs to be institutional change, and since we have little power, it can't come from us. It has to come from you, publishing insiders.
For writers like me who are seeking a solution: Look for books that deal with race issues and then see who represented them. This is a list of 22 black books that can get you started. Note that almost every single book on the list is historical fiction, memoir, or international-based fiction. It tells us that black stories must be a) based in the past (because we can't talk about current racism) b) nonfiction (a level of truth that no other story needs to attain) or c) based outside the USA (because the USA cannot be criticized). Don't mind me while I laugh, rage, and nod (because it all makes sense) when I see that diversity has become really powerful in one genre: fantasy.
For agents/editors: This post is written directly to you. All of you. Saying you want 'diversity' or are looking for 'diverse novels' is not enough. Please advocate for agents of color, and while you do that (since it'll take a while to get agents of color), try to #RepresentInclusively. If you can, consider publicly acknowledging this on Twitter or something so we writers can find you. Really try to represent our issues. Be an ally, please. Without institutional support, we writers can #WriteInclusively as uselessly as we want (sorry, SC). #WeNeedDiverseAgents.
For everyone: This petition is not enough (please don't assume it is), but it's a powerful step: if you wish, sign this asking publishers to be publish reports on staff diversity. We need the Big Five to sign onto this. Look at the updates section of the petition. So many great links.
I know there are some of you out there - writers, agents, editors - that are amazing allies and ARE advocating for true diversity. Please prove me wrong. Go on Twitter, Facebook, anything, and vocalize your support, tweet out facts that prove me wrong. Prove me wrong, please. I truly truly want to be wrong about the industry's racism. I will be watching this post and will reply (anonymously) to any comments if you want to talk.
A disclaimer: I talk about black agents because that's closest to me. But think about every other identity -- Native agents, Asian agents, Hispanic agents, LGBTQIA+ agents, agents with disabilities, etc. Even with this ironic new hurrah for diversity in writing, the publishing industry lacks diversity on one of the most severe levels I've ever seen. It feels almost hopeless, because for so many of us writers of color, the written word looks like our only 'racism-free' outlet. But looks are deceiving.
If you want our support in this movement, then you must share the burden and take up our issues. We do not have to let you use our skin. You can't ignore the publishing industry's racism while supposedly advocating for diversity. That's hypocritical and superficial. Learn about us, write about us. As of now, #WeNeedDiverseBooks doesn't feel like my movement.
I'm tired of being an apologetic about my skin and my problems. I'm tired of people expecting me to be grateful for half-liberation. I'm tired of being told, by people who do no activism, to be patient. We, who have lived with diversity, should be front and center in a campaign about diversity. This is our space.
If you think I'm complaining too much or overstepping, then, for God's sake, this conversation isn't for you. This conversation is for those who will listen, and I know there are so many of you out there. Writers and agents and editors should not be scared or angered at me. If you are, please reconsider why you support #WeNeedDiverseBooks. For my upliftment, or for your book's?
Also, feel free to continue the conversation in the comments below!