A Profound Sense of Absence

Posted by @ 5:11 pm on December 3rd, 2010

I recently read Best American Short Stories 2010, edited this year by Richard Russo who is one of my favorite writers. Straight Man? Amazing. Empire Falls? Amazing. My expectations were high. I generally enjoy reading BASS because it gives me a sense of what the literary establishment considers “the best” from year to year. I may not enjoy all the stories in a given year’s anthology but I am always impressed by the overall competence in each chosen story. I don’t think I’ve ever read a story in BASS and thought, “How did that get in there?” At the same time, I often find the BASS offerings to be shamefully predictable. The stories are often sedate and well-mannered even when they are supposedly not. I don’t see a lot of risk taking and more than anything else, I don’t see a lot of diversity in the stories being told. This year, though, BASS really outdid itself. Almost every story in the anthology was about rich or nearly rich white people to the point where, by the end of reading the book, I was downright offended. I know people will disagree with my thoughts here and that’s fine, but I really think shit is fucked up in literary publishing. That’s coarse but I cannot think of a better way to convey my frustration. Anytime I talk about this issue, that’s the best way I can encapsulate my feelings. This issue has been on my mind for a couple weeks (and years) and two things triggered my… current pre-occupation with whose stories are or are not being told.

I was reading Tayari Jones’s blog where she mentioned Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans. I had seen Jones mention the book a few times but in that moment, I thought, let me check this book out so I bought it and as I read the information on the Amazon page, I realized, “I don’t remember the last time I read a book by a black writer or any writer of color, really.” I was ashamed and pretty angry at myself because there’s just no excuse for that. That’s an indication that my reading habits are lazy. I don’t think about race when I decide what to read but I’m starting to worry I’m omitting an entire segment of books because I read so much indie lit where, frankly, there simply aren’t a lot of writers of color publishing. The same could be said for mainstream publishing. The tokens are out there, getting attention by the white reading public, but most black writers are writing for black readers and getting very little attention from mainstream outlets. Segregation is alive and well when it comes to what we read. Can you name five contemporary black writers? Or Latino/a writers? Or Asian writers? Can you do it if you omit writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Junot Diaz, Ha Jin, the writers who have achieved enough success to be the go to writers of color?

Thinking about these issues is forcing me to take a long hard look at my reading habits, where I get my reading recommendations, the kinds of writers being promoted at both the indie and mainstream level, and whether or not I actually practice what I preach.

I don’t, nor do I know how to.

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, by the way, is brilliant. Every story was smart and engaging and beautiful. There were so many subtle, fierce lines that I openly gasped more than once and sometimes found myself whispering, “Damn.” I immediately wanted to find everything Danielle Evans has ever written. One of the reasons I loved the book so much is because I could see myself in so many of the stories. These were stories about black people where the characters were simply allowed to be people. They weren’t stories with an agenda (not that there’s anything wrong with that). They weren’t stories of suffering in the ghetto or stories with any of the other race-based formulas that so often seem to get published. Instead, the stories were about people and their frailties and their flaws. Each story was perfectly crafted and the book was meticulously assembled. It was, by far, one of the best books I’ve read in years. Since reading it, I’ve basically wanted to drive around throwing this book at passersby. Go, buy it, tell me what you think.

I also recently read Publisher’s Lunch Weekly, a roundup of all the publishing deals in a given week and almost every fiction deal was about a rich white person finding him or herself or grappling with some kind of emotional challenge that is unique only to rich white people. One book was literally about a rich white guy from Connecticut finding himself by working odd jobs, by slumming it with the working class. That week’s deals read like a parody but it was no parody. These are books that are written over and over again and at a time when everyone is lamenting the death of publishing, you have to think, however ridiculous and overwrought those laments are, that publishing this one kind of story without accounting for the multitude of other experiences in the world, is not helping publishing stay alive.

What I felt most while reading BASS was a profound sense of absence. Sure there was a story about black people (written by Danielle Evans, coincidentally) and there was a story about a mechanic, to bring in that working class perspective and there was a story set in Africa, but most of the stories were uniformly about rich white people (often rich, white old men) doing rich white people things like going on safari or playing poker and learning a painful lesson or lamenting old age in Naples. Each of these stories was wonderful and I don’t regret reading them, but the demographic narrowness is troubling. It’s not right that anyone who isn’t white, straight, or a man, reading a book like this, which is fairly representative of the work being published by the “major” journals, is going to have a hard time finding experiences that might, in some way, mirror their own. It’s not right that the best writing in the country, each year, is writing about white people by white people with a few splashes of color  or globalism (Africa! Japan! the hood!) for good effect. Things have certainly improved over the years but that’s not saying much.

This is a problem that is like a set of nesting dolls. It is one that does not start with Best American Short Stories. The origins can be traced much further back. Everyone is complicit.  The demographic uniformity prevalent in so much contemporary writing is also reflected in theater, film and television, the arts. These creative ecosystems are only replicating the inequities that are present in society at large. It’s no wonder we don’t know what to do.

People like to say that this is a matter of supply and demand and often the discussion ends up with lots of talk about how there simply aren’t many writers of color. That is not true. There are fewer writers of color than white writers, certainly, but we have to stop acting like there are only six of us moving about the cabin.

There are many characteristics of great writing. While there’s no consensus, I believe great writing can and should transcend things like race and gender and class. Great writing should be writing that is so powerful it elevates us beyond the things that characterize us in our daily lives. And yet, I also believe that writing should tell us things we don’t already know and give us insights into the lives of people who are completely different from us or anyone we know. Great writing should challenge us and make us uncomfortable and push our boundaries. By such standards, the writing in BASS is not necessarily the best.

How do we talk about race, class, and gender  and increasing the representation of the Other in the writing being published today, without alienating each other or being hysterical and reactionary? This is a question I struggle with. I understand why people are weary of these issues. They are overwhelming and oftentimes it seems as if they are insurmountable. I understand that some people don’t care, and that for some people it is only the writing that matters, not the writers. For me though, these things do matter. Sometimes I forget how much and then I read a book like BASS 10. I realize just how important it is to think and talk about who is or isn’t represented in literary publishing even if I don’t know which words to use.

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